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Meditation

Heart Language

The biblical writers mean to speak to our “hearts,” which is, in the metaphorical physiology of the Bible, the locus of cognition, spiritual vision, and will. Probably the closest equivalent term in contemporary English is imagination. But when the words of the Bible are read quickly, with no particular thought to their meaning (as often happens in worship services), this carefully crafted heart language cannot do its intended work of engaging and even transforming our imaginations.

In a commentary on the book of Ruth that is both verbal and visual, printmaker Margaret Adams Parker and I seek to slow down readers (and viewers!) in order to re-establish the connection between heart and text. My (original) annotated translation is designed to give something of the experience of reading this seemingly simple tale in Hebrew and discovering its many subtle nuances. Artistic representations of Ruth are often romanticized, making a superficial appeal to the imagination, but Parker’s 20 stark woodcuts reveal the tragedy and the tension in this account of the death and resurrection of a family within a community of smallholder farms. Visual commentary on Scripture that probes the text deeply can play a crucial interpretive role particularly in our time, when many Christians are more adept at reading sophisticated images than complex texts.

Parker’s portrait of Naomi evokes the line “And the woman was left without her two boys and without her husband” (1:5). The reference to “boys” suggests how the loss of adult sons feels to their mother, especially since they died without issue—as children themselves, genealogically speaking. The portrait shows the gaunt face, the bony clenched hand, and the sagging breasts of the woman who is “empty,” as she says bluntly, because “Shaddai has done me evil” (1:21). When Naomi uses that rare divine name, the alert Hebrew speaker might hear a pun, as shaddai also means “my breasts.” Could this be a wry allusion to how Naomi sees her own body, once a source of life and joy, now emptied by these three deaths? A group of indigenous Christian women in the Peruvian Andes spoke out their own experience in response to the raw physicality of this image: “She looks hungry.”

A second woodcut comments on the line “And they lifted up their voice and wept still more” (1:14). While the phrasing is standard biblical idiom, the image underscores the fact that weeping aloud is a fully embodied action. In my translation, I mimic the Hebrew by rendering “voice” in the singular; in complementary fashion, Parker portrays the three women as one solid body of grief and love. Moreover, it is impossible to distinguish one from the others. Two are young and one is old—but which? One will leave Naomi and one will “stick by” her—but which? A young Jewish woman in Jerusalem looked at the image, and her eyes filled with tears: “They are like a tree.” She saw in the three intertwined figures an image of hope: the trunk is living, and new life will somehow spring from it.

Since Parker and I had each worked on the book of Ruth before beginning our collaboration, we initially expected that the woodcuts and the annotated translation would be quick work. In fact, the project took well over two years, as together we considered different readings of the text, as translation and verbal interpretation influenced visual interpretation and vice versa. In the end, the commentary we produced reflects a story that is far more complex—emotionally, literarily, and theologically—than either of us had imagined we would find in this little book. Ruth may well be “the still small voice” in the Hebrew Bible. It attests to God’s presence and action, not in the great dramatic events of sacred history, but rather in the ordinary yet profound agonies and joys of people living together in “good-faith,” the covenant virtue this book illumines.

 

These images are taken from the book Who Are You, My Daughter? Reading Ruth through Image and Text (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). In this annotated and illustrated translation of the book of Ruth, Ellen Davis and Margaret Adams Parker demonstrate how translation and art can be complementary forms of biblical interpretation. The three components of the book—translation, notes, and images—explore the story of Ruth as one of suffering and loss redeemed by steadfast faithfulness. The translation is loyal to the original; the notes reflect on Ruth’s story, literary form, lexical choices, and theological meaning; and the woodcuts provide a stimulating running narrative.