In the Book of Ruth, the heroine is, of course, Ruth. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, is lost in her shadow. But what kind of woman was Naomi, to have such an inspiring influence on Ruth that she could say those often quoted words: “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)?
Naomi was a woman blessed by God with a husband, Elimelech (My God is King), and two sons. But famine came upon the region around Bethlehem, their home, and they moved to Moab across the Dead Sea in search of food. They were what some would call “Quitters”, as opposed to “Stayers”.
However, they must have been rather hardy people, for the journey to Moab was over a hundred kilometres long, probably on foot, and most likely eastwards across the Jordan River and then south to Moab. The alternative route southwards from Bethlehem would go through deserts, and one does not flee from a famine into hot barren deserts.
Naomi and Elimelech had been blessed, but that did not lead them to trust God to feed them. They were hardy, but they could not stand the famine and moved out. This is a pity, as those who stayed behind apparently fared better. When she returned with Ruth, “the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi?’” This means that the whole town or most of the town population when Naomi had left, had survived the famine. Naomi returned at the beginning of the barley harvest, and the harvest was evidently bounteous enough for a farmer, Boaz, to allow Ruth to glean for grain behind his harvesters, and to gather even among the sheaves (Ruth 1:22; 2:8 & 15).
Moab was a bitter place for Naomi. She lost her husband, and although her two sons married Moabite women, they had no children. The blessings from God had apparently ceased. Could this have been because the sons married Moabite women? When the men of Israel indulged in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who led them to bow down to their gods, “the Lord’s anger burned against them” (Numbers 25:1-3). Anyway, the two sons died not long afterwards. How do we know this? We know this because when Boaz first saw Ruth, he asked his foreman, “Whose young woman is that?” (Ruth 2:5) Ruth was still a young woman when she came to Bethlehem with Naomi, so she could not have been married a long time.
Naomi was not slow to recognize that God had “brought misfortune upon me” in Moab. (Ruth 1:21). Naomi’s name meant “Pleasant”. “Don’t call me Naomi” she told the women who greeted her. “Call me Mara (meaning Bitter), because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Ruth 1:20) So did her bitter experiences turn Naomi against God? Evidently not.
If Naomi had not been a God-fearing woman when she left Bethlehem, she certainly was by the time she returned. The first time we hear Naomi speak, the name of God was on her lips. She was speaking to her two daughters-in-law, and said, “Go back each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you as you have shown kindness 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).
And the second time we hear Naomi speak, guess what? Yes, God’s name was very much on her mind and on her lips (Ruth 1:13). Then, when she returned to Bethlehem, the first thing she said to the people there was, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara (Bitter), because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty. The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (Ruth 1:20, 21). Wow, four references to God in four consecutive sentences. Can we say that Naomi was continually and frequently thinking about God and talking about Him? And if one was frequently talking about God and not against Him, would one not talk to Him? Was it not quick-witted or witty of her to make such a reply using word play on her name?
Now Naomi and Ruth settled down in Bethlehem, but they had to eat. Fortunately, or shall we say thanks be to the timing of God, they arrived at the start of the barley harvest. So Ruth asked Naomi to let her go to the fields and pick up left-behind grain behind the harvesters. Naomi agreed. But there is something here I do not understand, and I hope someone can enlighten me. What I do not understand is: Why did Naomi not accompany Ruth? Was Ruth not in danger of being molested or raped? Certainly. We know this for a fact because Boaz himself told Ruth, “Stay here with my servant girls. …. I have told the men not to touch you.” (Ruth 2:8,9) Naomi also told Ruth, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with his girls, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.” (Ruth 2:22)
Was Naomi was too old and weak to glean in the fields with Ruth? Well, if a woman could walk over 100 kilometres back to Bethlehem, I doubt if she was too weak to glean for grain. So was Naomi sick then? There is no evidence of that. Could Naomi have a hidden hope that Ruth might meet some eligible man who would marry her? And Naomi’s presence might scare off such a man? Perhaps, but I really don’t know.
What I do know is that Naomi was a very perceptive woman. When Ruth came home from her first day’s gleaning with about 22 litres of barley and some roasted barley left over from lunch, Naomi immediately said, “Blessed be the man who took notice of you!” (Ruth 2:19)
Have you noticed that Naomi knew from that first day that the man, Boaz, was “a close relative; he is one of our kinsmen-redeemers”? (Ruth 2:20) So why did Naomi not make any moves to get him to redeem her property and marry Ruth? Did she want to wait to see whether Boaz’s feelings towards Ruth were steadfast and true? Did she wait to see what kind of a man he really was, and what the intentions behind his kind treatment of Ruth really were? For instance, was he kind to her only because he wanted to take sexual advantage of her? Did Naomi want to give Boaz time to let his love blossom through seeing Ruth, eating lunch with her and talking to her every day? Or did she wait to see if Boaz would make a move towards marriage? Whatever it was, Naomi was a patient woman. She waited.
One day, when the barley and wheat harvests were ending and the harvested grain was about to be threshed, Naomi told Ruth how to get herself married to Boaz. If Boaz would not make the move, Ruth would have to make the move. “Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes,” she told Ruth. Then she told Ruth how to make her marriage intentions clear to Boaz. Talk about perfect timing, and a good plan. Naomi was not only patient but also a good planner. And her plan worked. Boaz accepted Ruth’s proposal of marriage.
So what kind of a woman was Naomi? Tick the relevant answers below:
We thank our ‘Thinking Points’ contributor, Mickey Chiang, for his insightful and interesting study. You’ll have noticed that in his study this month he has asked a lot of questions, and in some cases even answered his questions with the simple words ‘I really don’t know.’ Do you think that you have an answer to one of his questions? If so, feel free to communicate it to us. We are always happy to receive readers’ comments, and in some cases may consider publishing them. (But please keep them brief!)
On 17th January Chapel speaker was Dr. Philip Satterthwaite. He spoke upon Psalms 120–122, under the title ‘Journey to Zion’. These three Psalms form a progression, in which the psalmist moves from a position of anxiety and loneliness amid those hostile to him (Ps. 120) to one of delight in worship at the Jerusalem temple (Ps. 122). The psalmist’s devotion to his fellow-Israelites, and even to the temple, is a challenge to us: does our commitment to God find equally real expression today?
1. A warm welcome to Prof. Paul Stevens who will be conducting “Spirituality & Work” (MM254, 3 credits) at BGST from Jan 25 - Feb 10. This intensive course covers 7 sessions on Jan 25, 29, 31, Feb 2 (Weekdays, 7.15-10.15pm); Jan 27, Feb 3, 10 (Saturdays, 2.30-9.30pm). Registration is still open.
2. The Books of Kings: An Anatomy of Religious Decline in Israel & Judah ( OT365, 1.5 credits) which is due to start on Jan 23 has been cancelled because of low registration.
3. New Testament Foundations I (NT101, 3 credits) by Dr Aquila Lee will commence on Feb 5, 7.30-9.30pm, at 31 Tg Pagar Rd.
Mr Lam Wai Kay 22/1
Mr Kenneth Tan 22/1
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