I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.
Ruth 1:21 | NIV (1984) | Other Versions | Context
Sometimes we witness amazing testimonies and we cannot help but say, thank God that poor man had such a noble wife! Thank God that poor child had such a great father! The book of Ruth is centered around Ruth, but arguably, at least for majority of the story that was recounted in the Bible, Ruth’s life revolved around this woman named Naomi – and reading Ruth 1:21, you would feel like saying, thank God Naomi had such a daughter-in-law! In Ruth 1, we often focus on Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law [Ruth 1:16-17] and overlook Naomi’s bitterness at her own plight. In today’s study, we will examine her sense of bitterness and what God ultimately had in store for her.
I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty – Naomi left Bethlehem with her husband and her two sons [Ruth 1:1]. Her husband died, and her two sons died too. She was left with her daughter-in-laws, but she had intended to separate from them before arriving at Bethlehem. She was expecting to return to Bethlehem alone, but even the unexpected companionship of Ruth did not make the old woman less bitter. To her, perhaps her children were her riches – and in that regard, she was indeed very empty when she returned to where they came from.
Perhaps this emptiness was also symbolic of more than the death of her children. When they left Bethlehem for Moab, it was because Moab had food, while there was a famine in Bethlehem. It was stated that they were intending to stay at Moab only for a while – their initial purpose of going there was just to avoid the crisis. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in their time, 10 years was but a short time, but to me, it’s a period of time that’s almost half my lifetime, and 10 years in modern times must be a significant amount of time, no matter how you look at it. Even if in ancient times, it was a short period of time – after all, people like Moses and Jacob easily spent more than ten years away from where they came from as well – but they had clearly steered from their initial objective. They fled from the famine, but at the same time, they’ve allowed themselves to get comfortable in the foreign land – a foreign, pagan land with other gods [Judges 10:6]. In fact, they’ve gotten so comfortable, that they married Moabite women – foreign women of pagan lands, something that wasn’t pleasing to God. God had struck against Naomi’s husband; God had struck against her sons – likely because of their affiliation to Moab. Naomi probably didn’t mean this, but if she left Bethlehem with a heart full of hope and full of God, she certainly didn’t return with one. Bitterness filled her so much that there’s no room left in her heart for hope or for God, perhaps.
Why call me Naomi? – Naomi means sweet. Or pleasant. Indeed, probably so ironic given her circumstances that it would have been an insult and a mockery to her. I’m Chinese, and it’s quite frequent that you come across people with unfitting names. Like a short person with a name that means Very Tall. Or a chatty person with ‘serene’. It’s hard to hide a chuckle when we think about their names. I think that was what Naomi meant when she said to those who greeted her, don’t call me Naomi, call me Mara instead [Ruth 1:20]. Mara essentially means bitterness, and that was the greatest expression of Naomi’s bitterness – she was bitter, and she knew it enough to ask others to call her bitter.
The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me – Was she really afflicted? Yes – it cannot be argued that she has suffered. After 10 years of childless marriage, her sons died. As a woman without a husband and without a son, she essentially had nothing – no status, no money, no nothing. She could go back and depend on her extended family – people who were related to her and hence obliged to care for her; or she could end up desolate and having to work for her meals – either way, her circumstance was bad.
At that point when Ruth made that stunning declaration – “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” [Ruth 1:16-17] – Naomi should have sensed that her sufferings were about to come to an end. She expected to return to Bethlehem alone, but she had the companionship of Ruth, noble Ruth, loyal Ruth instead. A Moabite woman who treated the God of the Israelites as her God. A Ruth who declared that she will go wherever Naomi goes. Later on in the book, Ruth would follow Naomi instructions to the very letter, even her very ridiculous instruction to ‘sneak attack’ Boaz, but I think by the end of the 4 chapters, ‘Naomi’ was a fitting name for the old woman.
Ruth married Boaz, who was both rich and influential in the city, and they were the parents of Obed, who was the grandfather of David – perhaps the greatest King in the history of the Israelites, and an important name in the genealogy of Jesus. And because of Ruth’s declaration that wherever there is Naomi, there will be Ruth, the reverse works true as well – Ruth’s name appeared in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:5, and because of Ruth, we think of Naomi, who is through Ruth affiliated to the amazing honor of being part of the genealogy of Christ in the end.
She wouldn’t know in her lifetime, for surely by the time David was King, Naomi was long dead. But for us as readers, we get to look on at Naomi’s story and conclude that it ended sweetly.