The Woman Who Tasted the Cup of Bitterness
Scripture Reference—The Book of Ruth
Name Meaning—As indicated under Naamah No. 1 (which see) Naomi means “my joy,” “my bliss,” or “pleasantness of Jehovah,” and is a name suggestive of all that is charming, agreeable, attractive. Until deep sorrow overshadowed her, we can understand Naomi having a nature corresponding to her name. Although her character came to be purged and enhanced by her suffering, Naomi had an innate nobility that gave her personality an irresistible charm.
Family Connections—While both Naomi and Elimelech were staunch members of the Hebrew race, we are told nothing of their genealogy. Elimelech, who married Naomi, is thought to have belonged to one of the outstanding families in Israel, being a brother of Salmon, prince of Judah, who married Rahab. If this was so, then Naomi began her married life in comfortable circumstances. Naomi and Elimelech belonged to Bethlehem-Judah where two sons were born to them, namely, Mahlon and Chilion.
The Book of Ruth, which is one of the most lovely idylls in literature, and has enchanted every age, presents us with two women who are among the best-loved in history and whose story still captivates the world because of their unique devotion. Naomi and Ruth, her daughter-in-law, afford a relief after characters like Tamar, Delilah and Jezebel. In this sketch let us try to delineate the life and experience of Naomi who knew a great deal about “the ringing groove of change,” to use Tennyson’s phrase. Because of her manifold changes in life, Naomi came to fear God in a deeper way (Psalm 55:19).
Her Change of Country
During the rule of the Judges, Israel suffered a serious famine which was deemed to be one of the punishments visited upon the people when they had sinned (Leviticus 26:14, 16). Driven to consternation, Elimelech the Ephrathite of Bethlehem decided to emigrate with his family to another land where food was more plentiful, and so traveled from Judah and settled in the highlands of Moab. For Naomi such an uprooting from her native home must have constituted a real sacrifice. Sincere in her faith, she loved the people of God and was strongly attached to the wonderful traditions of her race.
In taking the initiative to go to Moab—a foreign country—from Bethlehem, Naomi’s husband stepped out of the will of God. If the famine was a judgment upon the nation, Elimelech should have repented, tried to have helped his fellow countrymen back to God, and prayed for the removal of the scourge (Psalm 34:9, 10, 17). One may argue that Elimelech was wise in taking Naomi and their two sons out of a famine-stricken area to another land where there was sufficient food. But Elimelech was a Hebrew, and as such had the promise, “In the days of famine, thou shalt be satisfied.” Elimelech means, “My God is King.” Had he truly believed God was his King, he would have stayed in Bethlehem, knowing that need could not throttle God who is able to furnish a table in the desert. But Elimelech belied the name he bore when he left Bethlehem—“the house of bread”—for Moab, meaning “waste” or “nothingness.” With his family he went from a place where God was honored to another land so heathen in its ways.
Although the land of Moab may sound remote it was only some 30 miles from Bethlehem-Judah—a long enough journey in those far-off days when they had no transportation. The distance, however, was not one of miles, but of mind. As H. V. Morton puts it, “Distances in the Bible are not measured from one place to another, but from God. Naomi and her husband felt they were going into a far country because Moab was a land of foreign worship.” Thus Bethlehem to Moab measured the distance from God to the alien worship of an alien country. What disturbed feelings Naomi must have had as, with her family, she found herself in a strange land, unknown, and with all the problems of establishing a home in repellant surroundings.
Her Change of Connections
It was not long before Naomi discovered the error in leaving Bethlehem for in the new and heathen land nothing but misfortune dogged her footsteps. Her two sons married women of Moab. Instead of helping to support their mother they took wives of the alien country they were in. The Jewish law forbade marriage outside of the nation. Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, died. He had fled to Moab to escape a possible death from famine, and died in the midst of plenty leaving his wife a widow in a land of idolaters. Bereft of her husband, Naomi loses all heart to live on in a land of foreigners.
When the stem dies, the leaf that grew
Out of its heart must perish too.
Naomi became one of the widows whom Paul describes as being “desolate.” To add to her desolation and grief, she also lost both of her sons and so Naomi “was left of her two sons and husband.” By this time she was old and helpless with her widowed daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to shelter. As they were not of her people, nor of her faith in God, Moab true to its name, must have been empty, desolate and inhospitable to Naomi’s grief-stricken, aching heart. Doubtless, Ruth and Orpah, whose hearts too had been emptied, were a source of comfort to Naomi, even though they knew that their marriage to Mahlon and Chilion was against her religious principles. So, as George Matheson fittingly expresses it—
To all appearance Naomi was desolate. Husband and children were gone—the place of sojourn was a land of strangers &–;the voices of the old sanctuary were silent. Her heart and spirit were broken, her conscience was up in arms. The God of her fathers, she felt, had deserted her for her desertion of Him. She must retrieve the past—she must go back—back to the old soil, back to the favour of her God.
