Opening Prayer: Our Father, I ask that you would be with us now by your Holy Spirit, your Word is sharper than any two-edged sword, and therefore we ask that you would cut us open. Reveal our hearts, expose our sins, and make us more like Jesus that we may share in his life and be equipped to serve those around us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen!
We noted last week that Elimelech had all the appearances of faithlessness. This week we consider the significant contrast between Ruth and Naomi.
Naomi is Israel
Notice how the trek back to Bethlehem proceeds: Naomi and her daughter in-laws begin to return to Judah (1:7), and only after this journey has begun, does Naomi send Orpah and Ruth back. This creates a double meaning to the word “return.” The word “return” is used 12 times in Ruth 1 and just three other times in the book. Return may mean going back to Bethlehem or going back to Moab. Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth are between the lands, and this creates a sort of wilderness situation between Moab and the Promised Land. Remember that Israel came out of Egypt a “mixed multitude” and now Naomi has too, but instead of welcoming the gentiles, she seeks to send them home. Notice that Naomi’s attempt at getting Ruth and Orpah to turn back to their “mothers’ houses” is based upon arguments that specifically remind us of Sarah. She says that there are no more children in her womb, meaning that her womb is past child bearing. She also says that she is too old for a husband. Finally, she insists that even if she had a husband and could bear children, even if she conceived twin sons that very night, Ruth and Orpah don’t want to wait for them. It’s impossible, Naomi says. And Naomi stands for Israel in the days of the judges when they have despaired in their sins.
Ruth is Israel
But God visits his people with salvation through sometimes surprising means. Somehow Ruth has come to know Yahweh despite the dysfunctional family she married into, and she is determined to “cling” to Naomi (1:14). This is the same word used to describe the way a man is to cling to his wife (Gen. 2:24), but this language is also used in Deuteronomy to contrast faithfulness (4:4, 10:20, 11:22, 13:4, 30:20) and unfaithfulness (13:17, 28:21, 28:60). The calling of Israel has been to fight idolatry and assimilate gentile believers into their midst but to make no covenant with unbelievers (Dt. 7:2). The irony is that while Naomi’s family disobeyed and made marriage covenants with Moabite women, Ruth is a gentile who is “clinging” to Naomi in order that she might “cling” to God (1:16-17). And now Naomi is trying to send Ruth back to her pagan family, back to her “gods” (1:15). She doesn’t mind gentiles when they might bring her something in return, but she tries to get rid of them when they don’t seem to serve a helpful purpose. Nevertheless, Ruth swears loyalty to Naomi, Israel, and to the God of Israel, and she “returns” from the country of Moab (1:22). This is all the more striking because she is a member of a people that God has cursed vehemently (Dt. 23:3-6). Naomi can only speak about her bitterness, but Ruth binds herself in a marriage-like covenant to Yahweh and his people. Ruth is doing what Naomi and Israel should have been doing all along. The pagan is more righteous than the Israelite. In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth is found in the “Writings”, amidst the Wisdom Literature, and one easy connection is this contrast between Naomi and Ruth, a woman of folly and a woman of wisdom (compare Pr. 9:13, 14:1 with 1:20, 9:1-6, 31:10ff).
Conclusions & Applications
While Ruth is clinging to what God has given to her, Naomi is clinging to her bitterness (1:8, 13, 20-21). Bitterness, Hebrews says, is a root that when it is grown defiles many (12:15), and bitterness, Moses insists, is the opposite of the covenant loyalty required by God (Dt. 29:14-18).
In one sense, we are always “returning” somewhere. Our lives are full of turns and returns. The only question is to where are we turning, where are we returning to? The word “return” is important in Scripture because the most important “turn” is the turning of repentance (e.g. Ez. 18:30-32). Ruth shows us an example of tenacious and heartfelt repentance. Naomi shows us an example of expedient repentance. Who are you?
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!
Closing Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you that you have not turned away from us, but you have come near us in Jesus and that you have given us his Spirit. Give us new hearts, O God, turn us and we will be turned. Give us new spirits, and we will be saved. Turn us that we may live. And we ask in particular that you would deal with us. Root out our sins, dig out our bitterness, and cast far away from us. Give us courage and grace to cling to you and never let go. And we ask this in the strong name of Jesus who taught us to pray, singing…
Matthew N. Petersen says
A couple of things troubled me about this yesterday.
