Danger and Desire: Student work on the book of Ruth (part 2)

Following on from our last blog post, here is another student essay on the book of Ruth in art. Nevin Govindasamy is another of our fabulous students in Theology – as well as studying for his Bachelor of Theology, he has also completed a Bachelor of Arts degree, where he majored in Media, Film, and Television Studies. Nevin plans to graduate later this year and hopes to continue his studies at postgraduate level. Below is one of his essays for the Danger and Desire course, where he considers Émile Lévy’s painting, Ruth and Naomi, from an LGBTI perspective.


Émile Lévy’s Ruth and Naomi (1859)


Nevin Govindasamy

Recent biblical interpretations have stated that the Book of Ruth provides a positive theology for the LGBTI community. Émile Lévy’’s Ruth and Naomi (1859) gives subtle encouragement for a supportive LGBTI message. At first Levy’s painting appears simple to be a simple depiction of Ruth 4:13-17 with a young family playing with their child. Yet, there are subtle features in Levy’s interpretation that suggest that Ruth and Naomi shared an intimate relationship. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Boaz in the background of the painting is also an extremely important element in redefining his role in the narrative. These visual characteristics affect the way in which the relationships in the Book of Ruth are to be understood. Though Ruth and Naomi is a positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship, Lévy’s interpretation, much like the text itself, works in a subtle way to illustrate its message. With society’s changing attitude towards the LGBTI community, it is important to establish an inclusive LGBTI theology. The Book of Ruth provides a suitable platform for reinterpreting stereotypical and congealed biblical attitudes towards its LGBTI members.

Émile Lévy, Ruth and Naomi (1859)

One of the keys to understanding the Book of Ruth lies with the interpretation of the final scene (Ruth 4:13-17) – as depicted in Ruth and Naomi. There are several subtle elements in Ruth 4:14-17 which suggest that the women were in a committed same-sex relationship. The language used by the women of Bethlehem to describe the strength of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is deliberately overemphasised and emotional. Their speech is important as it is the only place in the text where the word ‘love’ is used, but also, more significantly to show “that others in the story world recognize Ruth’s love, and gives us perspective on Naomi’s point of view” (Exum 1996, 140). While Lévy downplays the original intensity of the text, the feminine atmosphere, the main subjects of the painting, as well as the title itself, are used to illustrate this love. Although there is an unnamed third woman in Lévy’s painting, depicting Ruth, Naomi and Obed together during the final scene connotes that they are a non-traditional family. By focusing on the familial nature of the final scene both Lévy and the women of Bethlehem recognise that “Ruth’s relationship to Naomi has been life-giving – procreative” (West 2006, 194).

Casting Ruth and Naomi’s relationship as procreative guides the way in which the audience interprets the preceding narrative.   In particular, the associations with procreation draw attention to the narrative links with Genesis 2:24 through the use of the ‘cling’ (dabaq) in Ruth 1:24. Genesis 2:24 uses ‘cling’ to describe the marriage husband and wife and ultimately the procreative nature of the two ‘becoming one flesh.’ A further parallel to Genesis 2:24 occurs in Ruth 2:11, where Boaz notes that Ruth has ‘left her mother and father’ to be with Naomi. Scott Callaham notes that “though ‘father and mother’ is a stock phrase, only Ruth 2:11 and Genesis 2:24 employ it as the object of the verb” (2012, 193). These features infer that Ruth and Naomi’s ‘clinging’ should be understood as a de-facto marriage. The subtlety of the Book of Ruth’s intertextual references is paralleled by Lévy through a series of subtle visual allegories. First, the use of red identifies and links Ruth and Naomi who occupy the foreground of the picture.However, more significantly, the older woman – taken to be Naomi is also wearing a gold ring on her finger – a synchronic insertion with direct references to marriage between the two women.

Understanding that Ruth and Naomi’s relationship is a de-facto marriage means reassessing Boaz’s function in the narrative. Although it appears that Ruth 2 establishes Boaz as a paragon of patriarchal authority, Boaz’s actions demonstrate, rather, that he is also the first defender, or protector of the LGBTI community. Boaz is the first outsider to acknowledge ‘all that Ruth had done for Naomi,’ and also his hopes that God would ‘reward her for her deeds’ (Ruth 2:11-12). Boaz uses his influence to ensure that Ruth is protected from harassment, (Ruth 2:9) and instructs that extra grain be provided for her (2:16). Mona West states that Boaz’s behaviour “goes above and beyond the law to ensure that those less fortunate in [his] community are provided for” (2006, 192). His actions ensure that Ruth and Naomi would survive without ‘gleaning in another field’ (Ruth 2:8) and risking their relationship. Lévy’s depiction of Boaz in Ruth and Naomi reinforces the notion that his character performs the role of a guardian to the women. Boaz stands as a sentinel in the background of the painting keeping a watchful eye over the family in the foreground. Furthermore, Boaz is holding a curved shepherd’s staff – one of the most recognizable symbols of religious care in the Christian community. This role of protector elides with the theme of the survival of marginalized, vulnerable women in adversarial environments (Ruth 1:1, 5).

