"Wherever You Go, I Go": Queerness in the Book of Ruth
Woman-centric Bible stories are hard to come by, let alone feminist or queer ones. The Book of Ruth, which we read every Shavuot, stands as a clear exception to the patriarchal rule. The story begins with Naomi, a Jewish woman married to Elimelech from Bethlehem. They have two sons who marry non-Jewish, Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. When Elimelech and his two sons die, Naomi commands widowed Orpah and Ruth to return to Moab for a fresh start. Orpah obeys, but Ruth refuses: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
These are the story’s most famous words and act as the entrypoint for interpreting the biblical tale through a queer lens. Dr. Ruth Preser, a feminist activist and lecturer at Tel-Hai College and University of Haifa, writes in her 2017 essay “Things I Learned from the Book of Ruth: Diasporic Readings of Queer Conversations” that “the organizers of the Third Lesbian Conference held in Natanya, Israel in 2004 chose the opening of Ruth’s pledge to Naomi ‘Wherever you go, I go’ as the inscription on the conference tshirts. The Scroll [the Book of Ruth] is moreover used by both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage in the debate raging in the United States” (insertion mine).
If mapping queerness onto the story doesn’t convince you, look at the existing elements, which heighten queer ties and themes. For example, Ruth and Naomi have the rare opportunity to make their own decisions, not tethered to any husband or master. They’ve also lost the status of “mother/daughter-in-law,” as both Naomi’s and Ruth’s husbands have died. These two women are not legally beholden to each other, and yet they choose to remain together. Ruth’s proclamation makes it seem as though this choice to stay together is out of need—albeit emotional, not lawful—rather than want.
The companionship these two biblical women display is in itself is remarkable. Queerness is not always just about one’s sexual or romantic inclinations, but also one’s status in relation to a group, or one’s unorthodox tendencies, exemplified by one’s behaviors or the company one keeps. This story is queer without Ruth and Naomi having to express sexual or romantic attraction to each other, as Preser explains: “The Book of Ruth does not detail the relationship between Ruth and Naomi; it simply presents us with an exceptional story of devotion…Cautious not to apply an anachronistic conception of lesbianism to the text, queer scholars seem to agree that the Ruth–Naomi dyad offers a powerful biblical example of same-sex intimacy.” The very existence of Ruth and Naomi’s intimate relationship in the Bible, a thousands-of-years-old text, is significant and radical.
Ruth and Naomi’s story does eventually intersect with that of a man when they journey to Bethlehem and find they’re on a plot of land owned by Boaz, a kinsman of Elimelech. They’ve arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest, which is why we’re led to believe that this story occurs around the time that Shavuot is celebrated. Ruth’s first impulse is to go harvest barley. Boaz notices her, and after learning of her story and hard work from a servant, tells her to stay in his field where she can reap unbothered.
Ruth asks, “Why are you so kind as to single me out, when I am a foreigner?” (Her foreigner status, both as someone from another land and as a non-Jew, enhances her queerness in the story’s context in that queerness is inextricably tied to “otherness”; Ruth is the Other threefold.) Boaz replies, “I have been told of all that you did for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth and came to a people you had not known before.” Boaz grants her kindness precisely because of her devotion to Naomi. One can argue that Boaz simply values family loyalty, but after the deaths of the men in their lives, Ruth and Naomi no longer have any familial obligation to each other. Despite this, Boaz supports Ruth and Naomi’s relationship by offering his approval of Ruth.
Naomi, wishing to find Ruth a new home, instructs Ruth to seduce Boaz, as Preser describes. The two do eventually marry and have a child (whose grandson will be King David), but Naomi becomes the baby’s mother: “Naomi took the child and held it to her bosom. She became its foster mother…” To Preser, this addition to the family does not negate Ruth and Naomi's relationship. She writes that this birth marks the creation of a new, unconventional family: Boaz is the biological father, Ruth is the biological mother, and Naomi is the child's foster parent and Ruth's lover.
This Shavuot, it’s important to incorporate a queer reading of the Book of Ruth because examples of relationships like Naomi and Ruth’s are so rare. It’s a powerfully feminist story that involves both a decision absent of men, and then kindness from a man because of the love between two women. While the argument for this story’s queerness isn’t necessarily literal, and doesn’t necessarily posit that Ruth and Naomi are lesbians, it is well supported by the text. It’s essential to call attention to feminist themes in biblical stories where we see them, as women in sacred texts are few and far between, and queerness is integral to that inclusive feminism. This story is such a clarion call for women loving women, that when some assert that queer interpretations of this text are simply “reading into things,” I wonder, “How could you not?”
How to cite this page
Spivack, Elana. ""Wherever You Go, I Go": Queerness in the Book of Ruth." 27 May 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 29, 2022) <https://jwa.org/blog/wherever-you-go-i-go-queerness-book-ruth>.