Giving Shape to Abstraction: Illustrating Redemption in the Book of Ruth

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Benjamin Marcus

I was commissioned for a years-long project to create original illustrations for the Five Megillot—the Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, the Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Esther. First, I completed Esther, and more recently, the Book of Ruth. The story of Esther is perhaps the most well known of these. Because it serves as the source of what is often called our most joyous and certainly most child-friendly holiday—Purim—the charge of illustrating its legendary scenes was, for the most part, a clear-cut design brief. A king with a crown, a beautiful queen, a villain with a famous three-cornered hat, banquets and parties, and a white horse have been the subjects of celebrated artists for hundreds of years.

The Book of Ruth presents a very different challenge. Its interpreters have usually focused on its portrait of Ruth’s exemplary virtue of loyalty, its discussion of religious conversion, or the significance of levirate marriage. Likewise, while there is a venerable body of art to refer to—from gilded illumination to printed woodcuts—these depictions have focused, not undeservedly, on a handful of protagonists and the story’s plot, such as the family’s departure to Moab, Ruth’s devotion to Naomi, Ruth’s marriage to Boaz, and her bearing of a child who will be the ancestor of King David and the future messiah. But to me, it seemed that the plot is not the essence of the story. Rather, the Book’s crux is the concept of redemption. As an illuminator, I felt that my task was to express what redemption means rather than focus on the characters or the minutiae of the plot. But at first, I wasn’t quite sure how to do that.

In this essay, I want to share what I saw as the problem with the Book’s themes, my attempt to avoid the familiarity of their usual phrasings, and how the resulting process wound up reframing for me the meaning—and the beauty—of the Book of Ruth.

As noted, the plot and characters of Ruth have been the most overexposed in the history of the Book’s illumination. I was more interested in the abstract biographical truths the Book conveyed about the people of Israel as a whole rather than the lives of the particular people in the story. In other words, the story’s events—people leaving home, having children, losing husbands, moving elsewhere, finding work, or their attendant internal psychological postures—seemed less interesting than what they represented. For in truth, none of the story’s characters were important in their lifetimes beyond their immediate local spheres of social influence.

On the other hand, the Book’s first sentence, which sets the story in the time of the Judges, evokes an entire world of ethnographic importance. This was a time of social, civil, and religious chaos for the people of Israel: the famine that befell their land implies their communal alienation from God, family, and the land itself. As the story unfolds, however, certain individuals whose lives are informed (or unformed) by the milieu of estrangement and disaffection go on to pursue the very things that were lost: their familial relations, their name, and their connection to the land and to God.

In other words, the characters in Ruth are redeemed. Their true character traits are revealed as the story progresses: in place of estrangement and disaffection, we eventually see loyalty, kindness, selflessness, sustenance, valor, and more. Ultimately synthesizing all of these is the salvage and recovery of family, name, food and home, land, and a covenant with God. These concepts are what I hoped to illustrate.

Yet, such abstractions don’t so readily give themselves over to illustration in egg tempera, ink, and gouache. For further inspiration, I had to examine the Book’s structure.

The Book of Ruth contains literary structural features that seem to bestow their own significance upon the story.

Numerous interpreters observe a clear chiastic formula in the chief plot points of the story. As the narrative progresses, one can discern an A-B-C-D-D’-C’-B’-A’ pattern of repetition or mirroring of actions. In his scrupulously mapped article anatomizing the story’s chief points of narrative thrust, “Structural Symmetry and Its Significance in the Book of Ruth,” linguistics scholar Ernst Wedland breaks down the entire text to highlight the primary inflection points. For example, in just the first six pesukim, we see the following chiastic structure:

A – Motivation: famine in Judah (1:1)
B – Family gains: by moving to Moab (1:1-2)
C – Family loses: by death of Elimelekh (1:3)
D – Family gains: by marriage to Moabite wives (1:4)
C’ – Family loses: by death of the two sons (1:5)
B’ – Family gains: by returning to Bethlehem (1:6)
A’ – Motivation: food (1:6)

This level of patterning in the Book’s lexical geography can be charted through to the end, with the developments of plot and character progressing in meticulous but inconspicuously deliberate language. While this may not be immediately perceptible in one’s first perusal, if the reader immerses themselves and allows the narrative’s rhythms to wash over them, such organizing structures can be felt.

I could not discern from the commentators what intrinsic utility might be served by this or the various other rhetorical devices employed aside from their aesthetic effects. As I read and sketched, however, I began to perceive a purpose. Because the story is so short (approximately 2,500 words over only four chapters) but also of great historical importance, such self-conscious, formal contrivances as chiasmus (or anadiplosis, epiphora, etc.) invest the story with gravitas as well as poetic inevitability. Once the reader begins to absorb, even unconsciously, the cyclical orderliness and rhythmic orchestration of the narration, the telling feels almost like a parable where each character is fulfilling his or her destiny, propelled by circumstances that speak to their characters.

Even as we are not at all sure what fate the characters will meet, the cadence of the prose leads us from one sturdy plateau to another, without the clumsiness of overt didacticism. This inconspicuously contrived authorial apparatus creates a disembodied voice of authority, even if its purpose—to convey the necessity of an outcome—is not made clear until the very end of the story.