The implications of Boaz’s characterization redefine the purposes of his marriage to Ruth. Ruth 2 foregrounds the sentiment that Ruth’s marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3-4.1) is a colluded survival strategy that does not compromise her relationship with Naomi, but that it provides “protection from both violence and poverty” (Koosed 2012, 55). While this marriage between Ruth and Boaz is the only one directly described in the text, its initiation is orchestrated by the women (Ruth 3:1-5) “to create a situation in which [Naomi], Boaz and Ruth can form their own family to provide security and well-being” (West 2006, 193). Furthermore, terms of the marriage are discussed within a legal framework, rather than out of romance or love. The ‘engagement scene’ on the threshing room floor (Ruth 3:9-13) Ruth proposes that Boaz act as a ‘redeemer’ (go’el) according to the laws of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10). Boaz agrees to the legal details of Ruth’s marriage proposal, as “he vows to look into the permissibility of the situation and to act as her next of kin only if he can” (Wojcik 1985, 150).

Although Boaz agrees to marry Ruth, Jennifer Koosed notes that he is not the one in charge in the relationship and marriage out of erotic love is not the goal (2012, 53). The scene at the city gate (Ruth 4) reinforces Boaz’s attitude as a legalistic protector, outside the bounds of a sexual relationship rather than romantic suitor to Ruth. First, Boaz negotiates the terms of marriage over the tenures of landownership (Ruth 4:3). Subsequently, once the terms are settled he states that his motivations were driven by ‘maintaining Elimelech’s name,’ and not love (Ruth 4:10). Boaz’s actions give legal legitimacy to his relationship and role as a protector of the women. The morning after their engagement, Boaz notes that it may be controversial for an unmarried man and woman to be seen together (Ruth 3:14) – even if it is a relationship providing social welfare (Ruth 3:15). Therefore, Boaz’s formal marriage to Ruth allows him to continue to protect the informal marriage between Ruth and Naomi free from any potential controversies or misunderstandings. Furthermore, Boaz pulls Ruth and Naomi from the margins of society back into the community when he provides them with a legitimate child.

Biblical commenters agree that Ruth’s declaration (Ruth 1:16-17) is one of the most profound declarations of love – unparalleled in the Bible. Despite the fact that Ruth’s declaration is directed towards someone of the same sex, the Bible is often used as the platform for conservative Christians to justify a stance against the LBGTI community. Furthermore, Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s largest denomination, publicly stated in 2013 that he was “shocked” at a proposed Maltese law that would allow LBGTI couples to adopt children (Rayman 2013). These positions often rely on the most explicit verses in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to validate their position. However, Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg notes “that there is no good reason to conceive of the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality as a series of dictates that exist in isolation from other statues or stories” (2008, 471). The Book of Ruth not only celebrates and protects the love between two women, but also it “offers a model for defiance of biblical law and for sanctioning forbidden marriages” – all with the approval and blessing of the Lord (Ruth 4:13) (474).

The Book of Ruth is an excellent source to build a positive theology for the LGBTI community. Much like Ruth and Naomi members of the LGBTI community are often at the margins of society. Furthermore, the LGBTI community continues to be actively discriminated by the Christian community due to superficial or stereotypical understanding of the Bible. Yet, the Book of Ruth provides direct biblical evidence that undermines such a position. Not only do Ruth and Naomi survive in a patriarchal society, their relationship is protected, praised and legitimized by their community. Emile Levy’s Ruth and Naomi illustrates the loving and committed nature of their relationship – culminating in the creation of a LBGTI family. Levy enriches the characterization of Boaz as a protector by showing his character as a dutiful sentinel who continues to watch over the women. Positive LGBTI Interpretations in popular culture, such as Ruth and Naomi, are essential in affecting a substantial change in attitude within the Christian community. As with many issues in society, more social gains and losses are made through the ideas circulated online and in the popular media than from scholarly publications or dictates from the pulpit.