Bethlehem was Naomi’s native land, and all her relatives and friends were there. Thus she left for Bethlehem, not so much because of her cup of sorrow in Moab, but because she had heard that “the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread.”
Her Change of Character
Naomi was determined to return to Bethlehem alone, but her daughters-in-law left with her, possibly excited about a new start in a new land. But on the journey back, Naomi paused and pleaded with Ruth and Orpah to return to Moab. She knew what it would mean for them as Moabites to cross the boundary line, stressing the point that in Canaan there would be very little prospect of their finding husbands. What a moment that must have been as those three widows stood there at the parting of the ways. Orpah, without much ado, kissed Naomi, and then went back to her own idolatrous people, but Ruth clave unto Naomi and begged her to take her to Bethlehem (see Ruth).
As Naomi and Ruth entered the city together the thoughts of each must have been different. To Naomi there came flashing back thoughts of a happy youth and of a life at peace with God—thoughts which tended to aggravate her desolation. But for Ruth, there was the novelty and strangeness of a foreign people, a speech not fully understood, and youth’s quest for new adventure. Naomi’s arrival in the old community created a sensation. Quickly it passed from lip to lip that the well-known, beautiful and pleasant woman who had left ten years before was back, and as all the city met her they cried, “Is this Naomi?” Why the question form of their welcome? Did they detect a radical change in her appearance and demeanor? The repetition of her significant name irritated her as she cried—
Call me not Naomi [pleasant, winsome, agreeable], call me Mara [bitter]: 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?
Naomi could not bear the contradiction between the name she bore, and the person she was. Ten years in Moab with all its anguish, and also the loss of fellowship with God and His people had dried up her finer feelings. Once so sweet, Naomi was now sour, and blamed God for the poverty and desolation she had endured. But why chide God? Was not her cup of bitterness the result of the act of disobedience when, with her husband, she left Bethlehem for Moab? Had she stayed in her own land and maintained her trust in God, in spite of the famine, He would have undertaken for her and her family and brought them through. But the journey to Moab was a journey from God, and consequently her bitterness was the fruit of such an act of disobedience.
Her Change of Circumstances
Naomi was back in Bethlehem as a “returned empty.” She went away to Moab with plenty but retraced her steps in poverty. How descriptive of her adverse circumstances is her lament! “I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty.” Naomi and Ruth, then, clinging to each other, plunge into the poverty and solitariness facing them—but with a different outlook. Both women were widows and sufferers, but suffering old age often yields to hopelessness and despair, whereas suffering youth rebounds and seeks to be responsive to the life that is around. Thus Ruth felt the stir of excitement in her new surroundings. Naomi and she must eat, and knowing that her mother-in-law, whom Ruth surrounded with loving care, was too old to bend her back to work in the fields, Ruth goes out and secures work as a gleaner in the fields of Boaz. Under Jewish law the poor were allowed to glean in any harvest field, and Ruth qualified for the weary, humble task of following the reapers and gathering up the gleanings for Naomi and herself.
What romance followed is more fully told in our study on Ruth (which see). Boaz, related to Naomi’s husband, was therefore connected by marriage to Ruth, and by Jewish custom, Boaz, as next of kin, could be regarded as Ruth’s rightful betrothed. Naomi, with her bitterness now subdued and her former pleasant disposition restored, took a lively interest in the kindness of Boaz to Ruth, and advised her in the steps leading to her marriage to Boaz. The idyllic conclusion was reached as Naomi, through her tender boldness, saw Ruth lifted out of obscurity and poverty into marriage with a godly man, as well as a mighty man of wealth. For Naomi, the winter of desolation was past, and the time of the singing of birds had come. Although her natural hopes had perished, Naomi lived again in the life of her dear, sacrificial daughter-in-law, and there were loud rejoicings when Ruth’s first-born, Obed, was carried to Grandma Naomi. Now her daughter-in-law who loved her was better to Naomi “than seven sons.” How lovingly she would nurse Ruth’s child and bless God because, as Professor R. G. Moulton expressed it—
The family she thought she had seen perish has been restored to the genealogies of Israel; for baby Obed lives to become the father of Jesse, and Jesse is father of the great King David. And in the genealogical tables of Matthew, the Moabitess who left her people for love of Naomi is duly named as an ancestress of the Messiah Himself.
Devotional content drawn from All the Women of the Bible by Herbert Lockyer. Used with permission.