Ruth: Lesson Three

Returning to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22)

So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them,

            “Call me no longer Naomi,

                        call me Mara,

                        for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.

            I went away full,

                        but the LORD has brought me back empty;

            why call me Naomi

                        when the LORD has dealt harshly with me,

                        and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Is this Naomi? (Ruth 1:19)

When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, the narrator tells us two things happened: the whole city was “stirred” and the women asked, “Is this Naomi?”

What does it mean to say that whole city was stirred. This Hebrew word can mean something positive (1 Kings 1:45; Micah 2:12) or negative (Deuteronomy 7:23; Psalm 55:2). Is the town stirred with a joyous excitement or is the town disturbed by Naomi’s appearance? Or, is it a mixture of both? She has come without husband and sons with whom she left Bethlehem some years. Instead, she arrives with a Moabite woman.

Though the whole city was stirred, it is the women who ask the question among themselves. Perhaps this indicates that Naomi found a welcome among the women or that that is where she naturally first sought shelter or community. It is the women who raise the question, “Is this Naomi?” They knew Naomi before and they are surprised to see her again.

Yet, what is the point of that question? Is it shock or delight? Or perhaps something of both? We might hear shock in the question when we see this as the climax of the story of Naomi’s journey, including leaving Bethlehem with husband and sons but returning without them. Perhaps the narrator, by placing this at the end of this journey, emphasizes Naomi’s tragic circumstance. At the same time, it would not be surprising to hear in this question Naomi’s welcome and the delight of the women of Bethlehem to see her again.

I wonder if both emotions are possible: happy to see her but distressed by her appearance. When Job’s friends decided to go visit Job in order to comfort him, perhaps they were anxious to see him again; perhaps even delighted to see him again. But, at the same time, they were shocked by what they found when they saw him. As they approached him from a distance, “they did not recognize him.” Their response was lament as they “wept aloud” and then sat with him for seven days in silence (Job 2:12-13).

It seems likely that the question “Is this Naomi?” elicits both delight and shock. Bethlehem’s women are both happy to see Naomi again but shocked by her situation and appearance. Naomi returns, but she is not happy. She returns home but comes home empty.

Lament (Ruth 1:20-21)

Naomi rejects her name. While the women ask, “Is this Naomi?,” Naomi refuses the name, which means something like “pleasant.” When she left for Moab, her name was appropriate as she left with a husband and two sons, but now she returns with only a Moabite daughter-in-law. Her life is no longer pleasant but unpleasant. She does not return as one blessed but returns as one seemingly cursed.

We may hear her lament in three stages.

First, she offers a substitute for her name. “Call me Mara,” she says. The Hebrew word means “bitter” as in unpleasant or harsh, perhaps even cheated or filled with angry resentment. The word pictures a broken women who recognizes her situation. It is hopeless. She does not expect to see happiness again (much like Job in Job 7:7).

Mara is her new name because the Almighty has treated her bitterly (the verb form of the noun mara). The Almighty (el shaddai), the one who exercises power in the world without limits, has chosen bitterness for Naomi. This is not the normal name for God in the historical books of the Hebrew Bible. For example, it only occurs nine times in the Torah. However, thirty-one times in Job.

If the use of Shaddai, the parallel of the shock of the women and Job’s friends, and their common tragedies is some indication of the connection between the stories of Ruth and Job, the use of the word mara (bitterness) is another link. Here Job’s pain that parallels the pain of Naomi.

  • Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul (Job 3:20)?
  • I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul (Job 7:11).
  • I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul (Job 10:1)
  • Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning (Job 23:2).
  • As God lives, who has taken away my right, and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter . . . (Job 27:2).

For Naomi, like for Job, God is responsible for her bitter circumstances.

  • Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you (Job 7:20)?
  • Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me (Job 10:8)?
  • Whom among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this (Job 12:9)?
  • Surely God has worn me out; he has made desolate all my company (Job 16:7).
  • God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me (Job 23:16).
  • Because God has loosed my bowstring and humbled me . . . (Job 30:11).
  • You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me (Job 30:21).

Naomi sits on the ash-heap with Job. Both sit in bitterness, and they both acknowledge God’s responsibility for their tragic circumstances.

Her second complaint is the contrast between how she left Bethlehem and how she returned. She left full but has returned empty (for which Yahweh is responsible!). She left with husband and sons but returned only with a Moabite daughter-in-law. Interestingly, what God has done to Naomi (in her perspective) is what Eliphaz (one of Job’s friends) accuses Job of doing: “You have sent widows away empty-handed, and the arms of the orphans you have crushed” (Job 22:9).

At the same time, Yahweh does return Naomi. She returns empty, but she does return. The significance of the word “return” deserves comment (see below). Yahweh brings Naomi back to Bethlehem, her home and the land of promise.

Her third complaint raises the question why anyone would still call her Naomi. Perhaps the women of Bethlehem should have recognized the disconnect between the name Naomi (which means pleasant) and her circumstances. The best name for her now, according to Naomi, is Mara because “the Almighty has brought calamity upon” her.

The term “calamity” also provides some parallels to Job. The verb translated “has brought calamity” is from the Hebrew verb which, literally, means “to do evil.” The Hebrew verb/noun may refer to moral evil, but it may also simply refer to trouble or tragic circumstances. I have highlighted the English word that translates the Hebrew term.

  • Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? (Job 2:10)
  • Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him (Job 2:11).
  • But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came (Job 30:26).
  • They showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him (Job 42:11).

Ruth and Job sit in the same place. They have experienced calamity (trouble), and they both believe God is responsible for their situation.

In his circumstance, Job had no hope. “My eye will never again see good,” Job lamented (Job 7:7). The fog of suffering clouded Job’s vision, and he expected death rather than anything good.

Naomi comes to Bethlehem with a similar vision of life. She has no hope of a husband or more children, as she previously told her daughters-in-law. She does not come home in hope but in despair, lament, and bitterness.

Her life is no longer “pleasant” but “bitter” (mara).

Return (Ruth 1:22)

The Hebrew term for “return” is used twelve times in chapter 1 (1:6-8, 10-12, 15-16, 21-22). While this is a way of talking about physical movement back and forth between Judah and Moab, it is also a theological comment.

“Return” reminds readers within Israel of the return of the people of Israel from exile. In that context, the return means that God welcomes people home (cf. Zephaniah 3:20; Zechariah 10:6,10; Ezra 2:1; 2 Chronicles 6:25). In fact, God is the implied mover behind the return. God may have brought trouble upon Naomi, but now God brings her home. God has brought Naomi home from her exile in Moab.

Moreover, Naomi returns at a time of prosperity, the harvest. The famine is over! Does this portend that Naomi’s fortunes might be reversed? Might her life move from bitterness to pleasantness. If the famine is over for Judah, what does this mean for Naomi?

The answer to that question lies in Ruth the Moabite, who is identified as such five times out the thirteen uses of her name (1:22; 2:2, 21; 4:5, 10). God will bring joy back into the life of Naomi through a Moabite, a barren widow. And that is shocking!

Leave a Reply