Naomi and Ruth: a Study in Contrasts
In the beginning to the story about Ruth, we are presented with two central and very distinct characters: Ruth and Naomi. Naomi’s character is forged by brokenness, barrenness, emptiness. Ruth’s character is all about commitment, loyalty and faith. Isn’t it the case that both of these characters live among us and perhaps within us? The broken, empty person who says, “What have I done to deserve this?” And there is the hopeful person who says, “I will follow in faith and trust in a fruitful life.”
Elimilech and Naomi lived in Bethlehem. There was a famine there, so they moved to the country of Moab along with their two sons, Chillion and Mahlon. In this culture, to leave your people and land carried with it a certain stigma of turning your back on your people and your God – a kind of spiritual apostasy. We can’t tell how much of a factor this was in this story, but it should be mentioned. It serves as a counterpoint to the actions of Ruth later on, who will not turn her back on the family she married into, including their God.
Just as important as their decision to leave Judah was the place they were going. To Israelites, the land of Moab had negative moral and emotional connotations. Israel had a contentious history with the Moabites, and they were thought to have incestuous origins. So, you have the subtle suggestion that Naomi and Elimilech were disloyal and gave themselves over to a despised people. However, as the story progresses, we will see the dangers in portraying any ethnic group with broad brush strokes.
In addition to this moral uncertainty, you have the irony that Elimilech’s family were members of the Ephraphites clan, which literally means “fruitful,” “fertile,” “productive.” Quite a contrast to the death they will find in Moab and the lack of fruit (children) they will leave behind. Indeed, in this story, Moab is a place of death and destruction, swallowing up those who turn to it.
Elimilech soon died in Moab, but the two sons married Moabite women, one named Orpah(not Oprah), the other Ruth. After ten years, both of Naomi’s sons died, leaving Orpah and Ruth as widows and childless as well. Now, widows without sons were in a tough place at this time in history, especially in a strange land. There is almost a Job-like cloud over these women. Even the names of the sons suggest disaster. One son’s name, Mahlon, sounds like the disease that hit the Egyptians before the exodus. And Chillion comes from the root word meaning to “perish.”
Meanwhile, Naomi had heard that back home the famine was over and they now had food. So, Naomi began to return home to Judah with her two daughters-in-law. But then Naomi had a change of heart, or logic, perhaps. She said to her daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mother’s house.” In other words, leave me and go back to your Moabite home of origin. “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” She is optimistic, or seems to be, that they will find husbands and that God will reward their goodness. Or is she reluctant to bring Moabites back to Judah as evidence of her own unfaithfulness? We don’t know. She then kissed Orpah and Ruth and they wept aloud.
Then, the surprise: even though these two young widows had no reason to stay with Naomi – they were not bound to her – they pledged their loyalty to her. “We will return with you to your people,” they said to Naomi.
Then Naomi really puts her cards on the table. She is looking out for them, and feels that their prospects are much better back with their families of origin than they are with her, Naomi. She has no other sons, no husband, and she’s getting old. As if her only value is producing males they might marry!
Then Naomi said it: “it has been far more bitter for me than for you.” And she’s saying this to two young widows who are childless! “The hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Naomi, which means “sweet,” has become bitter, and just as she questions God’s benevolence with her, she also bears the marks of one who is guilty and feels she has brought on her suffering through her own actions. One has the sense that Naomi wishes not to drag anyone else down with her. And then they wept some more.
This time, Orpah kissed her, took Naomi’s advice, and bid her farewell. Ruth, however did not, but remained steadfast with her mother-in-law. Naomi pleaded once again with Ruth to do likewise. Do as your sister-in-law has done: leave!
But now Ruth gives her famous speech:
“Do not press me to leave you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die-there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
As if God himself had gotten ahold of her heart and said, “This is where you belong. This is your place, with Naomi and with me. Trust me.” Faith does have a way of grounding us, doesn’t it?
In silence they then made their way to Bethlehem. We don’t know if Naomi was angry or if she was accepting at this point. What do you think? And was Naomi wary of what her people would think of Ruth, a Moabite, being taken in as one of them? How do you read this?
When they got back to Bethlehem, there was quite a stir. Again, we don’t know if this stir was one of disdain or welcome.
“Is this Naomi?” they ask. But they do not ask about Ruth, nor does Naomi say a word about her companion. In memorable antithesis to Ruth’s speech of grounded faith and identity, Naomi says, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; Why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
So there they are, these two – Naomi and Ruth – both stricken with tragedy and barrenness, one faithfully following, the other bitterly raging. The Israelite is feeling disowned by God, while the foreigner is feeling a new identity in this foreign God. The one feels emptiness, while the other feels abundance to some measure – at least enough to hang on to. And in Bethlehem, it is noted, the barley harvest has just begun, a sign of abundance in their midst.
And the abundance suggested here is not just barley, but a foreigner named Ruth. This is a reminder of how much we need the perspective and gifts of the foreigner, even a foreigner with a bad reputation. Often in scripture, it’s the foreigner who really gets it, while the chosen people struggle.
So we have set the stage for the continuing story of Naomi and Ruth, and it is helpful to ask: where do you see yourself in this story? Have you ever felt like Naomi, where you went off into life and came back empty, not knowing why? Perhaps you were full at one time, but feel empty now. This is part of the human experience. May we claim this part of our story, if it is there. The Bible is full of laments, where people argue with God, feel cursed, and ask “How long, O Lord, will you turn your back on me?”
Have you ever felt like Ruth, perhaps not handed the best fortune, but faithful, nonetheless, believing that you are tethered to something bigger than you – your God, your people, an unshakable faith. This faith is considerable, too, for Ruth doesn’t yet know if Naomi’s people will accept her! Perhaps Ruth believed that a merciful and benevolent God was guiding and leading her. This is faith in action, commitment to see things through to the end, not knowing where it will lead, but trusting in a storyteller that is bigger than you.
It would be easy to offer a nice, neat Sunday School conclusion here: be like Ruth, not like Naomi. But that would be too simple. In Ruth and Naomi, we find the raw material for regular faith practices with other, for the faithful life is one of both praise and lament, thanksgiving and confession. Just as we are called to praise God, give thanks and follow in faith, we are also called to be real, to be honest, to question God and to question ourselves. And guess what? God shows up in those dark times, too. It is a very Lutheran move to not beat up on Naomi. She’s real, and God loves her. Remember in our Gospel today, it says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the earth.”
We continue next week. Amen.