Today’s advent offering comes from the Israeli artist and photographer Adi Nes, whose work often engages with biblical themes, scenes and characters, drawing them into contemporary contexts. In particular, Nes presents us with views of the biblical narratives as stories of adversity and disenfranchisement, of people losing their land and fighting to survive in a harsh and (at times) pitiless world. He situates many of the biblical characters and stories within the contemporary context of modern Tel Aviv, allowing Middle Eastern political concerns and realities to impact upon his work. As he explains, ‘ I deal with people whose identity is being erased by society, by economic and social forms of integration taking place both in Israel and all over the world’.
The image I’ve chosen for today’s advent calendar is one that I find particularly powerful – his 2008 work, Ruth and Naomi, gleaners. In this image, we see Ruth and her mother-in-law scavenging (‘gleaning’) for scraps of food among the rotting rubbish that lies on the ground after the day’s market is over.
This image stands in stark contrast to earlier artistic presentations of this biblical scene, where, typically, Ruth is portrayed as a beautiful young woman, who poses attractively for the artist against the scenic backdrop of some pastoral idyll.
Nes modelled his depiction of Ruth and Naomi on a similarly pastoral scene found in Jean-Francois Millet’s 1857 The Gleaners. Millet’s work, although scenic, does however hint at the sheer toil of the gleaners’ work – bent double, they scrabble around in the dirt with their bare hands picking up the odd stalk of wheat that has been left behind by the harvesters. Caught in this moment, we feel the heat of the sun on their backs and the pain in their limbs, noting with sadness the pathetically small bundle of grain each gleaner has gathered despite their back-breaking efforts.
Like Millet, Nes captures the tragedy of Ruth and Naomi’s situation. Their story in the Hebrew Bible is no pastoral idyll – a gentle tale of two women making a new life for themselves among the fields of Bethlehem. No, the book of Ruth is a tale of hardship, hunger, and desperation – the harsh reality for women living in a patriarchal culture without the security of male financial or social support. Ruth did not while away her hours pottering in a pretty field of barley – she was scrabbling around in the dirt, picking up rubbish from the ground so that she and Naomi would at least have enough food in order to survive. This is what she did, just as some people today must do too. Nes’s image, which draws Ruth and Naomi into our own contemporary context, reminds us of the scandal of poverty and invites us to acknowledge that there is nothing idyllic or attractive about such life-crushing poverty, whether it is in the Bible or taking place amongst our own global kin.