Love between women is honored in the lives of Biblical figures Ruth and Naomi. The two women are an inspiration for lesbians and the whole LGBTQ community. Some churches observe their feast day on Dec. 20.
Ruth’s famous vows to Naomi are often used in weddings — heterosexual as well as same-sex marriages. Few people realize that these beautiful promises were originally spoken by one woman to another:
“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”
The old-fashioned King James translation, still beloved by many, begins, “Whither thou goest, I will go…”
Were Ruth and Naomi lesbians? The same Hebrew word (dabaq) is used to describe Adam’s feelings for Eve and Ruth’s feelings for Naomi. In Genesis 2:24 it says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The way that Adam “cleaved” to Eve is the way that Ruth “clung” to Naomi. Countless couples have validated this interpretation by using their vows as a model for how spouses should love each other.
Naomi was the mother-in-law of Ruth and Orpah. After their husbands died, Naomi urged both of them to remarry. But Ruth refused, declaring her love in words that have extra meaning for LGBTQ people because they were spoken between women.
In the Bible Ruth was born to a pagan family and married the Jewish man Boaz. In Judaism she is honored as a convert. Ruth is an ancestor of Jesus Christ, listed in his genealogy in the gospel of Matthew. It reports mostly a male lineage, and Ruth is one of only four women who are included.
The openly lesbian interpretation dates back at least to 1937, when the novel “Pity for Women” by Helen Anderson was published. The two main characters, Ann and Judith, recite Ruth’s famous vow to show their commitment as a lesbian couple.
Ruth and Naomi also play a role in the award-winning 1971 lesbian historical novel “Patience and Sarah” by Isabel Miller. In 19th-century New England, love blossoms between Patience, an educated painter of Bible scenes, and cross-dressing farmer Sarah. The first picture that Patience paints when they move in together is the embrace of Biblical women Ruth and Naomi.
Contemporary Christian singer-songwriter Marsha Stevens used their vow as the basis for the song she wrote for her legal wedding to Cindy Pino: “Wherever You Go.” She sings about how Cindy grew up feeling alone as “a guest at every wedding, an extra place at meals,” with nobody recognizing her lesbian relationships as family. But the mood shifts after a chorus with Ruth’s vow to Naomi :
Now we stand on sacred ground, our families near,
Law allows these holy vows, your home is here.
“Wherever You Go” is available for listening and download at BALM (Born Again Lesbian Music) Ministries: http://balmministries.net/track/323379/wherever-you-go
Enjoy a selection of Bible illustrations that celebrate the love between these two women of spirit. If you look closely, it sometimes seems that they are about to kiss.
The previous two images are details from larger scenes that show Orpah leaving while Ruth stays with Naomi.
Artist Brandon Buehring included Ruth and Naomi in his “Legendary Love: A Queer History Project.” He uses pencil sketches and essays “to remind queer people and our allies of our sacred birthright as healers, educators, truth-tellers, spiritual leaders, warriors and artists.” The project features 20 sketches of queer historical and mythological figures from many cultures around the world. He has a M.Ed. degree in counseling with an LGBT emphasis from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He works in higher education administration as well as being a freelance illustrator based in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Ruth and Naomi’s love has been illustrated by many artists, including the great English Romantic painter William Blake.
The hardships experienced by Ruth and Naomi are often overshadowed by their famous vow of love and their association with the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. Ruth is revered as a Jewish convert and an ancestor of Jesus. But Ruth and her Israelite mother-in-law were so poor that Ruth had to survive by picking up leftover grains of barley in the fields after harvest. Gay Israeli artist Adi Nes brings home the reality of their poverty by showing the pair scavenging onions from a contemporary street littered with trash after an open-air market. They are posed like the peasants in Millet’s “The Gleaners,” a painting well known for showing the dignity of society’s poorest members.
The careworn faces of Ruth and her beloved Naomi become visible in a second portrait by Nes. He shows that their love for each other is all they have as they sit together among discarded crates. For more about Adi Nes, see my previous post “Adi Nes: Gay Israeli artist humanizes Bible stories.”
The painting below, “Whither Thou Goest” by Trudie Barreras, was commissioned in 2004 by Rev. Paul Graetz, pastor of City of Light / First Metropolitan Community Church of Atlanta, for a sermon series that he was doing on the Book of Ruth.
Acrylic, 18” x 14.” Collection of City of Light / First Metropolitan Community Church of Atlanta, GA.
A billboard featuring Ruth and Naomi is part of the Would Jesus Discriminate project sponsored by Metropolitan Community Churches. It states boldly, “Ruth loved Naomi as Adam loved Eve. Genesis 2:24. Ruth 1:14.” The website WouldJesusDiscriminte.org gives a detailed explanation.
For more info on the billboards, see the previous post, “Billboards show gay-friendly Jesus.”
Top image credit: “Ruth’s Wise Choice,” 1907 Bible card by the Providence Lithograph Company (Wikimedia Commons)
Ruth and Naomi links
Rut y Noemí: El amor entre mujeres en la Biblia (Santos Queer)
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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