Don’t Call Me Na’omi, Call Me Marah

1: 19-22

DIG: Why do you think the whole town was stirred by Na’omi’s return? How do you think Ruth felt when she wasn’t introduced to the women who welcomed Na’omi? Both Ruth, in verses 16-17, and Na’omi, in verses 20-21, confess God’s sovereign control of events, each in her own way. What truth does each convey to ADONAI? Of themselves? Of their success in coping with stress? Which confession do you think have startled the original reader most? How could Na’omi have gotten rid of her bitterness?

REFLECT: What happens to believers when they concentrate more on themselves and their problems than on ADONAI? Who do you want beside you when you go through something difficult? What experiences have you had in starting over as Ruth and Na’omi did? How does someone who is bitter treat others? What are some situations (whether present of past) that have left you feeling bitter? How did you deal with it?

So the two women went on until they came to Beit-Lechem, a journey of about seventy-five miles (1:19a CJB). This was not an easy trip. They traveled from the Moabite highlands to the Jordan Valley, a descent of 4,500 feet. Then they would have climbed to Beit-Lechem, an assent of 3,750 feet, walking through the wilderness of Judah.36

While their husbands were out in the fields, the women of Beit-Lechem saw the pair approaching. The whole town was stirred and ran out to greet them. They exclaimed, “Can this be Na’omi” (1:19b CJB)? The fact that so many women remembered her and were so glad to see her suggests that she had once been a gregarious soul, beloved by all who knew her. The word stirred (Hebrew: hwn), is the same form of the verb that expresses the excitement in the Israelite camp when the ark of the Covenant was brought in (First Samuel 4:5), and the rejoicing at Solomon’s anointing that dismayed Adonijah (First Kings 1:45).

Na’omi means pleasant, and in an earlier time it must have been a perfect description of her. The fact that so many women remembered her and were so glad to see her suggests that she had once been a gregarious soul, loved by all who knew her. But now her life was colored with bitterness. “Don’t call me Na’omi [pleasant],” she answered them, “call me Marah [bitter], because Shaddai (see Ag – The Meaning of Shaddai) has made my life very bitter (1:20). This was not the same Na’omi whom they had known a decade before. The years in Mo’av had taken their toll on Na’omi’s appearance and personality. Living in “the world” had made her bitter . . . not better.

Once again, Na’omi does not believe in mere chance, but in divine providence. Her grief and depression that had earlier expressed itself toward God (1:13) continued. I went out full, with a husband and two sons, and ADONAI has brought me back (shuwb) empty-handed (in the emphatic position), as if say, “With absolutely nothing.” Really Na’omi? Nothing? What did that make Ruth? Less than nothing? Was that a nothing standing right beside you? She had given up everything for you, and now she was nothing! The Moabites certainly didn’t rate very high in Na’omi’s estimation at this point.

It is equally striking that when the women of Beit-Lechem welcomed Na’omi home, they didn’t even lower themselves to notice Ruth standing there. The narrator seems to go out of his way to point out their deliberate omission: So the two women went on until they came to Beit-Lechem. And when they came to Beit-Lechem the whole town was stirred because of them. In other words, everyone in Beit-Lechem could see that there were two women standing there. But instead of asking the obvious question, “Who is this with you?” the townspeople could only say: Can this be Na’omi? neatly sidestepping the embarrassing question about who this appendage might be. Awkward! It spoke volumes that Na’omi didn’t mention Ruth at all, either being self-absorbed or embarrassed.

It is also notable that Na’omi wasn’t broken and repentant over her Moabite wilderness experience. She may have been returning physically to the Land, but she wasn’t returning to ADONAI with a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). No, bitter was the perfect name for her at that time. It was a name with a history, a history of God’s people rebelling at His perceived lack of provision for their needs. It was at Mara in the desert on the way out of Egypt that the children of Isra’el grumbled against YHVH because they couldn’t drink the water because it was very bitter (see the commentary on Exodus Cn – When They Came to Marah the Water was Bitter). This was only a few days after the LORD had parted the Sea of Reeds and delivered them from Pharaoh’s army, but it all meant nothing to them in the face of their very real thirst.

