The book of Ruth is named after a woman from the foreign land of Moab. Set in Bethlehem, it’s essentially the tale of a young migrant woman who escaped poverty to become the ancestor of both King David and Jesus Christ.
The story begins in the land of Moab. Elimelech and his wife Naomi had moved there from Israel after their homeland was hit by a severe famine. Their two sons, Mahlon and Chelion, had gone with them. While they were living there, the two sons got married to two Moabite women – Orpah and Ruth. Tragically, however, the two sons both died young before having children. Some time later, their father Elimelech also died.
At that point, Naomi decided it was time to return to the land of Israel. Her daughters-in-law went along with her. On the way back, however, Naomi strongly advised them to return to Moab. Reluctantly, Orpah did so, but Ruth decided to stick with her. She told Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (1:16)
So the two women travelled together to Naomi’s hometown, Bethlehem. When they arrived, the barley harvest had just begun. Ruth decided to go into the fields to gather leftover barley sheaves. The Law of Moses allowed poor people to do this, so that they wouldn’t go hungry (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22). It was a way for Ruth to provide for herself and for Naomi.
She ended up collecting barley in a field owned by Boaz, a rich man related to Naomi. Boaz noticed her and told her that she could continue to collect grain from his field until the very end of the harvest. He also kindly let her eat lunch with his workers. When evening came, Ruth returned home to Naomi weighed down with sheaves.
Day after day, Ruth collected leftovers from the same field until the barley harvest was over. After this, she let Boaz know she was interested in him as a husband. He responded positively and the two then married. Not long after, the couple had a baby boy together, named Obed. Naomi’s mother-in-law Ruth helped her to care for the baby.
Obed was both the grandfather of King David and an ancestor of Christ (cf Matthew 1:5). This means that through Ruth, Christ was descended from at least one person who wasn’t Jewish. This was later seen as a clue that the Messiah would not just be for the Jews; like Ruth, he would bring Jews and Gentiles together into one chosen people.
In this stained glass scene, the young Ruth is pictured gathering barley sheaves in the field where the couple first met. The Latin text on the scroll, collegit in agro usque ad vesperam, means ‘she gleaned in the field until evening’ and is taken from Ruth 2:17. This reminds us that she was a good woman who worked hard to provide for her mother-in-law.
The Gothic Revival window is by John Francis Bentley and dates to 1871. It’s found within the Lady Chapel of St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater. Ruth’s window sits alongside other Old Testament women who in some way anticipate the Virgin Mary. The main point of comparison is that both Ruth and Mary gave birth to a son in Bethlehem. However, like Mary, Ruth was also noted for her virtue and her humility.
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Where to find this work of art
St Mary of the Angels, Bayswater
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