After suffering the death of her husband and sons, as well as a devastating famine, Naomi decides to leave her home in Bethlehem and move to Moav in search of food and continuity for her family line. When she announces this to her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, they protest. Naomi explains that she is too old to bear sons for them to remarry, and even if she was capable of such a miracle, the two widows would need to wait until the sons were of age, and that just isn’t practical.
At first glance, Naomi’s justification—that it is practically better for Ruth and Orpah to remain in Bethlehem—seems sensible, even honorable. Nonetheless, if we delve deeper, we discover that this is purely one interpretation of why Naomi dissuades Ruth and Orpah from accompanying her.
The first, as we have noted, proposes that Naomi is motivated by her earnest concern for her daughters-in-law, seeing as she addresses them as “daughters” repeatedly (when they are really her former daughters-in-law) and goes as far as to bless them. In contrast, the second approach suggests that Naomi does not want her daughters-in-law to join her because she finds them culpable for the death of her husband and sons and is embarrassed by them. If we explore a different take on the wording in Naomi’s speech, we see that she could have said, “Return, my daughters. For I am very bitter from you.” Here, Naomi claims that her bitterness has been caused by Ruth and Orpah, that they are accountable for the divine punishment enacted against her, her husband, and her sons—had the two Moavite women not married Machlon and Khilyon, God would not have become enraged. When Ruth proclaims her undying devotion to Naomi, Naomi doesn’t thank her. In fact, Naomi gives her the silent treatment, and when the two ultimately arrive in Moav, she treats Ruth like a stranger. A third and final approach regards Naomi’s dissuasion as a trial, a test to determine Ruth and Orpah’s sincere willingness to convert. These three approaches are discussed at length in Dr. Yael Ziegler’s commentary, Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy.
In the artwork, I present the three women minimally with little color and strokes so as to put them on display in a candid light. Naomi’s face is the uppermost and most prominent because she is the central character in this scene. Ruth’s face, to the right of Naomi’s, is the most detailed, demonstrating her vulnerability. It is also closer to Naomi’s than Orpah’s, which is simple and absent-minded. I have also included the three terms that best summarize what motivated Naomi to discourage her daughters-in-law: compassion, blame, and trial. Finally, I used pastel to color the background green since the color denotes immortality, life, and renewal in various biblical stories. This is meaningful because, as the story progresses, we learn that Ruth saves Naomi’s family line and instills a new, more righteous state during the period of the Judges.
ARTIST’S STATEMENT: An Artistic Exploration of Megillat Ruth is a collection of art pieces centered around key moments in Megillat Ruth. I created these in response to prompts that were part of a Judaic Studies unit on the Book of Ruth, and, as you can see, decided to take a more artistic route with my submissions. There are statements associated with each individual artwork, but overall, this project meant a lot to me because it illustrates a book that I think has been greatly misunderstood. On the surface, Megillat Ruth seems quite uneventful, but if we look closer and deeper, as you will through the art pieces, the complexity of the narrative and its characters shines through.