Art and the Church
Two pastel drawings of Ruth by Karin Kraus
Word and image Bible study for Pentecost, based on the book of Ruth and two pastel drawings by Karin Kraus in the Maasai Bible
Target Group For small groups or personal study.
Aim That through the juxtaposition of the images and the biblical text the story may come (even more) to life.
Pentecost and Ruth Pentecost comes from the Greek word for ‘fifty’: ‘pentèkostè’. This feast is celebrated seven weeks after Easter, on the fiftieth day of Easter, just as the Hebrew Shavoe’ot or Feast of Weeks takes place seven weeks after the Jewish Pesach.
Originally the Feast of Weeks is a harvest festival. It celebrates the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Central to the festivities is the offering of ‘the first fruits of the land’ (the first and best agricultural products) in the temple of Jerusalem. From far and near, from all villages in the countryside, Israelites journeyed together as pilgrims to Jerusalem.
This festival also commemorates that Moses received the Torah or Law on the mountain Sinai on the fiftieth day after the exodus from Egypt. The synagogue and houses were decorated with flowers (as according to tradition the slopes of the Sinai covered themselves with flowers), and in the worship service the Ten Commandments and the book of Ruth, the festive scroll for this day, were read. The story of Ruth was read as it took place during the beginning of the barley festival (Ruth 1:22) until the end of the wheat festival (Ruth 2:23). In this way the gift of the Torah and the gift of the harvest were connected to each other.
It was during the celebration of this festival that the Spirit of God descended on Jesus’ disciples (Acts 2:1).
Question Does the Jewish background of Pentecost add to your understanding of it?
Karin Kraus and the Maasai Bible The Maasai Bible (1984) is a collection of seventy pastel drawings of stories from the Old and New Testament by the Benedictine missionary Karin Kraus of the order of the ‘Servants of Christ the King’ in Schwabenland, Germany. She worked as veterinarian among the Maasai, an ethnic group of semi-nomadic people moving around with their big herds of cattle in the steppe of Kenya and Tanzania. As she was not conversant enough in their language, she made images of biblical scenes with pastel in the colours and context of the life of the Maasai. In September 1982 Karin Kraus took part in a conference in Nairobi about mission to nomadic tribes. There she was asked to make her images also available to the neighbouring countries as catechism materials.In this way a collection was put together of 70 big plates printed on cardboard, which was in 1985/1987 also published in Europe as the Maasai Bible (German/Italian/Dutch).
The lifestyle and faith of the Maasai are remarkably alike those of the old people of Israel, that we know through the stories of the patriarchs. Just like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob they are nomadic shepherds with large herds of cattle. They worship only one God, Engai. He is the one, almighty and all-knowing Spirit, without body or human form. He is the creator of all that lives. It is quite exceptional that they do not worship their ancestors. According to tradition they come originally from the north. Due to lack of space and grass they kept on moving further southwards. They had been shepherds of the pharaoh and journeyed through Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia when they found large grazing areas for their cattle in Kenya and Tanzania. According to some ethnologists their origin lies on the Arabic peninsula. Conjecturally they originally were Semites, just like the Israelites.
Scripture reading Read Ruth 1 and 2. Discuss what draws your attention, what attracts you or what you find strange.
The pastel drawings If possible project the pastel drawings on a large screen, a computer or television screen. Take a few minutes to look at them in silence. Do not discuss them immediately. Which moments in the story do they portray? What attracts you in the colours and the composition? What atmosphere do they evoke? What else do you notice?
We will now first view the left drawing. What could be the meaning of the colours? (First discuss the questions in grey, before reading the blue passages.)
The images are colourful, set against a red background. Colours are important to the Maasai and have a symbolic meaning. Red is the colour of the strength of youth and masculinity. For that reason warriors, males in their prime, almost always wear red tunics. Red is also the colour of life, love and enthusiasm. The colour of the older generation is violet.
Which moment in the story is depicted here? What striking details do you see and what could be their meaning?
On the left image we see the widow Naomi with her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah on their way to Bethlehem. ‘Shewent away full, but the Lord brings her back empty’ (Ruth 1:21). She has lost her husband (Elimelech ‘my God is king’) and children (Machlon ‘ the sickly’ and Kilyon ‘the weak’). Life has made her bitter (‘mara,’ Ruth 1:20). Dressed in black she thinks that all that is left to her is to go back to her place of birth to die there. Her breast is hanging as a sign that every bit of life is sucked out of her. With tears in her eyes she tries to persuade her daughters-in-law to no longer accompany her and go back to their own country and family to search a new life for themselves. As Orpah and Ruth are widows, they are regarded as ‘prematurely old.’ Young as they may be, they belong already to the older generation. For that reason they are dressed in violet. In the end Orpah listens to her mother-in-law. We see her turn around. Orpah’s name means ‘the one who turns her back.’
