Danger and Desire: Student work on the book of Ruth (part 2)

Following on from our last blog post, here is another student essay on the book of Ruth in art. Nevin Govindasamy is another of our fabulous students in Theology – as well as studying for his Bachelor of Theology, he has also completed a Bachelor of Arts degree, where he majored in Media, Film, and Television Studies. Nevin plans to graduate later this year and hopes to continue his studies at postgraduate level. Below is one of his essays for the Danger and Desire course, where he considers Émile Lévy’s painting, Ruth and Naomi, from an LGBTI perspective.


Émile Lévy’s Ruth and Naomi (1859)


Nevin Govindasamy

Recent biblical interpretations have stated that the Book of Ruth provides a positive theology for the LGBTI community. Émile Lévy’’s Ruth and Naomi (1859) gives subtle encouragement for a supportive LGBTI message. At first Levy’s painting appears simple to be a simple depiction of Ruth 4:13-17 with a young family playing with their child. Yet, there are subtle features in Levy’s interpretation that suggest that Ruth and Naomi shared an intimate relationship. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Boaz in the background of the painting is also an extremely important element in redefining his role in the narrative. These visual characteristics affect the way in which the relationships in the Book of Ruth are to be understood. Though Ruth and Naomi is a positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship, Lévy’s interpretation, much like the text itself, works in a subtle way to illustrate its message. With society’s changing attitude towards the LGBTI community, it is important to establish an inclusive LGBTI theology. The Book of Ruth provides a suitable platform for reinterpreting stereotypical and congealed biblical attitudes towards its LGBTI members.

Émile Lévy, Ruth and Naomi (1859)

One of the keys to understanding the Book of Ruth lies with the interpretation of the final scene (Ruth 4:13-17) – as depicted in Ruth and Naomi. There are several subtle elements in Ruth 4:14-17 which suggest that the women were in a committed same-sex relationship. The language used by the women of Bethlehem to describe the strength of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is deliberately overemphasised and emotional. Their speech is important as it is the only place in the text where the word ‘love’ is used, but also, more significantly to show “that others in the story world recognize Ruth’s love, and gives us perspective on Naomi’s point of view” (Exum 1996, 140). While Lévy downplays the original intensity of the text, the feminine atmosphere, the main subjects of the painting, as well as the title itself, are used to illustrate this love. Although there is an unnamed third woman in Lévy’s painting, depicting Ruth, Naomi and Obed together during the final scene connotes that they are a non-traditional family. By focusing on the familial nature of the final scene both Lévy and the women of Bethlehem recognise that “Ruth’s relationship to Naomi has been life-giving – procreative” (West 2006, 194).

Casting Ruth and Naomi’s relationship as procreative guides the way in which the audience interprets the preceding narrative.   In particular, the associations with procreation draw attention to the narrative links with Genesis 2:24 through the use of the ‘cling’ (dabaq) in Ruth 1:24. Genesis 2:24 uses ‘cling’ to describe the marriage husband and wife and ultimately the procreative nature of the two ‘becoming one flesh.’ A further parallel to Genesis 2:24 occurs in Ruth 2:11, where Boaz notes that Ruth has ‘left her mother and father’ to be with Naomi. Scott Callaham notes that “though ‘father and mother’ is a stock phrase, only Ruth 2:11 and Genesis 2:24 employ it as the object of the verb” (2012, 193). These features infer that Ruth and Naomi’s ‘clinging’ should be understood as a de-facto marriage. The subtlety of the Book of Ruth’s intertextual references is paralleled by Lévy through a series of subtle visual allegories. First, the use of red identifies and links Ruth and Naomi who occupy the foreground of the picture.However, more significantly, the older woman – taken to be Naomi is also wearing a gold ring on her finger – a synchronic insertion with direct references to marriage between the two women.

Understanding that Ruth and Naomi’s relationship is a de-facto marriage means reassessing Boaz’s function in the narrative. Although it appears that Ruth 2 establishes Boaz as a paragon of patriarchal authority, Boaz’s actions demonstrate, rather, that he is also the first defender, or protector of the LGBTI community. Boaz is the first outsider to acknowledge ‘all that Ruth had done for Naomi,’ and also his hopes that God would ‘reward her for her deeds’ (Ruth 2:11-12). Boaz uses his influence to ensure that Ruth is protected from harassment, (Ruth 2:9) and instructs that extra grain be provided for her (2:16). Mona West states that Boaz’s behaviour “goes above and beyond the law to ensure that those less fortunate in [his] community are provided for” (2006, 192). His actions ensure that Ruth and Naomi would survive without ‘gleaning in another field’ (Ruth 2:8) and risking their relationship. Lévy’s depiction of Boaz in Ruth and Naomi reinforces the notion that his character performs the role of a guardian to the women. Boaz stands as a sentinel in the background of the painting keeping a watchful eye over the family in the foreground. Furthermore, Boaz is holding a curved shepherd’s staff – one of the most recognizable symbols of religious care in the Christian community. This role of protector elides with the theme of the survival of marginalized, vulnerable women in adversarial environments (Ruth 1:1, 5).