Most troubling was the condemnation of Naomi for bitterness. But I find it hard to see that. She does say “bitter” several times, and it does echo Dt. 29:14-18, but it isn’t in reference to herself, nor do I see that she has become a bitter root–she later spends time lifting up Ruth and finding her bread not poisoning her. I think rather that we should see her talk about bitterness as in the same line as Job and David’s accusation that the Lord has been unfaithful to him, and a plea that He would return to His faithfulness. The implicit charge in her changing her name is that YHVH has broken his covenant promises and become a root producing bitter fruit.
But obviously if I’m going to speak highly of Naomi by then I am also troubled with your earlier discussion of her.
You said that it was wrong for Naomi and her husband to flee Bethlehem because there was no bread. But it seems to me that there is an echo of another woman named bitterness who fled Bethlehem, this time to Egypt, because there was poison, not bread, in Bethlehem.
The parallel between Mara and Maria though does not establish that Naomi was in the right to leave, but it does indicate that she is not necessarily wrong to do so.
And in a sense it seems that the fact that her sons took daughters from Moab proves that she was not entirely correct. But again, her sons did not choose poorly. One choose Ruth, and the other chose Orpah who though she did not posses the tenacity of Ruth, did at first refuse to remain in Moab, and seems to have been a worshiper of YHVH, at least till she returned to Moab.
And in fact, the loyalty of Ruth seems to suggest that far from choosing poorly, her sons had been evangelizing the gentiles, thus foreshadowing the Christian’s flight from Jerusalem when there was no peace in Jerusalem.
Nor do I see the great fault in telling her daughters to return. Yes, it was not perfect, but she was absolutely empty, and had absolutely nothing to offer them. Her God had abandoned her, had dealt bitterly with her, and I can’t imagine her being anything but very very discouraged and frustrated. And her appeal says “I want you with me, but I am dead and your death. Since I am death, do not cling to me.” Perhaps we should read it to say she is acting out of selfish motives, but the text does not tip us off that she is, nor to her actions. Yes it was not perfect for her to send her daughter in law back to life rather than encouraging her to embrace death and emptiness (though can we say that even the Apostles would have done better? Can we say that we in her situation would have done any better?), but I don’t see a reason to see it for anything more than it seems to be.
Matthew N. Petersen says
I know that last post wasn’t phrased perfectly, but I’m really having trouble with a lot of these claims.
I really dislike making scriptural characters villans, partularly when they are vindicated in the story. I think we should come in believing all things, and hoping all things, not skeptically doubting the characters.
I know Jim Wilson really goes after Naomi in How to be Free From Bitterness, and a lot of what you say here is echoing him, but I think that he is seriously misguided.
“She was comparing in order to determine who had the right to be more bitter.”
No she wasn’t. “It grieves me very much for your sakes that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me!” Can a mother not be grieved for her daughter’s sake that calamity has come upon her without us mistrusting her? Must we attack her with Bildad for her affliction? Can we not comfort the widow in her affliction?
“Her bitterness was toward God. It was God who had taken away her husband; it was God who had taken away her sons, and she held it against Him. Five times in these three verses she held God accountable for her bitterness.”
But the problem is she hadn’t ever said she was bitter, nor did the text. She charged God with bitterness, with covenant unfaithfulness, but we are going beyond what is written if we say that she was bitter. “Why are you so far from the words of my groaning.” “Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves.” “It grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD is gone out against me.” “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?”
(It is worth noting that her name does not mean “pleasant” but “my darling”. Thus she is not saying “I am not pleasant, I am bitter.” She is saying “I am not treated as a beloved, but I have been afflicted, and have become a curse to my family.”)
And it seems the trajectory of the book is from the empty Naomi, befreinded by the empty Ruth, to the full Naomi, saved by the Ruth who is better than seven sons. Naomi is emptied and charges God with wrong doing, and he hears, and sends a kinsman redeemer, and fills her again. As He did for David his servant.
