Lesbianism and the Book of Ruth: Representing Naomi and Ruth in Literature and Film

Introduction

In the book of Ruth, there is no direct or explicit indication of a sexual or romantic element in the relationship between Naomi and Ruth. However, the text leaves an opening for a lesbian interpretation of the book, particularly with regards to Ruth’s famous statement to Naomi:

Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you will go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you! (Ruth 1:16-17, New Revised Standard Version)

Ruth directs this declaration toward Naomi, upon the death of their husbands, when Naomi announces that she wants to go back to her homeland, Judah, and requests that her daughter-in-laws stay behind in Moab (Ruth 1:6-15). These words are punctuated with a solemn and binding pledge of commitment, which implies that Ruth does not see this relationship as being replaced at some further point by remarriage. It also demonstrates that Ruth’s view of YAHWEH is linked to her view of Naomi (Ruth 1:17).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the book of Ruth, and 1:16-17 in particular, is appealing to gay audiences, who often incorporate these verses into commitment ceremonies and use Naomi and Ruth as role models (Alpert, 92-93). While it is not possible to completely understand the historical reality of the friendship between the two women, the story is vague enough to allow for a homosexual interpretation. Because the book of Ruth is the Bible’s single eminent example of affection between two women, the question arises: were Naomi and Ruth a lesbian couple?

While this question cannot be answered in certainty, the remainder of this article examines various approaches to the book of Ruth as a depiction of a homosexual relationship. By first looking at the academic approach to the topic and its origins, I will provide a framework to examine lesbian representations of Naomi and Ruth found in cultural media such as literature and film.

Academic Response

The portrayal of the two women as a lesbian couple is appealing to modern audiences in part because homosexuality has been condemned throughout the ages (in Christian and Jewish circles especially), and the book of Ruth in particular has the potential to bring about tolerance. Because homosexuals have felt the need to keep their sexuality secret for so many years, and many still struggle with coming out, it is easy to assume there were individuals in biblical times as well who shared these struggles. In the past, people may have needed to hide their sexual preferences in order to preserve their lineages or obey their authorities. It is possible that depictions of same-sex friendships in the Hebrew Bible are actually stories about closeted homosexual relationships. This interpretation applies not only to the story of Naomi and Ruth, but also to Jonathan and David and to Daniel and Ashpenaz (Wernik, 78). This brings into question the nature of interpreting the Bible’s same-sex relationships. Do all pertinent same-sex friendships in the Hebrew Bible bring about suspicion that the subjects are homosexuals? When and for what reasons did the book of Ruth provoke such a suggestion?

In Tom Horner’s book, Jonathan Loved David, he attributes the first known scholarly suggestion that the relationship between the Naomi and Ruth was romantic or sexual to Jeannette Foster, drawing from her book, Sex Variant Women in Literature, which was published in 1956 (Horner, 40). Jeannette Foster described the “Hebrew prose masterpiece” as the first of a “line of delicate portrayals by authors seemingly blind to their full significance, of an attachment which, however innocent, is nevertheless still basically variant” (Foster as quoted in Horner, 40).

Horner observes that, in the ancient Middle East, women spent almost all of their time with other women. If they had become sexually involved with each another, their husbands would likely have failed to notice unless it interfered with their duties as wives (Horner, 41). The aforementioned vow found in Ruth 1:16-17 may have accompanied a hand gesture of some sort, such as a chopping motion to her neck, to indicate what punishment she hoped YAHWEH would visit upon her if she broke her oath (Horner, 42). Horner compares Ruth’s relationship with Naomi to Jonathan’s relationship with David. For example, Jonathan says to David, “But if my father intends to do you harm, the LORD do so to [me], and more also, if I do not disclose it to you, and send you away, so that you may go in safety” (Horner, 42; 1 Samuel 20:13).

Like Foster, Cheryl Exum provides evidence that Naomi and Ruth had a romantic relationship. She expresses the possibility that the couple only planned Ruth’s marriage to Boaz so the two women could live together for the remainder of their lives (Exum, 138). She argues that the speech Ruth gave to Naomi was Ruth’s declaration of her undying love for Naomi and believes that because Ruth left her father’s family and decided to follow Naomi, this statement was symbolic of lifelong commitment (145). Referring to Genesis 2:24-40, Exum sees Ruth’s marriage to Boaz as her “symbolic marriage to Naomi” (145) as Boaz was there to continue their family, and Ruth gave Naomi the firstborn son to care for. She also questions Ruth’s feelings toward Boaz, particularly with regards to his age (147).

