Many years ago, I was commissioned to paint the Old Testament account of Ruth and Naomi. My client had many excellent ideas about how the two women should be depicted. I felt deeply impressed, however, that this was not the direction the Lord wanted me to take. When I begin any religious painting, I start by researching, praying, and on many occasions, fasting. Three years later I was blessed with the concept for this painting, Whither Thou Goest.
I felt that the imagery of the journey to Bethlehem was deeply symbolic of the journey each of us must take in mortality. Ruth, in the extremity of their adversity, reaches up and covers them both with her cloak, just as Christ’s enabling power blankets each of us. In Aramaic the word atone means “to embrace.” I am grateful for that grace, that enabling power associated with change and renewal of the human soul.
The Lord intends everything in the Old Testament to bring us to Christ. As our goal in life is to “come unto Christ and be perfected in him,” the Old Testament becomes a precious and invaluable guidebook.
How does the story of faithful Ruth and Naomi help bring us to Christ?
The Story of Ruth is the quintessential parable about the Atonement.
Suffering from famine, Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, leave their home in Bethlehem, along with their two sons, to find bread in the land of Moab. For generations the Moabites have been enemies of Israel, even though they are kin to Israel, being descended from Lot, the nephew of Abraham. In Moab, Elimelech dies; the two sons marry and then die, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, in misery.
Hearing there is bread once again in Bethlehem (intriguingly, the name Bethlehem means “house of bread”), Naomi decides to return to her homeland. She discourages her daughters-in-law from coming with her, as she knows that having no husband or sons, she will be reduced to poverty. “Go, return each to your mother’s house,” she tells them. Orpah goes “back unto her people, and unto her gods.” Ruth, however, refuses to return: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
Ruth renews the covenant she made with God in marrying the son of Naomi. It is in her faithfulness to the covenants she makes with God that Ruth demonstrates her virtue.
In ancient times, having “virtue” meant having the strength and courage to be faithful to one’s covenants. The Hebrew word we translate as virtue, chayil¸ did not have the connotation it has today of moral purity — although by definition virtue encompasses moral purity. Virtue was a larger concept than that: it meant faithfulness to the promises one makes to God. This is why Ruth is known by the city of Bethlehem as a “virtuous woman.” In marrying Naomi’s son, she has taken upon herself the covenants of Israel and is determined to keep them in accordance with the commandment of the Lord: “If a woman also vow a vow unto the Lord, and bind herself by a bond… all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand… These are the statutes, which the Lord commanded Moses, between a man and his wife.” Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law stems not only from her love for Naomi, but also from her determination not to return to the gods of Moab; to honor her commitment to the God of Israel.
In keeping her covenants, Ruth faces hardship. She could have returned to her parents and lived securely, and in gathering with Israel she knows she will live without that security and will be reduced to gleaning the fields alongside the poor. Her mother-in-law has returned to Bethlehem with nothing: “I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty.” But Ruth is determined to do her part by her mother-in-law and goes to the field to glean food for them both.
While gleaning, Ruth encounters Boaz, the lord of the field, who looks upon her with favor and invites her to glean only on his property: “Go not to glean in another field, neither go from hence, but abide here… When thou art athirst, go unto the vessels, and drink.” Ruth finds in Boaz what the saints find in the Savior: that if we stay close to Him, remaining faithful only to Him, He provides bread and water for our souls.
Ruth bows to him and asks: “Why have I found grace in thine eyes, that thou shouldest take knowledge of me, seeing I am a stranger?”
“And Boaz answered and said unto her, It hath full been shewed me all that thou hast done unto thy mother –in- law since the death of thine husband… the Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.”
Because of her faithfulness, the Lord brings Ruth under the protection of “the mighty man” Boaz, whose name means strength. Although she has lost everything and comes destitute into the house of Israel, her trust in the Lord God of Israel restores her.
To those like Ruth who give up so much to follow the Savior, there are great rewards in store. When we are confronted with loss, the compensations of the Spirit are greater than any compensation the world can make.
Encouraged, Naomi instructs Ruth to go to Boaz and claim the redemptive promises of the covenants of Israel: to ask him to “spread his skirt” over her because he is a “near kinsman.” So Ruth washes and anoints herself and dresses to meet with Boaz.
Ruth’s actions must be understood in light of the great covenant of redemption. Having lost her husband, Ruth has claim on her husband’s near kin according to the Law of Moses to preserve and protect her as a family member and even to raise-up a family by her. The Hebrew word gaon, here translated as kinsman, actually means redeemer. By the Law, “The wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife.”
