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A rarity: behaving well

10 August 2012

Sister Wendy Beckett reflects on Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz


Love in harvest: Summer (Ruth and Boaz) by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

Love in harvest: Summer (Ruth and Boaz) by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

The book of Ruth is one of the shortest and perhaps most surprising in the Old Testament. If the tragedy of Samson, related in Judges, is a "she-done-him-wrong thriller", then the story of Ruth, neat and compact, could be called a tender romance. However, the romance is not really between man and woman - although that is still there - but between mother and daughter-in-law.

Ruth is one of the ancestors of Christ: she is mentioned in the Gospel genealogy. Perhaps her genealogical significance is that she is not an Israelite, to show that the pagans, too, had a share in the genetic inheritance of Christ.

Yet the beauty of this short story is more than its biological significance. The sweetness of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is extraordinarily touching, and so is the gentlemanly conduct of Boaz. Everybody in this book acts well.

This is how we want God's people to move towards their destiny, with love and dignity and consideration of others. There is not much of it in sacred scripture, and it may be that there is not much of it in ordinary life. But it does exist to comfort and inspire us, and - as always in the scriptures - to become part of the greater story that the Bible is always telling us.

This is the third of four edited extracts from Sister Wendy's Bible Treasury by Sister Wendy Beckett. It is published by SPCK at £14.99 ( CT Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT374 - free postage on UK online orders during August); 978-0-281-06618-6.


Towards the end of his life, Poussin produced four great canvases to illustrate the four seasons, using for each an appropriate episode from the Bible. For summer, he took the story of Ruth and Boaz. Since they came to know each other during the harvest season, a field of ripe corn is an apt setting.

Poussin is one of the greatest of landscape painters, and this richly glowing plain is unforgettable. Its fertility stretches out to the distant mountains, golden and inviting. It is, of course, a symbol of the fertility that this young widow will bring to her new husband.

Poussin shows their first encounter: Ruth is the poor relation kneeling before him, begging for his help; Boaz, quite unaware of future possibilities, generously orders his servant to give every assistance to his impoverished cousin-in-law, as she goes gleaning.

Later, Naomi counsels her to sleep in the field at her benefactor's feet. The language here is very modest, and we need to know that "uncovering feet" and "spreading a skirt over" someone are euphemisms for a physical encounter. Her act and his act make Ruth his wife. She will bear a son, and Naomi will be his nurse.


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