“Do not call me Naomi (i.e., pleasant or sweet), call me Mara (i.e., bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has afflicted me (i.e., testified against me) and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” Ruth 1:20-21
The story of Ruth and Naomi is a fascinating look into the human heart and our differing responses to hardship and tragedy. It’s a fascinating look at how some blame God, some have pity-parties and some just forge on ahead. The redemptive thread weaves itself through the whole thing, and the ending is more moving than a Saturday Hallmark love story.
This was the time of the Judges, Israel had arrived in their promised land, but failed to follow through on the conquest. Joshua was gone and they did not yet have a king. We are told “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) and it was a time of compromise and confusion amongst the people. They were warned repeatedly to stop following idols and continually refused the instructions of the Lord. It’s no surprise then, that the book of Ruth opens with Naomi and her family wandering into enemy territory in search of relief from a drought. We are told they remain in Moab about ten years, long enough for Naomi’s sons to take Moabite wives and begin a new life.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Naomi loses her husband and both sons. She is left in a foreign country with only her daughters-in-law. Naomi pleads with them to leave her, for she is old and convinced the Lords hand is against her (Ruth 1:14). While the first daughter-in-law leaves, we are told Ruth clung to Naomi and refused to go. This agitated Naomi so much apparently that when she saw how determined Ruth was to remain with her she “stopped speaking to her” (v.18). This makes me chuckle. Ruth is determined to remain faithful to her mother-in-law, to the point where she will uproot herself and move to a foreign land.
Their return to Bethlehem should be a somewhat happy time, we are told it’s the beginning of the harvest and that the entire city was excited to see Naomi coming home (v 19). Clearly, she was no insignificant woman if years later so many people were gathering to welcome her home. When they inquired after her though, saying “is this Naomi?” her response is nothing short of depressing: “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (v. 20).
She up and changed her name from “delightful” to “bitter”. It’s understandable, to some extent, the woman is returning from her exile childless and husbandless, and she has a firm belief that God has orchestrated all of this. I don’t think its a black and white issue, but probably a mix of many factors. Israel as a whole had been living in disobedience and there were consequences to those choices. Famine was one of them. What Naomi couldn’t see past was that the daughter-in-law she tried to shoo away was going to be a huge part of her story, which (contrary to what she believed) was not over just yet.
Naomi and her family were forced out of their homeland by a drought. They sought refuge in a foreign land with foreign people. It’s easy to point and say they never should have left or married into a pagan culture in the first place. Sin has far reaching consequences, though doesn’t it? The famine was a natural consequence of Israel’s disobedience which the people brought on themselves. Naomi’s initial response to cry ‘woe is me’ is understandable, but not helpful. I love how Ruth sticks by her regardless of Naomi’s pleas to basically leave her for dead. Sometimes, we can’t see the forest for the trees and we need someone by our side to listen and say “no… I’m not leaving you, we are going to get through this.”
Instead of arguing whether God intended or even initiated these events, I think it’s more helpful to look at the bigger picture: when circumstances go wildly off the rails, the God of the universe isn’t for one single second fretting about how to fix it. He wove the story of Ruth and Naomi so masterfully, we cannot help but be in awe of His desire to redeem and restore what we have knotted up and seemingly wrecked.
I feel so incredibly sad for Naomi and her circumstances, but her spiral into a pity-party is a warning to us. Fainting onto the couch and calling ourselves ‘bitter’ is not helpful. God was for her the entire time, regardless of what may have happened to her, she just refused to see it. Thankfully she had a Ruth by her side who refused to let her go down like that. We need people like this in our lives who stubbornly stand by us no matter our level of crazy, and we also need to be the friend who stands strong when someone is crumbling.
I have a confession: I struggle with people who choose to wallow in their circumstances instead of getting up and joining God. I want to be a friend like Ruth, but sometimes I feel like that other daughter-in-law who headed for the hills. It can suck the life out of you if you let it, which is neither Biblical nor helpful. I love Ruth’s relentlessness with Naomi, her refusal to let any of the negativity affect her. She had something inside her that understood the bigger picture, and I want to be able to point people to that.
What should keep us going then when we or someone in our life just want to throw in the towel and dwell in the bitter barn? The closing verses of the book of Ruth are my answer:
“The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him.The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Ruth 4:14-17
Can you even believe the beauty in this? The townspeople are gathered around Naomi marveling at how blessed and redeemed she now is. She is holding her grandson, who will be in direct lineage to the Savior Himself. It’s almost too much to take in. The focus isn’t even on faithful Ruth, the focus at the end of the book is on Naomi, who is restored. What a beautiful thing that her little pity-party was interrupted by a true friend. Bitterness has turned to beauty and the beginnings of an even bigger story have just begun to unfold.
God can weave redemption where there was disobedience. May we know when we need to stubbornly cling to people who have given up. May we likewise never, ever rename ourselves ‘bitter’ as a result of our own painful circumstances, but look to the God who knows how to weave redemption into everything.