So Ruth’s request of Boaz was perfectly in keeping with the law of the Lord. Boaz, as her dead husband’s near kin, has the responsibility to redeem Ruth, to marry and cherish and love her.
The action of “spreading the skirt” was anciently a token of atonement, or redemption, as the following indicates: “It was the custom for one fleeing for his life in the desert to seek protection in the tent of a great sheik… whereupon the Lord would place the hem of his robe over the guest’s shoulder and declare him under his protection… This puts him under the Lord’s protection from all enemies. They embrace in a close hug, as Arab chiefs still do; the Lord makes a place for him and invites him to sit down beside him — they are at-one. This is the imagery of the Atonement, the embrace.”
As Boaz “spreads his skirt” over Ruth, we are reminded of the “wings of the Lord God of Israel,” in which Ruth had come to trust. We are also reminded of the beautiful imagery of 2 Nephi 1:15: “Behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; …I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.” Because Ruth has remembered to observe the Lord’s statutes, she is redeemed and made one with the Lord’s people. She is married to Boaz and gives birth to Obed, grandfather of King David and an ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus the story of Ruth is a beautiful parable of the Atonement. To be at one with our Savior is to have him “spread the skirt” over us, to take us in his embrace and declare that we belong to him. This is the consummate act of redemption. Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, my daughter, fear not; I will do to thee all that thou requirest: for all the city… doth know that thou art a virtuous woman.” Like Ruth, we become “virtuous” — that is, worthy of the Atonement of Christ — through our faithfulness to our covenants even in the face of hardship. Regardless of the difficulties we encounter in remaining faithful, we must remember that Jesus Christ will not fail to honor His covenants with us. He will gather us to Himself as Boaz cared for Ruth, and as Ruth cared for Naomi “as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings.” In Isaiah 49:15-16 it eloquently states: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.
Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.”
Through efficacious power God compensates our losses. C.S. Lewis describes it this way: “Ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective…All this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering,” No future bliss can make up for it, “not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory…The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven…And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here…the blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.”…
“Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin observed, “The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss. That which is taken away from those who love the Lord will be added unto them in His own way. While it may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude” (Come what may, and love it, Ensign 2008).
Please allow me to share a letter I received from a client in Tuscon, Arizona. It deeply touched my heart:
“Dear Sandy, since first seeing this painting in the Ensign I have been drawn to it again and again. I love this painting…it talks to me, as I am sure it does to others.
I ‘Googled’ your name in all sorts of ways, talked with a gallery that shows your work, and read with great interest about your children who had cancer. I can tell that your children touch the lives of many.
Then this morning, I Googled the name of the painting and found your e-mail and have to share with you my love for the painting and your talent.
My hope is that you have some prints of this painting or, perhaps, you will show it here in Tucson, where I can sit and meditate on its message and beauty.
My husband and I are from the Intermountain West, and are semi-retired in Tucson. I am an operating room nurse and have been since 1964. There are about 10 of us in my age group at St. Joe’s who still work a few shifts a week and we love our profession as you do yours. Your painting talks to every part of my life woman, mother, wife, nurse, daughter and daughter-in-law.
My father died when I was 10 and my mother when I was 30. But I did get to care for my in-laws for many years. Your Ruth is like my Helen. I hope my hands held her as well as your Naomi. Look how they cherished one another. I see wisdom courage, strength, love, respect, admiration, nursing, teaching…on and on.
Thank you for this painting. You have brought to canvas one of the greatest stories in scripture, as Ruth and Esther are the only biblical books named for women, timely stories always.
I may not be able to afford your canvas, but I do have the copy from the Ensign on my locker. It is there for all to share.
Thank you again,
Warmest Regards…I hope all is well with you and yours,
Tucson, Arizona (2011)
I share this letter because through the grace and mercy of our Lord and Savior we each share vital roles in the kingdom of God. As President Uchtdorf has said: “We Are the Hands of Christ. When I think of the Savior, I often picture Him with hands outstretched, reaching out to comfort, heal, bless, and love. And He always talked with, never down to, people. He loved the humble and the meek and walked among them, ministering to them and offering hope and salvation.
That is what He did during His mortal life; it is what He would be doing if He were living among us today; and it is what we should be doing as His disciples and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Our thoughts and hearts are drawn to Him—the Hope of Israel and the Light of the World. As we emulate His perfect example, our hands can become His hands; our eyes, His eyes; our heart, His heart” (April 2010).