Fleur reflects on the story of Ruth through the lens of British watercolourist Thomas Matthews Rooke.

The Book of Ruth appears in our Bibles straight after the Book of Judges because its heroine is an ancestor of King David, whose story is told in the next books of 1 and 2 Samuel. No one knows who the author of this book is but their intention seems to be to demonstrate that Yahweh cares for those who faithfully serve him and rewards them for their faithfulness. There are at least two levels on which to read this story: the surface level that reveals a story of love and commitment, and the deeper level which reveals a message of what “foreigners” (even hated foreigners such as the Moabites) might contribute to God’s story of salvation re-stated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel, Boaz, Ruth and Obed are mentioned by name, and in Luke’s Gospel, only Boaz and Obed are recorded.

In the Church’s lectionary we hear readings from the book of Ruth twice – both of them in the autumn during the 20th Week in Ordinary Time, Year 1. There is a verse from the Book of Ruth, however, that we hear at every Mass in the greeting of the priest, where Boaz calls out to Ruth, “The Lord be with you” to which Ruth replied, “The Lord bless you” (Ruth 2:4).

Triptych of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz by Thomas Matthews Rooke. 1876–7. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain, London.
L-R = Naomi, Ruth and Obed. Ruth and Boaz. Naomi and Ruth.

Here are three scenes from the story of Ruth by the British watercolourist Thomas Matthews Rooke (1842 -1942), who assisted Edward Burne-Jones for 30 years and was admired by the art critic John Ruskin.

In the panel on the right, the Moabite woman Ruth clasps the arm of her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, and promises her undying loyalty. Ruth was one of Naomi’s daughter-in-laws. Naomi was from Bethlehem and had left the city in order to escape the famine.  With her husband Elimelech and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, Naomi travelled to the land of Moab, east of the Dead Sea. However, Naomi’s husband died. 

Later Naomi’s sons married Moabite women. The Israelites hated the Moabites and would have nothing to do with them, their historic enemy. 10 years later, both of the sons died leaving Naomi grief-stricken, penniless and with two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi saw no reason to remain in Moab and decided to return alone to Bethlehem, commanding her daughter-in-laws to stay in Moab and return to their parents’ homes. Orpah returned to her family but Ruth refused to leave her mother-in-law – Naomi, saying:

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17)

In the central panel, Ruth kneels at Boaz`s feet in gratitude for his kindness to her. He had instructed his workers to leave some corn for her to glean as the Torah clearly commanded in Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22, and in Deuteronomy 24:19-22.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
(Leviticus 19:9-10)

Boaz admires Ruth’s determination and resourcefulness in spite of her being the Moabite ‘outsider’. He himself widowed recently, empathises with her loss of spouse and livelihood, and he values her diligence and compassion for Naomi more than her ethnicity.

Ruth clutches reaped grain in her hands while she thanks Boaz for saving her. He stands in his field against the backdrop of his other workers while building bridges with the woman on the margins of his land and on the margins of his community.

In the panel on the left, Naomi cradles Ruth’s newborn son Obed from her marriage to the wealthy Boaz. Naomi sees that justice is restored through Ruth’s loving kindness and fidelity to her welfare, and in Boaz’ parallel generosity. Boaz needs his land and property to stay in the family so it is to his advantage if Ruth can belong to him legally, but he requires the community to accept both her and Naomi, and this is far more complicated in Law than appears here. Ruth now looks on at their escape from poverty after much earlier tragedy and instability. Obed would become the grandfather of King David and an ancestor of Jesus.

Rooke’s strong attention to detail in this triptych is both subtle and rewarding. The golden light of summer heat offers hope and fruitfulness yet there is also something precarious about the fragile situation that Ruth and Naomi have to navigate right now. Social exclusion have rendered them powerless; their dark clothing reveals the grief and alienation they have experienced already; only through God’s mercy and their faith can righteousness succeed.

Rooke brings a calming presence to the panels by ensuring that each of the figures is graceful, their body language understanding each other’s moods. The hands in each section are particularly expressive with their counterpoint to protection and openness. In all three scenes there is a focus on holding onto something precious when everything before has been lost, and an invitation to be accepted.

These paintings are not just telling a story, they are about the art of survival and friendship. They represent social cohesion at its best: ethnicity doesn’t have to be a barrier. The Deuteronomic Covenant provided a unique framework in the Ancient World for a liberated former slave people to create a free and safe space for widows and strangers – normally powerless and destitute people. The mutual compassion and concern of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz for each other enable God’s covenant blessing of liberation to become real again.

Further Reading:
Borders and Belonging – The Book of Ruth: A Story for our Times by Padraig O Tuama and Glenn Jordan.
Canterbury Press publishers