Ruth and Naomi – An exegesis

Continuing the discussion of last week, I want to examine the covenant that Ruth makes with Naomi to see whether it can be used as any basis for celibate covenants. I understand that for some of my readers even contemplating endorsing celibate same-sex relationships is controversial,  but to do the Scriptures justice we have to see what they actually say, not what we think they say.

As always I am using the English Standard Version.

Ruth 1:6-18 reads:

When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons- 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!”

14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her.

15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

Although the crucial passage is from verse 16 onwards, where Ruth addresses Naomi, the context of the departure from Moab is important for understanding what Ruth is and isn’t saying to Naomi. Remember, Naomi has come to Moab with her husband and sons. The sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, before Naomi’s husband dies followed by her sons. Upon hearing that things are now better the other side of the Jordan, Naomi plans to go home.

Despite the fact that her daughters-in-law set out with her, she instructs them to stay in Moab. Here the first subtlety in the exchanges occurs, because she calls on Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother’s home. When you look at other instances of widows returning (Gen 38:11, Lev 22:12, Num 30:17, Deut 22:21, Judges 19:2-3) it is always to the father’s house. The only occurences of “mother’s house” are in Song of Songs 3:4 and 8:2, and in Gen 24:28 (Rebekah returning to her mother after talking to Abraham’s servant). All three of these verses are in the context of preparation for marriage and that seems to be the logical conclusion here – “Go home to your mothers,” says Naomi, “and prepare yourself for marriage again”.

As if to emphasise the end of her role as mother to the girls, Naomi then says “May YHWH deal kindly with you”. Kindly here is the Hebrew “hesed” and this formula is used in two other places, 2 Sam 2:6 and 2 Sam 15:20, where in each case it uses the form of words to signify the end of a relationship (as argued by Sakenfeld) so what Naomi is doing is emphasising that she no longer is involved in the girls’ lives from this point.

This theme is continued in the second exchange of Ruth 1:11-13. The familial link between Naomi and Ruth and Orpah was made through their marriage to her sons. She protests that she cannot have any more sons, and even if she does, will they really wait around for 20 years in order to marry them? Though Naomi and Orpah transferred to her family (and became de facto her daughters) upon marriage to her sons, she will not destroy their future by maintaining that bond. “Go back,” is the plea.

Now we enter into the section most often used in support of same-sex covenants. It begins in Ruth 1:14 with Orpah leaving Naomi but Ruth clinging to her (“dabaq”). It is quite right to say that this is the same Hebrew used in Gen 2:24 to talk of a man “holding fast” to his wife, but it is used in plenty of non-erotic contexts as well (Ezek 3:26, Deut 28:21, Jer 13:11, Psalm 22:15, Deut 11:22, Deut 30:20, 2 Kings 5:27 to begin with). It is exactly the same word used in Ruth 2:8 and 2:21 when Boaz tells Ruth to stick closely to the young men who are harvesting and in Ruth 2:23 when Ruth sticks closely to the young women – hardly an invitation to form a covenant union with either the men or the women.

It seems to me that the most likely usage of “dabaq” here is to indicate that Ruth is clinging onto Naomi in maintenance of the mother / daughter relationship that was established when she married her son. At that point, she became part of Naomi’s (and Elimelech’s) family and took on their identity. Though Orpah agrees to sever that bond and return to her birth family in Moab, Ruth is saying at this point, “Though my husband has died I remain your daughter”. And this makes sense of her covenant in verses 16 and 17:

For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.

What Ruth is essentially saying is this – I am your daughter and I remain your daughter. I am now part of your people, your God is my God, I will live in your home as your daughter. I will be buried where you are buried, because we are family. Naomi relents and accepts that Ruth will stay with her, and they return together to Judah.

And of course, this understanding makes perfect sense of the rest of the book. Originally Naomi instructed Ruth to return to her birth mother and let her find her a new husband. Now that Ruth has emphatically insisted that Naomi is her mother, Naomi looks to fulfil her obligations as a mother to her daughter. The two of them set to work to match up Ruth to Boaz, and three chapters later the job is done!!! Throughout the courtship the references are made again and again to the family (Ruth 2:1, Ruth 2:2 – “daughter”, Ruth 2:11 – “mother-in-law”) and of course Boaz takes his role eventually as the kinsman redeemer (Ruth 4:8-10), a role he can only take because of family ties.

We see then very clearly that the covenant Ruth makes with Naomi is of daughter to mother and not partner to partner. The relationship cannot be used to support same-sex celibate relationships, because the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is utterly different. There might be support from other places in Scripture for such relatonships, but the account of Ruth is not the place to find it.

Comments welcome.

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