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Friday, June 6, 2014

Naomi, the Bitter Woman


The story of Naomi is one of circumstances due to her husband’s poor decision, bitterness, and God’s mercy and care. It’s one of healing and divine purpose.

Recently, my husband started a series of messages on the book of Ruth, and I decided to delve into the character of Naomi. (All the Scripture references will be from the book of Ruth, unless indicated otherwise.)

The story begins before the book of Ruth. Elimelech, Naomi’s husband had left Bethlehem (which means “house of bread”) and moved his family to Moab. The reason was that there was hunger in Bethlehem. (1:1)

This sounds like a good idea. If you’re going through a famine in one place, go somewhere else. But, Elimelech didn’t trust God for sustenance. The Psalmist David said, I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread (Psalm 37:25). God has always promised to meet the basic needs of His people. Elimelech also disobeyed God’s wishes and actually moved his family to enemy territory. He let his sons marry wives who were brought up in the pagan practices of the god Chemosh. Worship included sacrificing babies to this god. (Deuteronomy 7:1-4; Numbers 21:29; Numbers 22)

So, Elimelech left the “house of bread” to find greener grass on the other side of the Jordan River. Unfortunately, he died. The two sons married, and it seems they were married ten years—or maybe in Moab ten years total—it’s not clear. Then, both sons died. (1:2-5)

Naomi hears there’s food in her home country, and she decides to go back home. It seems she was more interested in eating than in anything else. (1:6)

She tells her two daughters-in-law three times to go back to their mothers’ houses. (Were their mothers widows too?) At first, she seems kind to her daughters-in-law (1:8), but then she almost dismisses them, saying she wants them to find other husbands. She kisses them good-bye. (1:9)

Then, Naomi gets sarcastic with them. Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me? are there yet any more sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Turn again, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, if I should have an husband also to night, and should also bear sons; Would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye stay for them from having husbands? nay, my daughters; for it grieveth me much for your sakes that the hand of the LORD is gone out against me (1:11-13). She mockingly says she’ll never have any more sons to be their husbands. She’s blaming God.

The daughters-in-law’s response? And they lifted up their voice, and wept again: and Orpah kissed her mother in law; but Ruth clave unto her. And she said, Behold, thy sister in law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law (1:14-15).

Notice how far Naomi has sunk spiritually. When Orpah decides to go back to her mother’s home, Naomi says she’s gone back to her gods—again, these are heathen, pagan deities and not the true God—and she tells Ruth to go and do likewise! What kind of advice is that?

Then comes the beautiful passage, Intreat me not to leave thee, that we hear in so many weddings today. (I always think that’s out of context, even though the words are beautiful. It isn’t a woman to her husband; it’s a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law.) Verse 16 is key. Ruth says, thy God my God. Somehow, in the midst of Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, and Quilion’s terrible testimonies, Ruth found a very real faith in God. She believes in God, and that trumps family and the pagan gods she left behind.

Ruth is determined to go with her mother-in-law back to the place of blessing.

So, they go back to Bethlehem together. They enter the city, and the people gather round. They can hardly believe it’s Naomi. She says, 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? (1:20-21) What a “lovely” testimony! She’s complaining and bitter and has lost every little bit of joy in the Lord. She’s a grouch with a capital G.

To be fair, Naomi had lost her husband. Shortly afterward, she lost her two sons. Anyone would be overcome with grief. This is normal. What’s not good, though, is that she was very angry with God. She says her name should be changed to Mara (meaning “bitter”) as opposed to Naomi, which means “my joy, pleasantness of God.” Can you imagine wanting to be called “Bitter” as your name?

So, Naomi gives her testimony. She went away full and came back empty. Well, not exactly. She went away with a husband and two sons and came back with Ruth. It’s less, but it’s not empty. After all, Ruth had accepted the true God as her Lord! (How do you think Ruth felt to be called a zero by her mother-in-law?) Naomi blames God for her misfortunes. Well, it’s true that Elimelech had made a bad decision, and he and his sons ended up losing their lives. But, it’s not fair that Naomi blames God. She may suspect that God was displeased with them for having disobeyed His will and going to live in Moab, but she says some very strong words here: the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me. Yes, things were very tough, but she was still alive. She also had her daughter-in-law’s encouragement. She should have counted her blessings . . . and kept her name.

(Stay Tuned for bitter Naomi getting better. Part Two next time.)

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