These, then, were the aspects of the narrative that I thought demonstrated that redemption was the subject I needed to represent. But the material substance of the commission remained to be visualized. On the klaf, I had the 3½-inch margins surrounding the four columns of calligraphy completed by a sofer to construct the story, or what I could construe of it. My work would be in panels that followed the narrative, running figuratively and literally around the text.

What follows are some of the artistic choices I made and what they are meant to express.

“In the time of the Judges” is just a short introductory phrase, but it is loaded because we know it was a time of chaos—socially between the people of Israel and their institutions; covenantally, with a breakdown of the moral code; and agronomically, as there was famine in the land, probably caused by the widespread disaffection. Because the existential state of the people of Israel is central to the story, I gave over a comparatively large space on the klaf to the setting (as you can see below), which is a kind of visual preface to what follows.

To represent the social, spiritual, and physical upheaval of the people, I combined both abstract and more figural imagery. Against a background of bilious (or smoky-colored), swirling strokes to suggest chaos, there are the disconnected letters of the Hebrew alphabet to express the overturning of the law, the tiny fragments of architectural ruins and the bodies of man and workhorse, and the floating debris of civilization.

Atop of the melee preside the twelve judges themselves, drawn as figures who—though they didn’t live at the same time as each other—cumulatively form a line of historical abandonment. With brief detail, a few are drawn to connote who they are: Shamgar with his oxgoad (Judges 3:31); Deborah, the only woman; and Gideon with his torch (Judges 7:16-21). With them comes the ground plane (the horizontal plane of projection in perspective drawing) on which the central, horizontal stages of action will play out. In the distance can be seen the departing introductory characters in our story as they pass by the wreckage from famine toward the future.

I represented Elimelekh—who was destined to lose because he forsook his place as a significant bearer of an Israelite legacy—as a mere outline without distinguishing characteristics. His son Khilion, whose name and fate were both literally a matter of “vanishing,” I rendered with a dotted line—his profile as an indiscernible man. And the other son Mahlon, whose name and affect were “sickly,” I showed as a mere smudge of a person, his features murky.

My attempt at a translation, or formulation, of the story’s structural elements—specifically its use of linguistic symmetries in its framing of events—continues at the halfway point of both the story and its graphic format on the klaf. At the outer vertical margin parallel to the center point between the chaos of the opening and what will be the restorative finale of the story, I depict Boaz’s confrontation with Ruth, where he blesses her and promises he will redeem her. This act of kindness, selflessness, extension, and hesed is the fulcrum of the story, an auspicious moment that collects and shifts the forces of the story toward their climactic ending. As it’s situated in the story as a mechanical pinion in the rack of the plot, rotating the destinies of both Boaz and Ruth—and with them, the future of the Israelites—I gave it the circularly framed shape of a pivot hinge and situated it at the progressive center of the storyboard.

In the fields of space flanking this nodal point are the fields of grain that serve as the mise-en-scène for their meeting, shown during and after the gleaning that brought these characters together. Above, Boaz stands to direct his men, take command of his land, and recognize and protect Ruth; his position declares his formidability and stature.

Below, and following his establishment of Ruth as a deserving beneficiary, Boaz is shown reclining: the story brings him down to the same level as Ruth who at the same time supplicates herself to him, sleeping at his feet.

In the interim panels between this crest point of the story and what will be its end, the panels show in stark focus the key milestones of the path to Ruth’s—and Israel’s—redemption: the handing over of her gleaned bounty by Boaz to Ruth and by Ruth to Naomi; Boaz before his witnesses at the gate dispensing with the would-be goel; Boaz and Ruth convening with the home he promises in the (imminent) distance between them; and the birth, naming, and handing over to Naomi of their offspring, Oved. The ground plane begins to green, parallel and contrary to the landscape of deprivation above.

The story’s denouement is the naming of the generations framing Oved’s place as grandfather to (King) David. It can be inferred that Oved will also be the progenitor to the civil order, agronomic health, and spiritual wealth that coalesce in the time of the monarchy. Since this represents the reversal of the Book’s opening, I give it the same amount of space as I gave the phrase “the time of the Judges,” and it’s positioned directly adjacent to depict its figural opposite: a healthy landscape and the orderly disposition of the twelve tribes in residence around a floorplan of the Temple at their center.

I hope my illuminations successfully convey that for the people of Israel, estrangement from law, family, home, land, and God are not isolated problems but interdependent ones. Thus, their solutions will not be found separately, individually, but in their mutually dependent integration. That is what is meant by “redemption.”

In the end, though, any work of visual interpretation must stand on its own and convey its integrity and logical consistency intuitively to the viewer. Whether this meaning has been successfully conveyed, I leave to the viewer to decide.

Benjamin Marcus is an architect and illustrator in private practice in NYC, and he serves as the Art and Architecture critic for White Rose Magazine. He is currently working on the ongoing commissioned project of illustrating the Five Megillot with his original artwork as well as his personal research into the architectural legacy of the Tabernacle.