Bernadette Brooten argues that the Hebrew Bible does not mention, much less condemn, lesbianism because semen is not involved in sex between women (Brooten, 62). Orthodox scholar Robert Gagnon also addresses this point, but counters it by asking why there is no corresponding prohibition against heterosexual anal intercourse too. The true abomination, he reasons, must not be focused on the missing semen and excrement but the intercourse of two people of the same sex as a violation of God’s created order of two opposite sexes (Gagnon, 135-136). As for why the Hebrew Bible never forbids sex between women, Gagnon speculates:

Possibly lesbianism was unknown to the Israelites and/or Canaanites (it goes unmentioned in other legal materials from the ancient Near East) so there was no need to legislate it out of existence… In a society dominated by men with a high view of chastity, it might have been impossible for a sustained lesbian relationship to develop. (145)

On the other hand, it is possible that the Hebrew Bible and other ancient documents do not express illegality or condemnation of lesbian sex because it was not viewed as sinful or even as “real” sex, since it also lacked the most significant sexual substance, semen.

Significantly, in her oath, Ruth expresses that she is willing and able to leave behind her home in Moab and her non-Jewish faith. This willingness is easy to interpret as more than simply the love of a woman toward her mother-in-law. Ruth saw something in this woman that made her able to leave behind her people and any religious beliefs she may have held in order to follow the Hebrew people and YAHWEH as her God. Her vow is an important and significant expression of commitment as any wedding vow or ceremonial expression of love. This does not prove that Naomi and Ruth were lovers, but registers on the reader’s consciousness a sense of love between the two women. Because of the social structure of the society of the time (both the time of authorship and the narrative time), these women would still have needed a man to help them if they were to survive.

Furthermore, Danna Fewell and David Gunn provide another possible interpretation of Naomi and Ruth in their article “‘A Son is Born to Naomi’: Literary Allusions and Interpretation in the Book of Ruth.” In the biblical passage, Ruth’s feelings for Naomi are unquestionably strong, but what about Naomi’s feelings for Ruth? Is it possible that the friendship was not as mutual as an initial reading might suggest? Fewell and Gunn suggest that Naomi’s attitude toward Ruth is portrayed as indifferent, if not as “resentment, irritation, [or] frustration” (Fewell, 104). This is especially clear when Naomi insists Ruth stay behind in Moab, but Ruth refuses; “Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is Naomi’s withdrawal from Ruth” (Trible as quoted in Fewell, 100). Considering the text in this light, the interpretation of the women’s relationship as sexual is very much changed. It is possible that Ruth was in love with Naomi, but the feelings were not reciprocated, and so Ruth’s feelings remained hidden. This could explain why sentiments of sexuality or romance between the two women are not made explicit in the biblical text.

The possibility of implying such sentiments is what makes the text appealing to lesbian-identified audiences, however, and the following section demonstrates how the book of Ruth has inspired authors to explore this possibility and to use the book of Ruth metaphorically to portray lesbian couples in their writing.

Twentieth-Century Representations of the Book of Ruth in Literature

The story of Ruth’s devotion to Naomi has authorized a number of twentieth-century lesbian narratives. These representations of the book of Ruth have contributed to the popularization of its interpretation as a homosexual text. Raymond-Jean Frontain points out in his essay “The Bible,” in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, edited by Claude J. Summers, the potential of the book of Ruth as a precursor text for literature and its representation of a lesbian subjectivity. Frontain contends that while Naomi and Ruth’s relationship has been interpreted historically in other lights, the text certainly is available for a lesbian reading (Frontain, 256).

The first novel Frontain draws attention to is Helen Anderson’s Pity for Women, written in 1937, in which the two main characters, Ann and Judith, recite Ruth’s famous declaration in an attempt to make their commitment as a lesbian couple official (256). It is possible this novel set the stage for future exploration into looking at Naomi and Ruth as a homosexual couple, because as far as I know, it is the oldest representation in which a lesbian interpretation of the biblical book is suggested. Frontain continues his analysis with Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah, which was written in 1969 (257). The central theme of Patience and Sarah, which may have been the first successful American novel to have lesbian protagonists, is the work of art that the painter, Patience, creates. The painting depicts a passionate embrace between Naomi and Ruth, with Boaz looking on from the background. Patience is worried that people who view the painting might question the passion of the women’s embrace, even though the fact that they are biblical subjects camouflages a lesbian interpretation (257-258). Frontain expresses the belief that Patience’s decision to continue with the painting and to post it for public viewing “both re-enacts the courage of the biblical women to persevere together and dramatizes the inspiration that that courage has been to lesbian lovers and artists” (258).