Works Cited

Callaham, Scott. “But Ruth Clung to Her: Textual Constraints on Ambiguity in Ruth 1:14.” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no.2 (2012): 179-97.

Cushing-Stahlberg, Lesleigh. “Modern Day Moabites: The Bible and the Debate About Same-Sex Marriage.” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008): 442-75.

Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot and Painted : Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 1996.

Koosed, Jennifer L.. Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament : Gleaning Ruth : A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives. Columbia, SC, USA: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.

Rayman, Noah. “Report: Pope Francis ‘Shocked’ by Same-Sex Adoption Proposal.” Time Magazine, December 30, 2013. Accessed April 14, 2015. http://world.time.com/2013/12/30/report-pope-francis-shocked-by-same-sex-adoption-proposal.

West, Mona. “Ruth.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest et. al.. London, UK: SCM Press, 2006.

Wojcik, Jan. “Improvising Rules in the Book of Ruth.” PMLA 100, no. 2 (1985): 145-53.


Danger and Desire: Student Work on the Book of Ruth (part 1)

In a previous blog post, I indicated that I would be sharing student work from our course Danger and Desire: The Bible in Visual Culture. Today, I’d like to present the first of two student essays that look at images based on the Hebrew Bible’s book of Ruth. The author of this essay is Kesaia Tapueluelu, one of our star students taking her Bachelor of Theology here at the University of Auckland. Kesaia focuses on two artists who present scenes from Ruth, considering in particular the way that the gender and sexuality of the characters in this narrative are explored within these visual interpretations of the text.

Ruth and Naomi


Kesaia Tapueluelu

Every time I would read or have the story of Ruth read to me, I always thought about how Naomi must have been the best mother-in-law for Ruth not to leave her. The mother and daughter in-law duo tells an intriguing story of the journey that they embark on in order to survive their tragic circumstances. Loyalty is a recurring theme in this biblical text which highlights a personality trait of Ruth; however, any loyalty from Naomi is not clearly evident. For this essay I have chosen two pieces of art that I believe highlight the relationship between the women (especially the aspect of love and loyalty) and the roles that they played throughout their story for their survival; Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s Ruth and Naomi painting and Nicolas Poussin’s Summer (Ruth and Boaz). Both art works will offer a depiction of Naomi and Ruth’s relationship and further allow for an interpretation of the biblical story.

Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Ruth and Naomi (1920)

In the cultural context of the time in which the book was authored women who were widowed held the lowest socio-economic status. They had nothing and could not get anything because all odds were against them because there was no male figure present to look after them. Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s Ruth and Naomi offer a visual interpretation of the text that raises many questions on first glance: who are the two embracing, Ruth and Naomi, or Ruth and Boaz? Might it be romantic or even erotic? (Exum, 1996, 129) What is Calderon suggesting with this picture? The picture is not clear about who are embracing, whether it is Boaz and Ruth or Ruth and Naomi. A clue in Calderon’s painting is the presence of the third character looking on from the two embracing. To unravel an understanding of this piece we need to comparae the biblical text to the painting to give possible clarity. When we apply a scene which includes a third party there are two possibilities. The first possibility is that this scene could be an embrace between Ruth and Boaz with Naomi looking on and the second possibility is that the two embracing are Ruth and Naomi and Orpah is the one looking on. The biblical text shows no evidence of Ruth and Boaz embracing where Naomi is present; as a matter fact, there is no scene in which all three characters are together at the same time. The second possibility is more favourable because the third character is carrying some form of luggage which suggests traveling. (Koosed 2011, 53). This then suggests that the scene is a depiction of when Naomi told her daughters-in-law to return to their homes (Ruth 1.8-14). In the biblical text it is noted that Ruth clings onto Naomi as Orpah leaves (1.14), this is probably the moment that Calderon is trying to capture in his painting, which depicts his interpretation of the biblical story. Yet, the picture is ambivalent, obscure and very confusing. Naomi is masculine looking and the embrace between her and Ruth is very passionate, romantic and even erotic. J. Cheryl Exum wrote about this painting, asking the question, is this really Naomi? (1996, 129). Exum’s question echoes the questions from those posed by the women in Bethlehem when they could not recognise Naomi (Ruth 1:19). This question can play on the idea Calderon may have wanted his audience to question in the picture; the questions about gender and his use of an androgynous figure (ibid, 132). Calderon’s painting can be seen as the artist’s way of delegating, in this sense, the male responsibilities of the relationship onto Naomi and by doing so he blurs a definitive gender on Naomi. The role in which Naomi takes on is the role of carer and provider for Ruth – the masculine role, hence her androgyny. Calderon was a part of a group called the St Johns Wood Clique (a group of Victorian artists) and he specialised in romantic and dramatic scenes from the Bible (Elkan). It is also said that Calderon’s paintings were never straightforward and many were sexually ambivalent. This is very fitting considering the romantic gesture that is portrayed in Naomi and Ruth’s embrace. In a blog post by Caroline Blyth on Auckland Theology and Religious Studies (19 December 2014), she writes about her thoughts on this piece, and her concluding thoughts are what interested me. Blyth states that rather than dampening the picture by stating that Ruth is embracing Boaz, she would rather leave the two women unambiguously enjoying their embrace, which in turn celebrates their intense love for each other; Blyth then concludes by quoting Ruth’s remarks to Naomi (Ruth 1.16-17). When Blyth concluded with Ruth’s remarks it evoked a sense of marriage vows, highlighting the intensity of love that she mentions. Maybe it is this great love that Calderon is trying to express through his painting, an intense love where Ruth vows loyalty to Naomi like the vows of a marriage. To further clarify, I do not believe Calderon’s picture highlights a bond of homosexuality nor of heterosexuality; however it is about the intense love that both characters mutually express as seen in his picture (Exum 1996, 135).

