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Returning from Bitter Places: Naomi's Journey

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

Have you ever known someone or been someone who suffered a loss, blamed it on God, and then got bitter? I worked with a man named Frank who was the black sheep in his Catholic family. Everything was a struggle for him, especially substance abuse. One Sunday at a certain low point Frank decided to go to church. During the service someone broke into his van and stole his stereo. That was it for Frank. He figured, I tried to seek God and look what happened! Frank’s quest for God was over (for the time being). When loss happens in our lives, we don’t want to get bitter; we want to get better. Thankfully, the Book of Ruth has much to teach us about how to respond to loss.

Picking up from where we left off in the last blog post, Naomi, the widowed Israelite woman and her two widowed daughters-in-law are in Moab. Ruth 1:6 reads, “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the land of Moab, because she had heard in the land of Moab that the LORD had visited His people by giving them food.”

The fact that they are in Moab is again being emphasized by the author mentioning it twice. Plain and simple, Naomi was living in an odd place for an Israelite! But, most wonderfully, we see that Naomi still understands the Lord as the one who “visited His people by giving them food.” She knows God is the Provider, but does she trust Him as her Provider? Perhaps. After ten years living in a heathen nation, Naomi is now heading back home.

The word “return” in verse 6 is important to the Book of Ruth. The author uses it eight more times just in chapter one. The Hebrew word is shuwb (shoob) and it’s translated several ways. It can be used as in to “turn back.” This can be a physical turning back or a spiritual turning back, positively or negatively. With Ruth, we see that it’s a positive turning back physically and spiritually. Like the prodigal son, she is returning home to the Lord’s provision.

The word shuwb is also translated as “restore.” It’s used in Job 33:26 where it says (slight paraphrase), “Then man will pray to God, and God will accept him, that man may see God’s face with joy, and God may restore His righteousness to man.” Here it’s speaking of a spiritual turning back to God—a restoration. Shuwb is a very loaded word. In Job 42:10 it says, “The Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends, and the Lord increased all that Job had twofold.” This is speaking of a restoration (shuwb) of Job’s fortunes. We ‘ll see in a bit that Job and Naomi had a lot in common. In both stories, there was a bitterness toward God because of hardship, then a turning back to God, bringing restoration.

Ruth 1:7-14 reads, “So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, 'Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!' Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, 'No, we will return with you to your people.' But Naomi said, 'Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.' Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

Naomi began to return to Judah from Moab, an important change of location, spirit, body, and soul for Naomi! At first her daughters-in-law wanted to return with her “to her people,” meaning the Israelites, their nation, and their covenant with Yahweh. But Naomi discourages them saying that she cannot provide husbands for them. Naomi is missing the point! God can provide all that they need and all that we need. Like Naomi, we’ve likely all been in the valley of discontent or even bitterness at some point.

Notice that in verse 13b Naomi says, "No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” My paraphrase: I ain’t got nothing for ya girls! God hasn’t helped me; I can’t help you. Go back to your people and your gods. But Ruth is clinging to Naomi, Naomi’s people, and Naomi’s God. In verse 13b Naomi says that her experience is “exceedingly bitter.” Bitter is the Hebrew word marar (maw rar’) meaning to have bile in the mouth, as in angry, discontented, and in Naomi’s case exceedingly discontented. It’s related to a word meaning to be dominated by a harsh lord or master. In Exodus 1:14, it says that the Egyptians made the Israelite’s “lives bitter with hard labor.”

So, Naomi is bitter and isn’t encouraging her DIL’s to attach themselves to the people of Yahweh in Israel. Part of this is practical, but it also appears that Naomi has lost her vision for God’s ability to move on her behalf. We probably all know people (or have been the person) who when hardship hits they feel that God cannot be counted on, like Frank who I mentioned earlier. They’ve lost sight of or never knew the goodness of God in their life. But it’s not our place to judge them, like Job’s friends judged him, but to pray for them and keep showing them God’s love.

Reading on, Ruth 1:15-18 says, “Then she said, 'Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.' But Ruth said, 'Do not plead with me to leave you or to turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you sleep, I will sleep. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do so to me, and worse, if anything but death separates me from you.' When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it."

In contrast to Naomi’s bitterness over her losses, Ruth’s faithful loyalty is a shining light! Orpah returns to “her people and her gods.” Tragic! She is going back to a life of trusting in idols. Ruth is cut from a different cloth. She reminds me of the Roman centurion who through faith in Christ sought out and believed in Jesus. Jesus then said, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt 8:10b). Ruth is a Moabitess, a foreigner like the centurion, yet she is displaying great faith for her future with Naomi in Israel. Her faith is showing itself in lovingkindness, one of the great characteristics of the Lord. Ruth binds herself in covenantal love to Naomi just as God has bound Himself in covenantal love to His people.

Reading further 1:19-22 says, “So they both went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, 'Is this Naomi?' But she said to them, 'Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?' So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.”

“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty."

Looking for a moment at bitterness, in Hebrews 12:15 the writer mentions “a root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Ephesians 4:31 says to “get rid” of bitterness. James 3:14 says some have “bitter envy.” In Greek, the word “bitter” literally has the meaning of poison. And Naomi shows the signs of having been poisoned by it! Arriving in Bethlehem she wants the women to call her Mara meaning bitter. She says twice in verses 20 & 21 that the Almighty has dealt bitterly with her and that the Almighty has afflicted her. Look at what Job said about his trials, “I loathe my own life; I will give full vent to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, ‘Do not condemn me; Let me know why You contend with me. Is it right for You indeed to oppress, to reject the labor of Your hands, and to look favorably on the schemes of the wicked?'” Ouch! Just hearing such words makes me want to put my hands over my ears. Later, when Job gets a truer view of who God is, he does put his hand over his mouth in repentance. God never told Job why he was afflicted. He just allowed Job to see Him as He is… the Almighty, the Creator, and the Sustainer of life.

Naomi says in verse 21 that God has “afflicted” her which means to break something in pieces, so it is good for nothing. She is struggling that as a widow and a mother bereaved of her sons that she has been made “good for nothing” by God. Like Job, when Naomi says she has been made “empty” in verse 21, it carries the idea of being made ineffective, good for nothing, without cause.

In verse 22, we turn a corner which breathes fresh life into the story! Scripture tells us that Naomi and her DIL, Ruth, had RETURNED. They returned from their sojourn in Moab and had come to Bethlehem, back to the Land and the promises of God—back to the House of Bread. At what season…? At the beginning of the barley harvest. Big sigh of relief. Naomi is moving in the right direction. This truly is a story about God who through faithful love supplies a harvest for his people—including foreigners who take refuge under His wings.

In chapter 1, we experienced with Naomi the pain of loss and her wrestling with her view or experience of God. Ruth’s faithful love was like water in a parched desert or a glimmer of hope against a dark backdrop. At the end of chapter one, we are on the precipice of the beginning of their story of restoration. As the psalmist says, “Weeping my endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Women's Bible studies by Nancy Gemaehlich

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