Another lesbian interpretation of Naomi and Ruth’s relationship is given by Jeanette Winterson in her autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, published in 1985. It is a story about a young woman who struggles with her lesbian tendencies, while attempting to have a strong relationship with her mother who “cannot accept her daughter’s sexual orientation” (Bollinger, 363). Winterson’s novel relies on comparison and allusion to produce a literary paradigm that can express her own experiences and the maturation and coming-of-age that are presented in her novel. While she alludes to a large variety of texts, her principal source is the book of Ruth. The story of Naomi and Ruth works as a model for Winterson’s narrative because it focuses on loyalty between two females, which can correspond with the main character’s lesbianism as well as her relationship with her mother (Bollinger, 364). Naomi and Ruth’s relationship, although ancient and difficult to understand, is placed in context by Jeanette’s character who eventually comes to grips with her identity as a lesbian and her mother’s homophobic attitude.

The twenty-first century also brings the book of Ruth to the forefront in lesbian literature. As far as I know, the most recent of well known representations of the book of Ruth is Marlene van Niekerk’s novel, Agaat, which was translated into English from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Stobie, 57). Niekerk looks at the relationship between two women. One is a sick white woman and the other, her African caregiver. There is a strong sense of a lesbian relationship between the two women and they explore this concept throughout the novel. Niekerk uses the book of Ruth as a comparison, especially in relation to the different nationalities and religious backgrounds of Ruth and Naomi (Stobie, 57-69).

The Book of Ruth in Film: Jon Avnet’s Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Although the aforementioned novels bring insight into potential interpretations of the book of Ruth, the most well known representation is Jon Avnet’s film Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). The film traces the friendships between two pairs of women, but the characters played by Mary Louise Parker (Ruth) and Mary Stuart Masterson (Idgie) are more directly linked to the biblical text. Although Fannie Flagg’s novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafÃ?©, depicts the relationship between Idgie and Ruth in explicitly lesbian terms (Flagg, 88), Jon Avnet portrays them as friends. Yet viewers’ interpretations of the movie vary and some decide to look at the two women as good friends and nothing more, others, especially lesbians, remain convinced that the women are homosexuals. In this sense, both the biblical book and the film are clearly open to lesbian interpretations, just as they are also open to other interpretations. In my opinion, though, the potential for a lesbian interpretation does not leave room to ignore that the main theme of the book of Ruth is the emphasis on deep and profound friendship. This is an element in sexual and nonsexual relationships between women.

One of the pleasures of Fried Green Tomatoes (along with Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafÃ?©) is the assurance that the people of Whistle Stop are open to and accept Ruth and Idgie’s relationship. Ruth calls for help from Idgie by quoting the infamous passage from the book of Ruth. Flagg’s novel makes clear that Ruth and Idgie love each other (87-88), but the only declaration of love in the film happens near the end, in the courtroom. Ruth is questioned as a witness why she went to live with Idgie after leaving her husband, however she does not give information about his marital abuse, but says, “Because she is my friend, and I love her.” The most direct element of physicality between the two characters is a very quick kiss on the cheek that Ruth gives to Idgie. (Avnet, 1991)

The use of the book of Ruth can be viewed simply as a plot device, a coded petition to Idgie and her mother that Ruth is allowed to move in with the Threadgoodes. Those who are familiar with the content of the entire biblical book, however, will easily see the strong parallels between Naomi and Ruth and, respectively, Idgie and Ruth Jameson. The central theme in both stories is profound friendship and a strong relationship between the two women. In the book of Ruth, Naomi and Ruth are a generation apart in age. Their care for one another is shown through their advice and desire to support each other and help each other, when needed. This is especially apparent when Naomi arranges Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, and also when Ruth provides a child for Naomi, which fulfils the sense of anguish Naomi experienced when she lost her two sons (Ruth 1-4; Linafelt, 72-73). In the story of Idgie and Ruth, both the film and the novel, they are also a generation apart, even though Ruth is older, but Idgie is meant to represent Naomi and, though it may go without saying, Ruth Jameson is meant to represent the biblical Ruth. Idgie protects Ruth from her abusive husband and is loyal to her throughout the film. Idgie is just as unsure of Ruth at the beginning as Naomi is of the biblical Ruth. The most significant commonality though between the biblical book and Flagg’s story is the devotion and passion between the women. At the end of the story, Idgie becomes the caregiver for Ruth’s son, and this fills the void that was left after the death of her brother, Bud, just as the biblical Ruth provides a son for Naomi to fill the void of her sons’ deaths. Idgie and Ruth have a lifelong friendship, have a son together, and apparently have no relationships with men once Ruth has left her husband. It is apparent that their friendship with each other is the most important and significant relationship in each of their lives. (Avnet, 1991; Flagg, 1-402)

