The Unbreakable Vow: Ruth and Naomi

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Amidst the calamitous blow of the death of her husband and sons, Naomi is left with her now widowed daughter-in-laws. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem hoping for some semblance of survival. Just prior to the verse section listed within this discussion, Ruth has clung to Naomi while Orpah has hesitantly obeyed Naomi’s wishes and returns back to Moab; “They wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14, NRSV).

The gravity of what Ruth has done by her action has many implications which segue into the oath and vow that she is prepared to make to Naomi. The same Hebrew verb for “cling,” used in the Ruth passage is also used in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The Hebrew verb, to cling, is defined as: “דָּבַק dāḇaq. To be united, hold fast, keep, cling to; to overtake, cause to cleave, press hard upon; to be joined fast, be stuck together; be made to cleave, stick to; from the base joining or fastening objects together comes the figure of close association of people → overtake.” 

Even in the Genesis reference, this verb describes something much deeper than its apparent sexual connotations. The clinging precedes a sexual union. It is in place prior to the sexual union and is what makes that sexual union legitimate before God in Genesis. Scholar, James Brownson equates the usage of this verb in Ruth to the one in Genesis, between a husband and wife. Brownson underscores the deep intimacy of a kinship bond at play and notes that it is not strictly a limited experience which remains solely within the confines of a male and female relationship or marriage. Brownson eloquently describes the nature of this bond and its balance between Ruth and Genesis:

The “clinging” spoken of in this text [Genesis] also connotes a sense of desire, which may include sexual desire but clearly extends beyond sexual desire. Ruth “clings” to her mother-in-law… This relationship is too precious for her to abandon. “Clinging” in this context connotes the desire to overcome aloneness, the longing for intimacy, to know and be known, to live one’s life with others. It is the desire that finds its fulfillment in the sharing of life and experience together. Genesis 2:24 thus speaks of profound longings that are not merely sexual in character. They are at bottom longings for human community and fellowship, and these longings may express themselves in a variety of forms elsewhere in Scripture, in a variety of gendered relationships.

James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality

It is clear that the link between Genesis and Ruth surpasses a purely sexual relationship. Many scholars feel threatened by this connection between the verses and have attempted to deconstruct the major differences between the two in order to avoid the possibility of there being a homosexual inference being made from Ruth to Naomi. They miss the point of the profound connection that Ruth feels for Naomi and the sacrifice she is willing to make for Naomi. Phyllis Trible sums the nature of Ruth’s action poignantly:

Not only has Ruth broken with family, country, and faith, but she has also reversed sexual allegiance. A young woman has committed herself to the life of an old woman rather than to the search for a husband, and she has made this commitment not “until death do us part” but beyond death. One female has chosen another female in a world where life depends upon men.

Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality

By her clinging to Naomi, Ruth’s love and commitment take the place of the patriarchal covering and protection which they both lack and face together on their journey back to Bethlehem. 

Ruth will embark on this journey with Naomi and will not follow in the footsteps of Oprah as she is urged to do. When Naomi insists that Ruth return to Moab with Orpah, Ruth entreats her oath and vow to Naomi. By rejecting Naomi’s proposal, Ruth counters with her pledge to take upon herself Naomi’s journey, end location, Naomi’s God, place of death, and place of burial. She follows this by instilling an oath which invokes Yahweh as authority over her pledge. 

The oath formula in Ruth, “So shall God do…,” is utilized twelve times in the Hebrew Bible. In these cases the name of God is utilized as overseer and punisher for violation of the oath. The dozen occurrences of this formula serve to underscore the implications of what Ruth has committed to Naomi. Although Yahweh is mentioned here, it is important to note that Ruth’s commitment is directed toward Naomi and not to God. Yahweh is invoked by Ruth as the means by which her oath is reviewed and held accountable. While there are other instances of this oath formula being broken by key figures such as Saul and David, etc., it is notable that Ruth never breaks her oath. In addition to cleaving to Naomi, Ruth has just enacted a covenantal bond with Naomi. Her love is so deep and commitment so profound that it is considered as hesed; חֶסֶדḥeseḏ, 249x, n.m. unfailing love, loyal love, devotion, kindness, often based on a prior relationship, especially a covenant relationship → kindness; love; loyalty; mercy. Ruth’s words here are so powerful, that Naomi is silenced by them, acquiesced, and does not speak again until they arrive in Bethlehem.

Naomi and Ruth are now sojourners together traveling back to Bethlehem. Both are widows, Ruth is a foreigner and Gentile. Naomi is about to arrive in her home town without her husband and sons, but with a female and foreign companion. The relationship here between the Israelites and Moabites are significant. Moabites were not viewed in a positive light among Israelites in general and had tensive relationships. There were also disagreements over land and boundaries between the Moabite people and Israel specifically during the same time frame when the story of Ruth takes place; during the time of the Judges. Israelites would have been well aware of the relationship between them and the Moabites; “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 23:3, NRSV). Ruth enters into Bethlehem as the “other.” She is on the fringes, she is a Gentile, and the presuppositions of this “stir” the town upon Ruth and Naomi’s arrival. In addition to this tension, Naomi hasn’t acknowledged Ruth’s proposal. As Katharine Sakenfeld points out, “Ruth’s presence is as much a reminder of tragedy as it is a potential comfort.” 

