For the past two weeks I have read and reread the book of Ruth in the past few days more than I can count. Naomi is a mystery to me in the first chapter of Ruth. It’s her characteristics that beg to be solved. It’s evident that God had a plan for her life even when she didn’t see it. This book also emphasizes that God uses relationships to draw people closer to Him.
Had Naomi received a letter from home letting her know that that the famine in Bethlehem was over? Maybe a relative was begging her to come home? Or did a traveler mention that the long awaited harvest would be celebrated soon in her hometown? I’d like to think of Naomi as rushing around her small house with a both apprehension and urgency. After ten years of living as a foreigner, she would finally be returning home. (Ruth 1:4) She had left her family with the promise of returning after “a little while” (Ruth 1:1) but she’d be returning empty handed. She was now a widow without an heir. What was left for her in Moab after the death of her husband and sons? Why shouldn’t she return? Then again, what would become of her? What would people say when she returned? At this point, wouldn’t living among her people be better than living among idol worshipers? And now more than ever, she was sure of this decision. Once it was made, she couldn’t make the arrangements soon enough. As Naomi is throwing things into her bag she’s recalling the day she left Bethlehem. What would her memories tell us about her? What kind of woman would Naomi’s friends say she was? Her name means “pleasant.” Was she always a God-fearing woman that only left Bethlehem to satisfy her husband’s will? Was she mild-mannered and soft spoken, or did the neighbors hear her arguing with Elimelek as they were discussing a potential journey to Moab? As they left Bethlehem ten years ago was she reassuring her parents with a warm smile that she would be back just as soon as they found food, or was she silently crying, annoyed that her position in the household forced her to follow her husband’s lead? In verses one through 7 one thing is certain. After the death of her husband and sons there was nothing left to tie her to Moab. Rumors were being whispered that Lord was providing for Bethlehem. (Ruth 1:6) God was now calling Naomi home.
Of course she would take the girls with her. They’d been married to her sons. They were all she had left. It’s unclear whether the girls had converted to Judaism after they married, or whether her sons had taken on the same religious practices as their wives. Regardless, something that Naomi had represented invited the two daughters-in-law to remain with her. They too packed their things and followed Naomi out of town “on the road that would take them back to Judah.” (Ruth 1:7)
I wonder how long they traveled before Naomi stopped and reconsidered her decision to include the girls in this new chapter of her life. She would be relieved to return to her home and her culture. But her homecoming would be at the expense of her daughters-in-law; each of them would become the foreigner she just left behind. Israelites wouldn’t welcome them. (Deuteronomy 23:3,6) Would they even welcome her? Maybe it had been selfish of Naomi to think that her daughters-in-law could come with her back to Bethlehem. She stops in the middle of a dusty road and looks at them lovingly. She explains to them that it doesn’t make sense for them to follow her. They would be giving up the chance at remarrying and having children. At this point they were all three widows, but didn’t they deserve some future happiness? They were still young with their lives ahead of them. Besides, wasn’t God punishing her and her alone? “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:13)
She tells the girls to go back to their homes and live their lives. “May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (Ruth 1:8-9) What I love about this prayer is that as Naomi prays, she doesn’t realize that God will use her as an instrument to help answer it. Orpah says her goodbyes and goes home, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi.
What was it that Ruth saw in Naomi that encouraged her to stay? Had Ruth seen Naomi pray over her husband for healing before he died? Had Ruth listened to stories that Elimelech and/or Ruth told on the Sabbath? Was Ruth amazed at the love Naomi showed her as a new daughter? Ruth tells Naomi, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) I’m not convinced that Ruth knew all there was to know about the God of the Israelites when she pledged her allegiance to Naomi, but I know she saw something in Naomi that she, herself, was missing.
Isn’t it just like God to use us when we least expect it? Naomi was sure that God was punishing her, and yet despite her suffering, God had a plan in which Naomi played a lead role. We learn in the last chapter that it was a necessity that Ruth made it to Bethlehem. She would become King David’s great-grandmother! God had been using Naomi those last ten years to build a relationship strong enough that Ruth would be willing to leave her homeland and follow her mother-in-law.
Perhaps God knew that Elimelech was never planning on going home. It could have been He knew that Naomi’s sons couldn’t have children. Maybe Naomi and Ruth wouldn’t have had such a powerful bond had they not both suffered together. Naomi’s life had been turned upside down after coming to Moab, but God was able to make right, what had gone wrong.
I have never experienced loss like Noami experienced. I cannot compare any past grief to hers. What Naomi and I do have in common is learning to live away from family. My husband and I have moved so many times that I always feel like a foreigner. How can God use me to build relationships among people who have already established friendships? Naomi was a stranger to the culture in which she lived, but God made her stand out to Ruth. After losing her husband and both her sons Naomi felt like giving up on herself, but God didn’t give up on her. God then used Naomi and Ruth’s relationship as a foundation to build a new future for them both.
God can use us even when we don’t know how or why. All Naomi knew was that she needed to go home. God gave her a thought, and she packed her bags without knowing what was in store. She might have even assumed the idea to return to Bethlehem was her own, because in her mind God had already abandoned her. Later she would realize that God had been working in her life the whole time to bring her where she needed to be. Through her influence, Ruth would also come to know God and be brought into the lineage of Christ.
Your hands did not go out against me
Even when I couldn’t feel Your presence
Your hands never failed to hold me
Even when I couldn’t feel Your embrace
Your hands never failed to guide me
Even when I couldn’t see the direction You were pointing
Your hands never failed to forgive me
Even when I didn’t deserve Your grace