The story of Ruth has been lingering on my heart for a couple years. Last semester, I spent two months studying this book for a school project and what I learned has challenged my perspective in a lot of different ways. I want to share a few of those things with you through this blog series because there is so much freedom woven all throughout Ruth’s story. It’s beautiful, compelling, and affirming. I hope your heart will be filled like mine has through taking a closer look at this Old Testament book. You can check out past posts here: Ruth Part 1: The Freedom in Submission and Ruth Part 2: The Proverbs 31 Woman
Maybe it’s just me, but Naomi’s story seems to get brushed over when we discuss the book of Ruth. We mostly focus on her bitterness and elevate Ruth as the shining example of a Godly woman.
Some of the details of Ruth get a little fuzzy in the grand scheme of things as God is accomplishing miraculous things and displaying His character in beautiful ways. But the first chapter of Ruth holds some really important details that carry a lot of implications for the story as a whole. It tells us about Naomi and paints a beautiful picture of the struggle and profound impact of her life.
Naomi and Elimelek went to Moab specifically to escape the famine. At some point he dies after they arrive, before their sons were married. Perhaps the boys weren’t old enough to marry before they left Bethlehem. Nevertheless, it apparently wasn’t the first order of business when they got to Moab because they didn’t marry until sometime later.
So here was Naomi in Moab, trying to do what was best for her family and provide food for them, raising two boys by herself, and probably making an effort to protect them from the sinfulness surrounding them in the pagan land.
Eventually the two sons marry Moabite women.
The only thing we know about Ruth and Orpah’s faith is barely mentioned in the text after the two sons have also passed away, when Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to return to their homeland as they were on their way back to Bethlehem. Naomi intended to bring her daughters back to Bethleham, but she realized what that meant. There was no future for them there. So she sent them away, back to Moab. When Ruth wouldn’t budge, Naomi pointed out that Orpah was going back to her home and her gods. From Naomi’s perspective, they were pagans. She expected Ruth and Orpah to continue in their ways, worshiping false gods. But Ruth’s reaction clearly demonstrates something had changed in her.
Just moments before Ruth’s declaration, Naomi seems to express ultimate defeat. God has turned against me, she says. Who knows what exactly was running through her mind. All we can see is this woman trying so hard to make everything work, to do what’s best for everyone else, and it all just keeps falling apart. Everywhere she turns, it’s going wrong. She’s hurt and upset. Things look grim. Nothing is turning out like she had hoped.
The next thing we see of Naomi is her overwhelming sorrow and grief, asking those in Bethlehem to call her Mara, which means “bitter,” more accurately reflecting what she felt. There is no sign of relief from her bitterness until the very end of the book when Ruth and Boaz’s son is born. In our minds we see a woman throughout this entire book whose light has gone out from within her. Maybe now she’s cold and angry, not wanting to be reminded of anything joyful because it’s the complete opposite of what she has experienced.
Naomi followed her family into Moab to give them a chance; to give her sons a better life. But it didn’t happen. Things only went from bad to worse and she was left a widow and without her beloved sons – and with no way to provide a meaningful future for her daughters-in-law. It seemed hopeless, despite how hard she tried to make it work.
But something was stirring in Ruth’s heart while they were in Moab that maybe Naomi couldn’t even see. A significant amount of time is unaccounted for within this story, when Ruth was married to Naomi’s son. The text says they were married for 10 years before Ruth’s first husband passed away.
Have you ever stopped to wonder what inspired such loyalty in Ruth that she would completely leave behind her old life, the only life she had ever known, to follow her mother-in-law to an unknown place with new challenges and obstacles?
It was Naomi’s faith in Yahweh.
Naomi had established so much trust with Ruth, she not only willingly went to Bethlehem to start over instead of returning to her own mother’s home, she wanted to know this Yahweh of whom Naomi spoke. It made an impact on Ruth. It compelled her. It completely changed her life.
Since they were living in a pagan land, maybe the only teaching Ruth knew was Naomi and the example that was set before her of what it meant to follow Yahweh.
Even in Naomi’s sorrow and difficult circumstance, her heart and life for Yahweh STILL radically transformed the life of a pagan young woman, even if she didn’t realize it was happening at the time.
For 10 years, Naomi had the opportunity to invest in Ruth’s life and talk to her about the Lord. Whether Naomi tried specifically to change Ruth’s heart or not, her faith was apparently evident. And it was contradictory to everything Ruth knew. Her own family, her homeland, and everything around her were the opposite of Naomi and the life she lived.
Naomi’s words, pointing out that Orpah was returning to her gods, makes me wonder if she did not have any hope that Ruth had heard or believed a word she said about Yahweh. But Ruth’s heart was no longer the same.
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
This statement from Ruth demonstrates her conversion from a Moabitess to an Israelite, embracing faith in Yahweh. Her new faith was the direct result of Naomi’s impact on her life.
Behind one of the most influential women in the Bible was Naomi – a mother who struggled and fought for her family, seemingly to no avail. She wanted to give up, she thought she wasn’t making a difference, and she couldn’t see any hope. She felt the burden of sorrow and didn’t hide her grief from those around her. She didn’t give the appearance that she had it all figured out. She didn’t pretend to be okay with what was happening in her life. She was real.
Perhaps it’s not the picture you’d expect of the great woman who would be behind someone like Ruth. But it shows that God is only concerned about using people who are real, not perfect, to accomplish His purpose.
A mother or not, we all have the opportunity to impact other people. I know all of us feel unqualified. We think we have too much mess in our lives. There’s too much ugly stuff. Surely no one would be compelled to come to the Lord when life looks so difficult and tiresome in our small corner. Surely no one would be inspired by our faith – or lack of it. Surely no one would be moved by the struggle of our circumstances and the endless amount of questions that outweigh the answers in our heart.
Surely I can’t do it. I have nothing to offer. I have no great faith or profound insight. I have no answers to my own questions. I can’t make a difference.
But Naomi did.
Logic and circumstance would say that Ruth should have been running the other direction from this Yahweh who had allowed so much tragedy and sorrow. Bitterness literally defined Naomi’s existence in this season of her life. Naomi believed that God was punishing her and she thought Ruth would continue to suffer. Still, Ruth committed herself. She wanted to follow Naomi. She wanted to follow Yahweh. The Lord used Naomi to bring her to Israel.
When I’m thoroughly convinced I can’t make a difference and everything I do will only fall apart: but Naomi.
When I think everything I do is in vain and no one hears the words I say: but Naomi.
The resounding echo in response to the thoughts of never being able to make an impact because of my mess: but Naomi.
So we can, too. Even when it doesn’t look like we’re making a difference. Even when we’re consumed by our own struggles. Even when it looks like our hands are empty. The Lord will use it to accomplish His plan. Because of Him, it will not only be enough, it will overflow with good things for those He has sent to us. Naomi has shown us it is true.
She has shown us what it means to experience freedom and grace in the midst of our mess.