From Bethlehem to Moab
Everything we know from the Bible about Naomi is recorded in the book of Ruth.
Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehem-judah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there. And Elimelech Naomi’s husband died; and she was left, and her two sons. And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years. And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. —Ruth 1:1-5
Here we are introduced to Naomi and her family, and also the setting in which they lived.
There is great significance to the names in this narrative.
- Bethlehem = House of bread
- Judah = the praise of the Lord
- Ephrath = fruitfulness
- Moab = God’s washpot
- Elimelech = my God is king
- Naomi = pleasant
- Mahlon = sickly, puny
- Chilion = pining, failing
- Orpah = stiff-necked
- Ruth = friend
So here is the picture of Naomi. At the beginning of the narrative, she is a very pleasant woman, married to a man who loves God. They belong to the tribe of fruitfulness and live in the House of Bread, in the land where the name of the Lord is praised. It sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Like a Hallmark moment. Two sons are born to them, Puny and Piny. Both the boys have serious health issues, but they are alive, and Naomi is thrilled to be their mother.
A terrible famine comes to the House of Bread, and Naomi’s wonderful husband falters in his faith. Afraid to trust God in the famine, he moves his family down to God’s Washpot. It may seem completely insane to leave the House of Bread, even in a time of famine, but God has a plan, and God’s plan rarely makes sense except in hindsight.
The Scripture does not tell us how much time goes by; it only says they “continued there.” That means they find a house and settle in. They are not just there for the season; they are there to stay. But Elimelech dies, and pleasant Naomi is left a widow with two sons in a strange land. Her sons take wives of the women of Moab. Piny marries a strong-willed athletic girl named Orpah, and Puny marries a friendly young lady named Ruth. What do these girls see in these men? Who knows. All I know is that, again, God’s plan rarely makes sense except in hindsight.
Ten more years go by, and yet no grandchildren are born. At last Puny and Piny also die, and Naomi decides to return home. Both her daughters-in-law agree to go with her, and they all start off together. But before they go too far, Naomi stops and tells the girls to go back home to their mothers so that they can find hew husbands among their own people, for they are still young yet. In Bethlehem they would always be looked upon as outsiders. Not only that, but to go to the land of Judea meant to worship the true and living God, forsaking the idols of their family. Both the young women cry at the thought of having to leave Naomi, but Orpah finally kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and returns home to her family. She has lived with Naomi for 10 years, but evidently she has never accepted Naomi’s God as her God. She stubbornly returns to a life of idolatry, and we never hear about her again.
Friendly Ruth, however, has a softer, more tender heart. I won’t go into detail here about her response, because I want to talk about Ruth in more detail next week. But for now, I’ll just say that she clings to her mother-in-law, vowing to go with her all the way to Bethlehem, care for her, and stay with her for the rest of her life.
The two women travel around the north end of the Dead Sea, crossing two rivers and traversing mountainous terrain to move from Moab to Bethlehem. Today, it is nothing for us to get in the car and drive 50 miles. We could reach our destination in an hour or so. But traveling on foot, it would have taken Ruth and Naomi 7-10 days to walk this distance.
This is now Naomi’s second time around the Dead Sea. A decade or more before, she had traveled to Moab with her husband and sons. Now she is returning, older, bereft of her family, and accompanied only by a foreign girl who—albeit kind, is still a foreigner. This is not the pleasant Naomi who had left Bethlehem all those years before. The end of chapter 1 tells the story:
So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was stirred because of them, and they said, “Is this Naomi?” And she said unto them, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty: why then call you me Naomi, seeing the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned out of the country of Moab: and they came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest. —Ruth 1:19-22
So Naomi asks for a name change. She has been through a good many hardships in her lifetime, and the pleasantness is clean gone out of her, leaving bitterness in its wake. You will notice that the people never do call her Mara (meaning “bitter”), and she quickly puts an end to her pity party and learns to be happy and pleasant again.
Once more I’m going to save a good part of the story for next week, but I will skip to the end, where Naomi finally has the joy of holding her one and only grandson, Obed. My, he is her pride and joy! Does Naomi have any idea the significance of this little grandbaby she holds in her arms? This boy will grow up to be the grandfather of David the king, and further down the line our Lord Jesus will be born. That is what makes this book such a beautiful picture of redemption! But I’m getting ahead of myself, for today I wish to focus on Naomi.
Naomi loved her husband enough to follow him to a foreign land, seemingly away from God’s perfect place for them. She loved her sons, although they were not the perfectly healthy children that all mothers hope for. She loved her daughters-in-law enough to give them a choice about whether or not they would return to Bethlehem with her. And she loved God enough to serve Him openly and unashamedly in a foreign land. This is evident because Ruth had learned enough about God to want to serve Him too. While Naomi did let the trials get her down, she didn’t stay that way for long. Ultimately Naomi trusted God. She knew He had a plan for her life that was far bigger than anything she could imagine, and she knew God would provide for her. What a wonderful example she is of the joy of the Lord. No matter how deep the valley, God’s love runs deeper still. And joy is more powerful than despair.
We are not perfect. Like Naomi, I sometimes lose sight of God’s face, and I get discouraged. But like Naomi, I don’t stay there. God will restore joy and peace to those who will trust Him. And remember: God’s plan rarely makes sense except in hindsight.
Next week: Ruth
Photo courtesy of Living Passages
Map courtesy of The Bible Journey