Like her ancestors, Na’omi’s heart was angry with God for the way her life was turning out. She was feeling the pain of life in the wilderness and felt the judgments that had come her way were all God’s fault. YHVH had testified against her (1:21); that is, He had called her to account at the bar of his courtroom. And at this point she wouldn’t even acknowledge her own responsibility to choosing to leave Judah in the first place. The grass seemed greener on the other side of the fence in Mo’av, but when she got there her life had actually turned into a desert experience. The prodigal daughter was back, but it was only because she didn’t see any prospect of survival among the pigs in the far country.37

Why call me Na’omi? Pleasant? Ha! Nothing could be further from the truth. ADONAI has testified against me by the afflictions He has place upon her, Shaddai has afflicted me (1:21 CJB). She is helpless in the face of God’s almighty power, she was sure all her problems were God’s fault. Her return home had only intensified the depth of her grief. She saw nothing ahead but the loneliness, abandonment and helplessness of widowhood.38 Na’omi’s bitter outburst overwhelms the eloquent pledge of commitment by to Na’omi and her God by Ruth. Viewed side-by-side, there is no doubt that the younger foreigner cuts a more impressively noble figure. At this point, the reader is repulsed by Na’omi and drawn to her Moabite daughter-in-law.39

The narrator’s summary: So Na’omi returned (shuwb) from the land of Mo’av accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law. Then a ray of hope for Na’omi, as well as Ruth. They arrived in Beit-Lechem as the barley harvest was beginning around the month of April (1:22). Beit-Lechem (Hebrew: house of bread) had finally lived up to her name. This verse provides a transition toward hope for Na’omi, as well as Ruth at the end of a rather tragic chapter. ADONAI was not her enemy but would, through His sovereign will, act with favor toward both widows. Since barley is the first crop to be harvested each year, the timing of theirarrival meant that Na’omi and Ruth could get settled at a time when food would be rather plentiful. This sets the stage for the rest of the book.40

As Iain Duguid discusses in his commentary on Ruth, like Na’omi, we naturally tend to lack a fundamental concern for the Moabites all around us. Na’omi, it appears, had little concern for the spiritual condition of her Moabite daughters-in-law. She had a good relationship with them and wished them well in the new lives back in Mo’av. Presumably they had been good wives for her sons, keeping them fed and warm and generally happy. Na’omi’s relationship with them was even warm on a surface level. But underneath she had no deep concern for their souls.

Perhaps Na’omi simply assumed that Orpah and Ruth wouldn’t be interested in Isra’el’s God. They were Moabites, after all; they had their own god and she had hers. They had Chemosh and she had ADONAI. Who was she to impose her own understanding of God on her neighbors? They seemed to be good morale people, and she was living in a pluralistic society where everyone attended the temple of the deity of one’s own choice. The vision of reaching out to her neighbors and incorporating them into the covenant community was lost to her, even when the opportunity presented itself.

She at least had some excuse for her reluctance. Although the mandate to be a blessing to all the Gentile nations had been given to Abraham, in the days of the days of the judges, that mandate was rather fuzzy. Few were looking for opportunities to make converts to the covenant community from those around them. But in the light of Matthew 28:19, where Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all the nations, what is our excuse? Who are the Moabites we see day after day, the people all around us who we so quickly assume are not going to be interested in the Gospel? Perhaps if we sought to testify to them of God’s goodness to us in Yeshua Messiah, we might discover more interest in the Good News than we ever imagined. Our problem is that all too often we have as little real care for our friends and neighbors as Na’omi had for hers.

Part of Na’omi’s difficulty, of course, was that she wasn’t a very good member of the covenant community herself. There was no distinctive holiness about her; on the contrary, she herself was sinfully on the run from the Land of obedience. Those who are consciously living a life of disobedience to YHVH are not typically eager to defend and explain their faith to others! Yet isn’t it striking (and encouraging to us all) that even though at that moment she wasn’t looking out for Ruth’s spiritual interests, or even looking for Ha’Shem herself; nevertheless, ADONAI was still able to use her, in spite of her attitude, as a means to draw Ruth to Himself? Fortunately, God’s mission to rescue sinners is not limited by our flaws, failing, and foibles! The LORD will call to Himself those whom He chooses, sometimes through the most bizarre messengers and unlikely combinations of circumstances. It is His work from beginning to end. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so no one can boast (Eph 2:8-9).41

 

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