There is a strong criticism of the film by some viewers that believe the lesbian relationship is not explicit enough. They believe that the story of Idgie and Ruth is meant to be a beautiful love story, and they argue that the film ignores this and regards the women as friends and nothing more. On the other hand, other viewers say that the romantic quality of the relationship between Idgie and Ruth is obvious and those who do not see it are blinded by societal influence. These people argue that there is a requirement for some viewers to see physical intimacy between two women before they accept that the characters are lesbians. Interestingly, this criterion is never applied to heterosexual relationships, on screen (Eaklor, 325). There are many reasons Avnet may have chosen to downplay the lesbian element. Some explanations include: concerns of low ratings at the box office, the fear of angering Christian and Jewish audiences by presenting the book of Ruth in such a way, or perhaps a desire to return to the roots of the biblical book. The sexual element to Idgie and Ruth’s relationship is up for interpretation, and the fact that the film offers a possibility of a lesbian interpretation does not supersede the central theme of profound friendship between two women, and not necessarily sexuality as such.

Conclusion

It is important to consider the historical context of the passage and to think about how women were treated in the past, in terms of cultural and social status, in order to understand the implications of the book of Ruth. It is commonly believed that in the time the story was written, women were dependent upon men. A woman with no husband had little to no social relevance, and perhaps heterosexual marriages were arranged for homosexual individuals who needed to advance socially. It is very clear in the book of Ruth; the two women were committed by vow, lived in the same household, had a deep love for each other, accepted each other’s families and belief systems, and depended upon each other for advice and growth, just as many lesbian couples do today. There is no way to know if Naomi and Ruth’s relationship was sexual or romantic in nature, but it is apparent they loved each other passionately, and therefore, the potential for a lesbian interpretation of this relationship is very understandable.

Furthermore, when the women’s relationship is portrayed in such a way in literature and film, the struggles of biblical times are linked with those of the present. These representations may help to move Western society toward an overall acceptance of homosexuality, particularly in religious circles where problems of intolerance still exist today as they did thousands of years ago. Exploring biblical passages by adding to or altering the stories, as we have seen through our look at the book of Ruth, is common in film and literature today. It allows for new interpretations and can render the Bible applicable to modern times. For this reason, though I cannot say I necessarily believe the book of Ruth was originally written to portray a lesbian couple, I believe this interpretation is useful and valuable for modern audiences.

Works Cited

Primary Source Cited

Attridge, Harold W. (ed.) The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated. New Revised Standard Version. Ruth 1-4. pp. 384-387.

Secondary Sources Cited

Alpert, Rebecca. “Finding Our Past: A Lesbian Interpretation of the book of Ruth,” in Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story. New York: Ballantine books, 1994. pp. 92-93.

Bollinger, Laurel. “Models for Female Loyalty: The Biblical Ruth in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 363-380

Brooten, Bernadette J. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. p. 62.

Eaklor, Vicky L.”‘Seeing’ Lesbians in Film and History,” Historical Reflections 20, 1994 p. 325

Exum, Cheryl. Plotted, Shot, and Painted. Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. pp. 138-147.

Fewell, Danna Nolan, and David M. Gunn. “”A son is born to Naomi” : literary allusions and interpretation in the book of Ruth.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no 40 F, 1988. pp 99-108.

Flagg, Fannie. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Caf�©. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1987. pp. 1-402.

Frontain, Raymond-Jean. “The Bible,” in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Readers Companion to the Writers and Their Works (ed. Claude J. Summers), from Antiquity to the Present. Henry Holt & Co, 1995. pp. 254-270.

Gagnon, Robert A. J. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville, TN: Abington, 2001. pp. 135-145.

Horner, Tom. Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978. pp. 40-46.

Linafelt, Tod. Ruth. Berit Olam; Collegeville, Md.: Liturgical Press, 1999. pp. 78-79.

Stobie, Cheryl “Ruth in Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat”, Journal of Literary Studies, 25: 3, pp. 57-71.

Wernik, Uri. “Will the Real Homosexual in the Bible Please Stand Up?’ Theology and Sexuality, Vol. 11, No. 3. 2005. pp. 47-64

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