Naomi’s story opens with a famine. This famine had come as a judgment from God for their disobedience. It was temporary. They were to endure and humble themselves under God’s discipline. Elimilech, Naomi’s husband, chose to leave. Rather than patiently endure God’s discipline and experience a change of heart with the people of God, he packed up his family and moved to Moab to enjoy the prosperity of a people who worshipped demonic false gods, even offering their children as fuel for their fires of worship. There was bad blood between the Israelites and the Moabites. A race conceived in incest, the Moabites had further distanced themselves from the Jews by their refusal to help the wilderness wanderers when they were going hungry and it was in their power to feed them. Not only that, but they hired a prophet to pronounce a curse on the Israelites. The tension between the two groups was so severe at the time when the law was recorded that the children born out of a union of an Israelite and a Moabite would be excluded from entering into Israel’s religious assembly for up to 10 generations. In moving to Moab, they were essentially leaving the promised land. They were leaving the people of God. They were leaving behind the worship of God. They were choosing the prospect of wealth over the presence of God.
While they lived in Moab, Elimelech died and his two sons married Moabite women. The book of Ruth tells us that about 10 years later, both of Naomi’s sons died, leaving Naomi alone. Alone in a nation that had promised life, but had delivered nothing but death.
The story continues that she hears God has blessed the land of Judah with good crops again. Naomi decides that there is nothing left for her in the foreign land of Moab, so she gets ready and starts the long journey back home, accompanied part of the way by her newly widowed and pagan daughter-in-laws. I can’t imagine how quiet that journey had to have been, each woman suffocating under the weight of her own grief. There are moments in life that are so painful that it’s all we can do to just breathe. I imagine that was where these three women were. Just trying to breathe over the ache in their hearts. Part way into the journey, Naomi blesses her daughter-in-laws and kisses them. They weep. They ask her if they can go with her to her own people. Naomi turns them down. She knew that the men of Israel would be wary of marrying a Moabite, especially one who was already a widow. According to their law, their first son with that wife would essentially be the heir of her deceased husband. That child would inherit the land of his mother’s first husband. Not too many men would be willing to sign up for that, especially with a Moabite. Naomi knew their prospects would be very bleak if they went all the way back with her, so she sends them away again. She tells them, “Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord has raised his fist against me.” Her perspective here is interesting. How often do we rage at God for our circumstances when they are the direct result of our acting against what He has revealed to us? Yet that is where Naomi was. Angry at God. At this point in the story, one of the daughters leaves to go back to her parents and her gods. The other one stays. Her name is Ruth. Ruth’s name means “refreshment, saturation, fullness.” She begs Naomi not to send her away. She promises Naomi that she will go with her wherever she goes. Naomi’s people will be Ruth’s people. Naomi’s God, Ruth’s God. She tells her that only death will separate them. At this point, you’d expect Naomi to respond to this pledge of undying loyalty, but she does not. She says nothing. She just continues on her journey in silence with Ruth by her side.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, it is not the homecoming she would have imagined when she first set out with her husband for Moab. Unlike the patriarchs who came home with wives, sons, daughters, servants and flocks, Naomi was returning with less than what she set out with. She left home with a husband and two sons and what she thought were bright prospects. She came home with nothing but a foreign daughter in law and no hope for a future.
The women of Bethlehem come out to greet her. “Is it really Naomi?” they ask. This part of the story always makes me think of the prodigal son. In spite of her family leaving them all behind to weather the famine, in spite of her cutting them all off for so many years, the moment she comes home, she is surrounded by her people. They come rushing out to meet her. Yet, in her pain she can’t see it. Naomi replies, “Don’t call me Naomi. Instead call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me.” She changed her name from one that meant “sweet/pleasant” to one that meant “bitter.” One of my favorite parts of this book are the very next words, inspired by God, and recorded as scripture. It says, “So Naomi returned from Moab…” I love that God still calls her Naomi. Not once does He address her as Mara. We can call ourselves anything we want. We can change our names. Other people can label us whatever they want, but the only one with the right to name us is God, and he still calls her Naomi.
If you are familiar with the book of Ruth, you know how the rest of this story unfolds. Ruth goes out to pick the leftover barley and wheat at harvest time. The field she happens to be working in belongs to a relative of Elimilech, a relative that happens to be positioned to “redeem” their family by marrying Ruth. This man showers kindness and provision on Ruth, and also on Naomi because of Ruth’s love for her.
Shortly after their marriage, Boaz and Ruth have a child. They name him Obed. The Bible tells us that Obed was like a son to Naomi. The last snapshot we see of Naomi in the book of Ruth is one of her with her arms full. She is cradling this child to her heart. She is surrounded by a community of women who love her. Naomi’s friends cry out, “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel.” Little did Naomi know how prophetic those words were. Little did she know who she held in her arms. She was holding the grandfather of King David. She was holding a baby boy from the tribe of Judah. His lineage would go all the way down to another baby boy, born in Bethlehem at the fulness of time, and this boy, this man, would be the redeemer that God had provided not just for her family, but for the world.
Life can be so hard. Naomi’s story shows that very clearly. There can be grief so deep that we are left with no words, just trying to breathe. But there is also comfort for the people of God. We don’t walk alone. He sends us glimmers of hope along the way. He sends us comfort and love in the form of people who don’t give up on us.
Do you find yourself you somewhere in-between Moab and Bethlehem? Are you walking a road in quiet pain, just trying to take one more step? Have you declared your life to be empty? Do you feel that God is working against you? What name have you given yourself? Bitter? Broken? Hopeless? Alone? Naomi was there. She saw herself as abandoned and alone. In her pain, she couldn’t see her Ruth, right beside her. She called herself empty when “fullness” was walking next to her every step. She could not see that she had a loyal, faithful friend who had pledged to never leave her…never forsake her. Naomi was hurting, but she was anything but alone.
Though Naomi’s story begins with famine, it ends with a harvest. It begins with death, but it ends with life. It begins with deep sadness, but it ends with overwhelming joy. Her story is our story. Girls, for the people of God, no matter how dark things may look right now, our stories end with radiant light. No matter how abandoned you feel, not for a moment has He ever left you alone. And no matter what you’ve done, you can still come home. There is redemption and life ahead. No matter where you’ve been. He waits for you. His people wait for you. Come home.
*My blogs are written with the assumption that they are being read primarily by Christians. If you want to know more about what it means to be a Christian or about the gospel of Jesus Christ, click the link here:The Gospel