The implications of Boaz’s characterization redefine the purposes of his marriage to Ruth. Ruth 2 foregrounds the sentiment that Ruth’s marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3-4.1) is a colluded survival strategy that does not compromise her relationship with Naomi, but that it provides “protection from both violence and poverty” (Koosed 2012, 55). While this marriage between Ruth and Boaz is the only one directly described in the text, its initiation is orchestrated by the women (Ruth 3:1-5) “to create a situation in which [Naomi], Boaz and Ruth can form their own family to provide security and well-being” (West 2006, 193). Furthermore, terms of the marriage are discussed within a legal framework, rather than out of romance or love. The ‘engagement scene’ on the threshing room floor (Ruth 3:9-13) Ruth proposes that Boaz act as a ‘redeemer’ (go’el) according to the laws of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10). Boaz agrees to the legal details of Ruth’s marriage proposal, as “he vows to look into the permissibility of the situation and to act as her next of kin only if he can” (Wojcik 1985, 150).

Although Boaz agrees to marry Ruth, Jennifer Koosed notes that he is not the one in charge in the relationship and marriage out of erotic love is not the goal (2012, 53). The scene at the city gate (Ruth 4) reinforces Boaz’s attitude as a legalistic protector, outside the bounds of a sexual relationship rather than romantic suitor to Ruth. First, Boaz negotiates the terms of marriage over the tenures of landownership (Ruth 4:3). Subsequently, once the terms are settled he states that his motivations were driven by ‘maintaining Elimelech’s name,’ and not love (Ruth 4:10). Boaz’s actions give legal legitimacy to his relationship and role as a protector of the women. The morning after their engagement, Boaz notes that it may be controversial for an unmarried man and woman to be seen together (Ruth 3:14) – even if it is a relationship providing social welfare (Ruth 3:15). Therefore, Boaz’s formal marriage to Ruth allows him to continue to protect the informal marriage between Ruth and Naomi free from any potential controversies or misunderstandings. Furthermore, Boaz pulls Ruth and Naomi from the margins of society back into the community when he provides them with a legitimate child.

Biblical commenters agree that Ruth’s declaration (Ruth 1:16-17) is one of the most profound declarations of love – unparalleled in the Bible. Despite the fact that Ruth’s declaration is directed towards someone of the same sex, the Bible is often used as the platform for conservative Christians to justify a stance against the LBGTI community. Furthermore, Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s largest denomination, publicly stated in 2013 that he was “shocked” at a proposed Maltese law that would allow LBGTI couples to adopt children (Rayman 2013). These positions often rely on the most explicit verses in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to validate their position. However, Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg notes “that there is no good reason to conceive of the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality as a series of dictates that exist in isolation from other statues or stories” (2008, 471). The Book of Ruth not only celebrates and protects the love between two women, but also it “offers a model for defiance of biblical law and for sanctioning forbidden marriages” – all with the approval and blessing of the Lord (Ruth 4:13) (474).

The Book of Ruth is an excellent source to build a positive theology for the LGBTI community. Much like Ruth and Naomi members of the LGBTI community are often at the margins of society. Furthermore, the LGBTI community continues to be actively discriminated by the Christian community due to superficial or stereotypical understanding of the Bible. Yet, the Book of Ruth provides direct biblical evidence that undermines such a position. Not only do Ruth and Naomi survive in a patriarchal society, their relationship is protected, praised and legitimized by their community. Emile Levy’s Ruth and Naomi illustrates the loving and committed nature of their relationship – culminating in the creation of a LBGTI family. Levy enriches the characterization of Boaz as a protector by showing his character as a dutiful sentinel who continues to watch over the women. Positive LGBTI Interpretations in popular culture, such as Ruth and Naomi, are essential in affecting a substantial change in attitude within the Christian community. As with many issues in society, more social gains and losses are made through the ideas circulated online and in the popular media than from scholarly publications or dictates from the pulpit.

Works Cited

Callaham, Scott. “But Ruth Clung to Her: Textual Constraints on Ambiguity in Ruth 1:14.” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no.2 (2012): 179-97.

Cushing-Stahlberg, Lesleigh. “Modern Day Moabites: The Bible and the Debate About Same-Sex Marriage.” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008): 442-75.

Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot and Painted : Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 1996.

Koosed, Jennifer L.. Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament : Gleaning Ruth : A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives. Columbia, SC, USA: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.

Rayman, Noah. “Report: Pope Francis ‘Shocked’ by Same-Sex Adoption Proposal.” Time Magazine, December 30, 2013. Accessed April 14, 2015. http://world.time.com/2013/12/30/report-pope-francis-shocked-by-same-sex-adoption-proposal.

West, Mona. “Ruth.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest et. al.. London, UK: SCM Press, 2006.

Wojcik, Jan. “Improvising Rules in the Book of Ruth.” PMLA 100, no. 2 (1985): 145-53.

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