The women question if this is the Naomi they knew from the past. The ambiguity of the town’s reaction and recognition of Naomi provokes the reader to decide if this is a welcomed reception or one of shock and disillusionment. Furthermore, both responses can be assumed as the entire book of Ruth is laden with ambiguity itself. Whatever the case, Naomi is inclined to respond with lamenting her situation and her emptiness. In juxtaposition to Ruth’s invocation of Yahweh, Naomi indicts Yahweh as the source of her woes and the source of her loss. In this way, Naomi has conjured up the experience felt by Job and his accusation of God as the reason for disaster.

 Naomi asks to be called the opposite of her name, which means, “sweetness” or “pleasantness,” and reverses it to, “Mara,” meaning, “bitterness.” Naomi’s entire lament is in a chiastic structure with its center being, “I went away full” (Ruth 1:21, NRSV). The word reversals within the lament envelope her once being full; with husband, sons, and prospective grandchildren. She states that, “Yahweh has brought me back empty,” although she has indeed returned with Ruth. This is not an undermining of Ruth’s hesed. Naomi has fully realized that she now has no children of her own and any possibility of that has been robbed from her. In this sense, she is not discrediting Ruth’s vow, but lamenting the impossibility for her to bare children again. This will transition later in the book when Naomi begins to refer to Ruth as her daughter in chapter three and ultimately when Ruth bares a child at the end of the book. Ruth’s value then becomes “more than seven sons,” (Ruth 4:15, NRSV) and Naomi’s experiences a complete reversal by way of Ruth and Boaz’s child. 

This end of chapter one in Ruth is summed with the narrator’s voice who recalls the events which took place of Ruth and Naomi’s return to Bethlehem. Ruth’s Moabite status is recalled in this section by the narrator and it is noted that they arrive “at the beginning of the barley harvest,” (Ruth 1:22, NRSV). The barley harvest indicates several things; it is a indication of the time in which Ruth and Naomi arrive back in Bethlehem, it segues into Ruth and Naomi’s desperate need for survival in the most basic senses, it highlights their lowly status and vulnerable status, it sets the tone for Ruth’s ultimate action proving her hesed by becoming a provider for Naomi and fulfilling her commitment to Naomi; the culmination of which Naomi is provided for through Ruth’s childbearing.

This section within Ruth as well as the entire book is notable among the Bible’s corpus because of its female empowered qualities amidst the power dynamic provided through patriarchy in Scripture. The patriarchal protections or lack thereof, do not phase Ruth in her determination to love and remain with Naomi. Naomi’s bitterness even under Ruth’s oath and vow arguably appears to be because she is in tremendous pain. Ruth has a chance that Naomi does not. That is why Naomi urges her to return home. Ironically, it is Ruth’s refusal to leave that gives way to the ultimate restoration of Naomi. Through Ruth’s incredible act of hesed and her clinging to Naomi, a beautiful and remarkable act of love, we see that women are capable of taking a place that is traditionally held among men in the Bible. Ruth comes under this role for Naomi’s sake. Ruth, setting aside her own vulnerability and family, her own people and gods, relinquishes all for Naomi and takes upon herself the additional burden that Naomi bears for survival. 

This passage breaks so many traditional barriers that women are confronted with universally in the church. As women, we are encouraged to have close female friends and be with them and support them in times of struggle, but never to the extent that we see Ruth go in regard to her own sacrifice for the sake of another woman. This passage has helped buttress and reinforce my belief that in love, clinging, friendship, and covenant, there are no gender boundaries. Ruth and Naomi’s relationship may not have been a romantic one, but one cannot help but see the romantic element of Ruth’s action and bravery toward Naomi. The bond is so stunning and close; the offering so remarkable, that the act itself has all of the underpinnings of a covenantal, life-time commitment. Ruth is prepared to be with Naomi and only Naomi.

What this means for me personally, is that I have no shame in the image created here of admiring and loving Ruth’s love action toward another woman. Within a church tradition that encourages only opposite sex marriages, this oath and this vow from Ruth to Naomi bursts out from the pages of Scripture and cries out in affirmation, “It is not only acceptable before God to love this way, it is the ideal way to love;” whether in marriage or friendship; between a man or a woman, or two adults who just so happen to be the same sex. Ruth shows us and teaches us not only that we can act this way in love, but that we should if we love. 

Cited Works

Brownson V. James. Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2013.

Sakenfeld, Katharine D. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Ruth. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

Trible, Phyllis. God And The Rhetoric Of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

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