Jubilee in Art

Here are three scenes from the story of Ruth by the British watercolourist Thomas Matthews Rooke (1842 -1942).

The Jubilee in Art by Fleur Dorrell

The story is read from right to left.  
R-L = Naomi and Ruth; Ruth and Boaz; Naomi, Ruth and Obed. 

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.  

The Book of Ruth sits in the Old Testament between Judges and 1 Samuel. 

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 daughters-in-law. 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. Boaz was a relative of Elimelech and a wealthy landowner of Bethlehem in Judea. He notices the situation of Ruth and Naomi and becomes the key to their livelihood and to perpetuating their ancestral line. 

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 daughters-in-law 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. 

9 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.  

As we have seen in our Jubilees in Scripture Resource gleaning was part of a well-established law in the Old Testament. In the book of Ruth it is gleaning that helps to transform two families who are ancestors of Jesus. We see that there are a number of factors at stake in this law that can support our modern concept of the common good. 

i) Distribution of obligations and responsibility between landowners 

In the Old Testament, a reasonable compromise on proportionate responsibility was based on the size of the harvest relative to the size of their land, vineyard or tree, since this determined the means of each landowner to provide for their stakeholders.  

If every household today was bound by a law to have a proportionate responsibility for the poor, as a form of mandatory civic duty, then charities would be less dependent on voluntary donations and inconsistent funding, and the stakeholders might be better cared for. 

ii) Distribution of responsibility between landowner and beneficiary 

In chapter 2 of the Book of Ruth, Ruth had to glean the leftover barley harvest herself, and she worked “from early morning” “until evening”. This incentivised the poor to work to eat regardless of how small the benefits were, otherwise they might not have been granted any surplus produce at all.  

In the Book of Ruth we also see that granting the landowner the decision to go beyond the requirements of the law is another form of social justice. Boaz did this when he asked his workers to take some harvest from the bundles and leave it for Ruth to glean. So complying with the minimum requirements of the law could be extended and copied if the landowners, like Boaz in his “kindness” chose to. Sadly, Boaz’s workers were unhappy with Ruth for gleaning, even though it is her legal right. He had to discipline some of his men who were willing to harm her because they opposed these obligations. These moral and legal incentives when combined create a service to the law and a service to humanity which  underpin both Old and New Testament teachings on social justice. It is this alignment of law and service that we can promote and foster in our parishes, dioceses and communities. 

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 of 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.

Other facts about the Book of Ruth

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. 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. On the Friday, we read the beginning of the book of Ruth about how Naomi went back with Ruth the Moabite to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1, 3-6, 14-16, 22). On the Saturday, we read about how the Lord did not leave the dead man without next of kin to perpetuate his name in Israel (Ruth 2:1-3, 8-11, 4:13-17). The intention of the author of this book is to demonstrate to his readers that Yahweh cares for those who faithfully serve him and rewards them for their faithfulness.  

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).

Other paintings and sketches to explore:

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Des glaneuses – Jean-François Millet | Musée d’Orsay (musee-orsay.fr) 
Jean-François Millet | The Gleaners | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org) 
The Gleaners (after Millet) by Vincent Van Gogh – www.pivada.com/en/vincent-van-gogh-the-gleaners-after-millet-1890 

Further Reading:

Borders and Belonging – The Book of Ruth: A Story for our Times by Padraig O Tuama and Glenn Jordan. Canterbury: Canterbury Press, 2021. 

Photo Credit

Artist: Thomas Matthews Rooke 1842–1942
© Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1877
‘Naomi, Ruth and Obed‘, Thomas Matthews Rooke, 1876–7 | Tate