Ruth and Naomi – Lesbians in the bible?

Is it really possible that there is a story about a lesbian couple in the bible? My wife and I even used some verses from the story of Naomi and Ruth for our wedding. So… can it be true that there are more varieties of love in the bible than we are usually aware of?

What happens in the story of Ruth and Naomi?

We find the story of Naomi and Ruth in the book of Ruth, one of only two books in the scriptures named after a woman.
Naomi was an Israelite woman who moved with her husband to the land of Moab. She had two sons. After a few years her sons married and eventually her husband died. Later both sons also passed away, leaving Naomi with no support whatsoever in a foreign country. And more so. During these times widows had to remarry fast or otherwise they would soon starve, face homelessness or even worse. Not only Naomi was threatened by this fate, her two daughters-in-law faced the same.
So eventually Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem. She hoped her relatives there would take care of her. She talked to her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah and told them to return to their homes, so they too would find shelter (and new husbands). Both young women were Moabites so Naomi probably assumed that they wanted to stay in their home country. Also, the Moabites and the Israelites had been enemies for a long time and even although the three women respected and loved each other, their cultures were very different.

Orpah indeed decided to leave Naomi but Ruth refused. In the words Ruth said to her mother-in-law Naomi we find some of the most beautiful expressions of affection and loyalty in the whole bible:

“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. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.‘” (Ruth, 1:16-17 NIV)

So Ruth returned to Bethlehem with Naomi. Eventually and with the help of her mother-in-law, she married Boaz, who was related to her through her previous marriage to Naomi’s son. Ruth and Boaz had a son, Obed, who would grow up to be the grandfather of King David. Jesus himself is related to King David. So in the end Jesus was born from a lineage that roots in the loyalty of a woman to her mother-in-law.

Were Ruth and Naomi lovers?

Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law. Therefore their relationship was that of mother and daughter and most likely not that of lovers. However, Ruth 1:14 (NIV) describes what happened when Naomi asked Ruth and Orpah to go back home:

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

The Hebrew word “dabaq” that is translated here as “clung to”, was used in a wide variety of contexts in the bible. Most notably in Genesis 2:24 (NIV) where the relationship of Adam and Eve is described:

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Here “dabaq” is translated to “united to”. This passage from Genesis is most commonly used to prove that God designed marriage… and that God designed it as a union between a man and a woman.

If the same word was used to describe both Ruth’s & Naomi’s and Adam’s & Eve’s relationship, do we have to conclude that the two women were indeed lovers?
No, because at this point Genesis does not mention a sexual relationship. What is instead mentioned is the command of companionship because “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18, NIV). God says further: I will make a helper (= companion) suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18, NIV). The word “companion” has its roots in the Latin words “con” (=with) and “panis” (=bread) meaning someone one breaks bread with. The significance of breaking bread with someone is to this day essential to Christianity.

So again, no. Ruth and Naomi were most likely not lovers. What connected them was deeper than a superficial sexual relationship. They were companions, just like God intended for Adam and Eve. It is therefore even possible to assume that the relationship that Naomi and Ruth had was as valid and as precious in God’s eyes as the one Adam and Eve had. I leave it to the reader to decide what implications can be drawn from this concerning marriage equality.

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2 thoughts on “Ruth and Naomi – Lesbians in the bible?

  1. In the story of the Centurion, told in both Matthew and Luke, the servant the Centurion wanted Jesus to heal was called a pais (transliterated Greek) by the Centurion and doulos (transliterated Greek) by others. Pais is a Greek word that can mean younger male child or young servant/slave. It is clear from the text and knowledge of Roman society at the time, that the Centurion risked a lot to get his servant saved. It is equally clear that the servant was the Centurion’s male lover.

    In Matthew 19 Jesus uses the phrase “eunuch who was born that way” as part of his answer to the question about divorce, ‘born eunuch’ was the first century phrase used for homosexual males. Jesus specifically state that homosexual males are allowed to divorce. The Greek word translation as eunuch (eunouchoi — transliterated Greek) generally means ‘keeper of the bed chamber’, specifically a male who can safely be put in charge of a harem.

    I spent 5 years a the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia earning a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Sacred Theology, specializing in Bible hermeneutics.

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    • Dear Alicia,
      thank you for your comment. Yes, I love that story about the centurion and his servant. It shows very clearly that Jesus did not discriminate. He was there for everyone.
      I also love what Jesus said about “eunuchs”. I believe it can be understand in an even broader way and include trans* people, too. I wrote an article on “Trans* and the bible” (https://wetfeetministry.com/2016/02/03/trans-and-the-bible/) where I explore that idea a little bit more.
      I believe the main problem with extreme conservative Christianity these days is that many people do not really care what a specific bible text, or even just a specific word meant in the context of biblical times and linguistically. Yes, the bible is valid also today, but it cannot talk about ideas today, about which it didn’t talk about back then. That’s why it is futile to try to condemn homosexuality on the basis of the bible. Homosexuality, as in two consenting adults of the same sex sharing a deeply spiritual and emotional bond, simply doesn’t exist in the bible.

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