We meet Naomi in the very first chapter of the book of Ruth. Naomi and her husband Elimalech, along with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, left the land of Judah because there was a famine in the land. Elimalech took his little family to Moab.
There, they settled down. After some time, Elimalech died and Naomi’s two sons married Moab girls- Orpah and Ruth. Although marrying women who were not Israelites was strictly forbidden, it is obvious from the first chapter, that Naomi loved these young women and they had a good relationship.
About 10 years went by and then both of Naomi’s sons died, leaving Naomi, as the Scriptures says, bereft. Bereft has an interesting meaning – “to be left over.” Naomi certainly felt “left over.” In that time period, women could not own property, so Naomi, Orpah and Ruth had no way to support themselves or even, really, a place to live. Naomi, living in a foreign land, had no relatives to help her either.
At first, both Orpah and Ruth were going to go with her, but Naomi tries to send them back, saying that they really shouldn’t go with her because God had turned His hand against her. Neither woman would go back. She gives them a blessing as she tries to send them back home. Naomi probably knows that the women will not get a warm reception in Juday where Moabites were pretty much loathed.
So, Naomi tries a different tactic – she tells them she is too old to bear more sons for them to marry. This bit of information tells us that neither Orpah or Ruth had had children. In that culture, if a man died without producing any children, his brother could marry and have a child with his wife and that child would be like the dead man’s son.
Finally, Orpah, with many tears, goes back home. Ruth, however, refuses to leave her mother-in-law. This is the famous verse that many people use in their weddings. “But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”
By declaring that the Israelites would be her people, Ruth was in essence declaring that God – Jehovah – would also be her God. Obviously, what she had seen in Naomi’s own faith had drawn her to this God of the Israelites.
So, Naomi and Ruth make the dangerous journey back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. I don’t know if Naomi was hoping she could slip back home without much notice, but that isn’t what happened. Her return was all the buzz around town.
When old friends say, Oh Naomi, is that you? Naomi answers for them to call her Mara, which means bitterness. She goes on to say, ““I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?”
Naomi was somewhat bitter about her circumstances. She felt God had abandoned her, even perhaps felt she was being punished because they had gone to live in a pagan land and her sons had married pagan women.
However, despite her own bitterness and sorrow over her circumstances, Naomi immediately started trying to look out for Ruth’s interests. She knew Boaz was her husband’s relative and as such, he could be a kinsman redeemer. The kinsman-redeemer is a male relative who, according to various laws of the Pentateuch, had the privilege or responsibility to act on behalf of a relative who was in trouble, danger, or need. The Hebrew term (go el) for kinsman-redeemer designates one who delivers or rescues.
When Ruth goes out to glean (or pick up the left overs that people left for the poor when they harvested) in Boaz’s fields. Boaz noticed Ruth immediately and made sure she felt welcome.
When she returns home and tells Naomi whose field she gleaned in, Naomi feels hope for the first time in probably a while. She recognizes that Boaz is her husband’s relative and thus can be a kinsman redeemer. When it comes time to thresh the wheat, Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor and instructs her to lay at Boaz’s feet when he lays down to sleep. She even tells her exactly what to say.
It is a testament to the women’s relationship that Ruth does exactly what Naomi says. After all, a place where men are drinking is not the place for a lone young woman to lay down basically in one of those men’s beds!
In the end Ruth and Boaz are married and Naomi realizes that God hasn’t left her after all. After Ruth and Boaz marry they have a son, and Naomi is there at his birth which would have been the custom. You can feel the joy in the words as Naomi rejoices over her new grandson. Toward the end of the last chapter, the women in the town say to Naomi, “Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become faous in Israel.”
While the book of Ruth is about, well, Ruth, I find the story of Naomi very interesting. Here is a woman who feels she has lost everything – her husband and both her sons. She is financially destitute in a foreign land.
But she has a treasure she probably didn’t realize at the time. God had given her Ruth – a pagan woman from a completely different culture, yet who loved Naomi and was more loyal to her than her own family or culture. I think that says as much about who Naomi was as it does about the type of person Ruth was.
God knew Naomi needed Ruth. She needed someone to care for and to help – someone who needed her. Without Ruth, Naomi may very well have sunk into her bitterness, but because she had Ruth to look out for, she overcame her bitterness and her sorrow.
Naomi tried her best to push Ruth away – mainly, I think, for Ruth’s own good – but Ruth clung to Naomi and wouldn’t leave her. It reminds me that often older people can feel useless. In an effort not to be a “burden” they push away those that love them.
I think if we were more like Ruth, we would find that mostly those people need to feel needed. In the end, God rewarded Naomi for her kindness to Ruth.
Ruth is not the only one who got a happy ending – Naomi did too. It says she became her grandson’s nurse. Once again, she had someone to care for, someone who needed her and you can feel Naomi’s joy in that.