Is she therefore damned forever, as Abraham Kuyper asserted? Or will the Lord deal kindly with her, as she dealt kindly to Naomi and her son? This is Naomi’s wish for her (Ruth 1:8). Around her head and neck Orpah wears a blue band. With the Maasai blue is the colour of women, but also the colour of faithfulness – the faithfulness that according to Naomi she has shown.
It is remarkable how little judgement is found within the book of Ruth. Nobody is being accused. It is as if the author wants to say: this is the way life can go. And why? Often we get no answer to that question, although Naomi is of the opinion that God has turned against her (Ruth 1:13 and 1:20-21). That’s why she has lost all courage and hope. But is she right in this? Does the further course of the story not contradict her? The red of the Spirit who gives life already colours the sky. And a calf representing new life draws a tongue of fire on the forehead of Ruth – just like the tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples (Acts 2:3). Also the head- and neckband and belt of Ruth, and even the neckband of Naomi, are made up of not only blue but also of red beads. And the golden glow on both of their faces (Naomi means ‘the shining one’)… Will their lives take a turn for the better after all?
Ruth, whose name means ‘the loyal one,’ is the one who appears in both images. She refuses to turn around, as she cares too much to let Naomi go the path to her grave all by herself. Often only her words ‘your people is my people and your God is my God’ are being quoted without mentioning the words that precede and follow them. Then it seems as if Ruth is full of faith and confidence. But before this she says: ‘Where you go, I will go’ (and according to Naomi this is her grave). And after this: ‘Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me,and more as well,if even death parts me from you!’Not a pleasant perspective! The God she has come to know through Naomi as ‘the Almighty who has brought calamity upon me and who has dealt harshly with me’ (Ruth 1:21) does not seem to be a God you can entrust yourself to. It seems closer to the truth that Ruth is prepared to put up with all insecurity and even with this God if only she does not have to let Naomi go on her own. She swears her loyalty ‘till death do us part.’ ‘So the two of them went on’ (Ruth 1:19) – see also Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:8!
Do you think it is possible to see God’s hand in your life? Perhaps only in retrospect?
See the words ‘as it happened’ in Ruth 2:3. Is there a difference between miracle and coincidence?
Look at the pastel drawing on the right. How are Ruth and Boaz portrayed there? What do the colours and details say?
In the second image we see how Boaz puts an arm around Ruth’s shoulder, when she asks him to what she owes his goodness: that she is not only allowed to pick up the leftovers from his field (the right of the poor and the stranger in Israel, see Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:19-22), but also to join his reapers and eat with them. In his answer he compares her to Abraham. Just like him he she has left her family and country to go to an unknown land (compare with Genesis 12:1-3).
In this way Ruth is given a place in the line of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Abraham embarked on a journey to the promised land of milk and honey, while Ruth is prepared to accompany Naomi even if in that unknown land nothing else awaits her than her death. Could we say that in this she points ahead to Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, who will be born out of her lineage (Ruth 4:17)? The new life that she receives, her son Obed (‘servant’), she attributes to Naomi (‘To Naomi a son is born!’, Ruth 4:17, see also verses 15-16), just as Jesus came to serve and give us new life.
Do you agree with the comparison of Ruth with Jesus?
What parallels and differences do you see between the position of foreigners then and now?
Could we consider the food bank a continuation of the right to glean ears of wheat?
Through her loyalty Ruth fulfils the heart of the Torah. The bag filled with grain on the image reminds us of the stone tables (same grey colour) with the Ten Commandments, which Moses received from God on the drawing preceding those of Ruth. And we see four sheaves of wheat wave festively to all corners of the earth.
Boaz’ coat is white with black. Boaz name means ‘in him is strength,’ so you would expect a red coat, but he wears white, the colour of purity, combined with black, the holy colour at festivals. With this coat Boaz represents the true Israel. With his arm he reaches out to Ruth of Moab, as she is called no less than ten times. The Moabites were the archenemies of Israel. They had violated the nomadic guest right by not coming towards the Israelites with bread and water when they journeyed through the desert.Therefore their descendents were not allowed up until the tenth generation to enter the community of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3-4). But can this apply to a daughter of Moab who in her deeds fulfils the heart of the Torah?
Shortly after Pentecost Peter had to confess to the Roman centurion Cornelius that until then he had thought that it was forbidden to him as a Jew to socialize and eat with a non-Jew. But God made clear to him that he should consider no-one as unholy or unclean, whatever people they belong to. He came to see that anyone who honours God and does justice is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-36). The Spirit of Pentecost is for all peoples. He invites everyone to come and eat the wedding meal with Boaz and Ruth in the kingdom of God.
Final question In Israel the first fruits of the harvest were offered in the temple to God, because the land is essentially the property of God. People had it as it were only on loan. What do you think about this?
This study is prepared by José Verheule, who is a theologian. Before her retirement she worked as a minister in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands.