This Eastertide series is ostensibly about resurrection displayed in Scripture other than the Easter story, but it’s turning out to be just as much about ruining our favorite childhood stories from the Bible. This week, we took on Ruth. If you’re like me, you grew up thinking this was one of the great romances of the Bible. Ruth and Boaz find true love and, following a chaste courtship, live happily ever after; their union produces David and Jesus. Yay! But if we poke around under the covers, we find that Ruth was doing a little poking around under the covers herself.
The case is pretty simple. To put it bluntly, “feet” is an ancient euphemism for “genitals.” Of course, most of the time, it just means “feet,” but when you read a text about feet, see if substituting “genitals” provides a different or more sensible meaning. This is a courtship. She uncovers his “feet” and then asks him to marry her (“put your cloak over me”). Though translations put an ethical frame on his response, praising her loyalty, faithfulness, or kindness, it can also mean “to be pleasing.” She pleases him more now than the first time he encountered her. How would sneaking into his room after he is drunk and laying at his feet please him? Be realistic.
Of course, this is an interpretation; every reading is an interpretation.
Some will claim that this is, in fact, a great example of her virtue, that she lay at his feet instead of tempting him with her sexuality. One might appeal to her cultural milieu for support. After all, it was an honor/shame culture where sex outside of marriage was strictly forbidden. But I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my grandmother when it was discovered that a teenager in my family was pregnant. I told her I was surprised that people weren’t more upset. Her response, delivered with a wry smile: “This ain’t the first time this has happened.” She proceeded to explain that just about every woman on that side of the family had a rushed wedding well before her eighteenth birthday. The South is also an honor/shame culture where sex outside of marriage is strictly forbidden. And yet.
I’m not saying all this to be salacious. In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, he includes four women, though the family line runs exclusively through men. Rahab, though she shares a name with the prostitute of Jericho, is not likely to be one and the same. Nevertheless, Tamar acted as a prostitute to trap her father-in-law into doing the right thing. Bathsheeba was an adulterer. (Although, we must remember that Bathsheeba was the victim of a powerful and sexually aggressive man, a fact that would not have cleared her of shame in her world.) The women Matthew includes are sexually suspect in some way. After all, this genealogy ends with Mary, a young woman who was pregnant by someone other than her husband. Perhaps Ruth is similarly suspect.
I’m not the first to suggest this. However, the lesson given is usually that God can take any circumstance – even these filthy women! – and make something good out of it. But what if the lesson is, instead, that God is not particularly bothered by such things. Maybe there is nothing to be redeemed. Maybe sex and relationships are complex and can’t be contained by narrow rules. This is particularly important in considering Ruth.
Even if we accept that her courtship with Boaz was chaste, we still have to grapple with her relationship with Naomi. While this story is usually read as if Boaz is the hero, it really starts with two women. After a conversation about who she would marry, Ruth tells Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” This is a marriage formula, something a bride and groom might say to each other at a wedding. I’m not suggesting that Naomi and Ruth got gay-married, though it’s not a ridiculous interpretation. Rather, I’m highlighting the fact that Naomi and Ruth pledge faithful commitment to one another without the presence or validation of a man. Their commitment to one another is the ground in which new life becomes possible.
Those of us who advocated for marriage equality all those years learned to say, “love is love.” But it’s also true that “faith is faith.” Our culture fetishizes marriage, particularly marriage between one man and one woman, as the exemplar and archetype of right relationship. But the truth is that we faithfully commit ourselves to one another in myriad ways. With or without sex. Regardless of gender. In couples, throuples, pods, or villages. Even in churches. In the end, the measure of these relationships is not how they are specifically configured, but whether they give life to the people involved. The women in Jesus’ family tree, including his own mother, would have been regarded with suspicion, sexual outliers that Jesus’ divinity and sacrifice redeemed. But faithful relationships are never something that needs to be redeemed. Rather, they are the very means by which redemption and resurrection are possible.