But, as you have pointed out, there are perhaps textual reasons to think Naomi was in the wrong prior to returning to Bethlehem.
First, she and Elimelek Ephrathite, left Bethlehem, for a type of Egypt. They left the house of bread to find bread, they left the one who provides Manna to find Manna.
And they may have been wrong. But “out of Egypt have I called my Son.” Naomi was not the only one named bitterness to flee Bethlehem because there was no bread. Joseph and his wife also fled Bethlehem for Egypt, and remained there till they heard there was again bread in Israel.
The parallel between Naomi’s flight from Bethelehem and her daughter’s does not imply that Naomi was as correct as Maria, but it should give us some pause in condemning her.
Moreover, when they flee from the land of peace to Moab, they do not become Moabites, but make the Moabites Jews. Obviously Ruth becomes a Jewess, but also it seems Orpha is loyal to Naomi, and would not leave her. And so it seems that her flight from the land of peace is a foreshadowing of the flight from the city of peace following the martyrdom of Stephen.
And so I have trouble condemning her family as disfunctional. They fled from Bethlehem because there was no bread. As did the Holy Family. They fled from the land of peace because there was no peace. But thereby, as did the Christians fleeing Jerusalem, brought the Gospel to the Nations.
And particularly I see no reason to suppose that she has bad motives for sending Orpha and Ruth home. Even if she is saying “Do not come with me, I return home to starve and die in Israel, do not come with me, you too will starve”, is that wrong? Would it be wrong if she is sending them away because she doesn’t think she has enough food to feed them?
Yes, it is wrong for her to send them back to Moab, but again, we must remember that everything she says is absolutely true, and she does have nothing to offer them. God has dealt bitterly with them. He has been less faithful to her than her Moabite daughters have been. They, gentiles of Moab, have blessed Israel, while the God of Israel has afflicted her bitterly, forgetting his promises. And it is only through the extreme loyalty to Naomi, to Naomi even in her death, that YHVH is again faithful.
In short, I don’t think we should see Naomi and her family as faithless or foolish. Her sons chose wisely. Particularly the one who married Ruth, but even the one who married Orpha chose a loyal daughter, just not one that will cling to her new family, forsaking her old, when her new family is nothing but a grave. And Naomi is not bitter, but charging God with bitterness, with covenant unfaithfulness.
Thank you for your thoughtful interaction. I certainly appreciate your questions.
Just a brief response for now:
First, emphasizing the frustration, bitterness, and emptiness of Naomi is not a condemnation of her character through and through. Rather, it is to point out the fact that believers are sinners too. Believers make poor decisions, are faithless at times, and face hardships. Lot was a righteous man the writer of Hebrews tells us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t accuse him of gross failure as a father and a husband. Righteous people sometimes fail miserably.
Second, I would heartily agree that the beginning of the story is all set up for the end of the story. And that’s really my purpose in emphasizing the emptiness, barrenness, and bitterness of Naomi and her family. It’s not that she’s “really trying hard” despite her circumstances, and eventually she pulls through. She’s at the end of her rope, everything is unraveling, and in the midst of that, God visits his people. In the midst of her misery and hopelessness, God sends a kinsman-redeemer. The story is about Naomi being brought up out of the pit, but in order to see that great salvation, it seems necessary to describe and experience the pit.
I hope that helps explain some of what I think is going on here.
Of course it was Peter who described Lot as “righteous” (2 Pet. 2:7-8) not Hebrews.
Matthew N. Petersen says
I agree that she is brought out of a pit by a kinsman redeemer. And I also agree that it is important to describe the pit. But I’m not sure that it’s quite the moral pit you say it is.
The Paschal story too starts in a pit, and the Hero is raised out of it by His Kinsman-Redeemer, the Spirit, but His story, obviously, does not include any moral failure.
And I think something similar is going on with Naomi. Obviously, unlike her Son, she isn’t perfect, and we can point, but I think the pit she is in is not a moral one, but precisely that she has lost all. Stabat Mater dolorosa. Her pit is more like the Theotokos’ was on Good Friday than Judas’ or even St. Peter’s.