In 1804, English painter George Dawe exhibited his painting “Naomi and Her Daughters” for the first time. It is a moving image of female affection. Naomi's husband and sons have just died, and she and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are left behind in Moab. The painter captures the crossroads moment when Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem to reunite with her own people. Naomi touches Orpah's hand as Orpah looks away, her head in her hands at the teary farewell. But Ruth clings to Naomi. Her hands are wrapped around Naomi’s neck, and her eyes look up at her mother-in-law with reverence. Naomi places her left arm securely around Ruth. Although the three women's sandaled feet are close together, Ruth’s point toward Naomi while Orpah’s point away.
Dawes clearly consulted the biblical text: “They broke into weeping again, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law farewell. But Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). The Hebrew expression for the embrace Ruth gives Naomi is “davka ba”—she hugged her. Midrashic tradition regards the hug, rather than the kiss, as the more intimate and substantial gesture.
Momentous as this scene is, Ruth’s hug is hardly the first hug in the Bible. The first biblical embrace appears in Genesis after Eve is fashioned from Adam’s rib: “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to [hugs] his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Dr. Yael Ziegler describes this as “an all-encompassing connection, a relationship characterized by identification, in which one party embraces the totality of the Other, utterly and completely . . . there is something illogical in this type of relationship, in which one’s own ego, one’s I-awareness, is subsumed by concern for the Other.” This total embrace also characterizes the desired relationship with God as described in Deuteronomy 11:22 and 30:20–21. These passages use the same Hebrew words to stress the importance of clinging to God.
Yet not all hugs are the same. The first real hug in Genesis appears in chapter 33, when Jacob and Esau reunite after a long and painful separation. Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright and the last time they were in the same house, Esau threatened to kill him. But the reunion not only goes more smoothly than expected, it also produces deep emotions: “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” There are negative rabbinic readings of this reunion, but the text plainly read is unmistakable. This hug was a genuine emotional embrace of relief, free of the past.
Later in Genesis, there is another brotherly reunion when Joseph is reunited with the very brothers who threw him in a pit and almost cost him his life. Joseph, unbeknownst to them, was sold into slavery in Egypt and worked his way up to a significant position in Pharaoh’s court. Years later, Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt for relief from the famine in Canaan. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, they stand in quiet disbelief while Joseph cries and tells them he has forgiven them. “Then he [Joseph] threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him” (Genesis 45:14–15). This hug expressed more than relief. It was a shock, a surprise, and a delight, the deep embrace of regret and forgiveness.
When we turn back to the Book of Ruth, we realize that Ruth hugged a woman who had lost everything and could report only on her bitterness. “Turn back, my daughters! Why should you go with me? Have I any more sons in my body who might be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters, for I am too old to be married . . . My lot is far more bitter than yours, for the hand of the Lord has struck out against me” (1:11–13). She spurns these young women and tells them to return to their mothers, where they might once again rebuild a life. It is too late for her.
In the words of Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel, Ruth hears more than Naomi’s words. She hears the pathos beneath them. “Naomi describes a body that can no longer attract physical love, a body that can no longer carry life, a body that no longer feels useful . . . It feels as if even God has left her . . . Ruth responds first with the physical gesture of a hug and only later professes to go wherever Naomi goes and die wherever Naomi dies.” Sometimes we focus on Ruth’s soaring words and miss the gesture that goes beyond words.
Ruth’s hug was one-sided. Naomi did not embrace Ruth in return. She offered no words of acknowledgment or love to her needy and vulnerable daughter-in-law. Naomi herself explains why later, when she speaks to those who greet her at the entrance to Bethlehem: She regards herself as punished by God. She is bitter and feels herself unworthy of love. Grief has emptied her. But Naomi’s story did not end here. Because of Ruth’s hug, Naomi was eventually allowed the truly restorative embrace that comes later, in chapter four. A child, Obed, was born to Ruth and Boaz, and “Naomi took the child and held it to her bosom” (4:16).
Each embrace—Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brother, Ruth and Naomi—was not about mere physical touch but about the acceptance of the other. In each case, there was a biblical signal through body language that a significant fracture was on its way to healing. Each of these hugs led to conversation. The embrace came first but was immediately followed or pre-empted by talk, explanation, or revelation. Finally, each hug signified the beginning of a new stage of relationship where the past was not forgotten but was put to the side to give space for a new relationship to emerge.
Each biblical embrace suggests that we never truly know the power of physical affection and attention. Ruth’s embrace served as a metaphor. It spoke to the eventual restoration of Naomi’s faith and place in society. It was an embrace of redemption that eventually made Ruth the progenitor of kings.
For over a year, COVID effectively suppressed this human need. In these days, when liberation is upon us, it’s a good time to think about giving and receiving a restorative hug. And it may be time to hold that hug just a little bit longer than usual because . . . well, because we can.
Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University and author of The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile.
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