Nicholas Poussin, The Summer (Ruth and Boaz), 1664

The second piece of art that amply applies a stimulating depiction of the biblical text is from Nicolas Poussin, Summer (Ruth and Boaz). The beauty in this art is seen in the vast landscape of the outdoors. It is said that the landscape is a depiction of the divine presence amongst human activity (Encyclopedia of Art). Poussin may have painted this scene to imply the presence of God as the conductor of both Ruth’s life and the events that are going to happen. This picture shows Ruth kneeling before Boaz amongst the field of workers. What is intriguing about this picture is that it shows Ruth as a rather masculine figure. Is Poussin trying to implement the same or a similar idea to Calderon? Although Poussin’s picture of Ruth and Boaz was painted before Calderon’s painting of Ruth and Naomi, the masculinity that Ruth takes on may also denote here an aspect of her role in her relationship with Naomi. In this scene, Ruth seems to take from Naomi the masculine role and places it on herself to care for Naomi; by doing so she goes to the fields to glean after the harvesters to provide food for both of them. In the words of Boaz (when he replies to Ruth about his favouritism on her), “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband” (2.11a). These words, specifically “what you have done,” highlight the care for Naomi implying Ruth’s responsibility towards Naomi. Although I have mentioned earlier that Naomi took on the masculine role in the relationship in her initial care of Ruth, it is here in this scene that Ruth takes on this role in place of Naomi. Depicting Ruth as a masculine figure before Boaz in this painting suggests that Ruth came before Boaz in her role as carer and provider. Then further in the biblical story, Boaz takes this role in the relationship from Ruth by making her his wife. It is then that Boaz becomes the ultimate carer for both women, taking from them the role as provider. The women’s search for survival is now over in Ruth’s acceptance to be the bride of Boaz; the women then rest in Boaz’s care. In conclusion, Calderon’s painting depicted the intense love that both Naomi and Ruth portrayed as women. The androgyny in the picture allowed for different and various interpretations of the figures embracing. Poussin seems to have done the same in his painting of Ruth before Boaz, depicting Ruth as a rather masculine figure. Both images describe the loyalty and the love that Naomi and Ruth have. Their relationship as widowed mother and daughter in-law describes a prolonged journey for survival as women with nothing. Boaz’s entry into the story cast him as the refuge through which these women were saved. These women struggled alone (or perhaps with the implicit providence of God) through a journey that ended with a beautiful outcome; a famous lineage (Ruth 4.18-22). The relationship between Ruth and Naomi as depicted by these artists offer an understanding of the biblical story that is both challenging and stimulating. Bibliography Blyth, Caroline. “Advent offering 19 December.” Auckland Theology and Religious Studies, Accessed April 26, 2015. https://aucklandtheology.wordpress.com/tag/philip-hermogenes-calderon/. Elkan, Jenny. “Philip Hermogenes Calderon 1833-1898: Artist Biography.” TATE Accessed April 26, 2015. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/philip-hermogenes-calderon-77. Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Koosed, Jennifer. Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and her Afterlives. University of South Carolina Press, 2011. I’ll be back in a day or two with the second student work on visual exegesis in the book of Ruth.