“20 But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi [pleasant]; call me Mara [bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went out full, and the Lord has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” 22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. Now they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:20-22).
Naomi has every reason to be discouraged, depressed, and downtrodden.
She is far from her home and her family (siblings, parents, cousins, etc.). She has been brought by her husband to live in a foreign land full of pagan gods – because he was fearful of a famine. She has managed to settle down and create a new life, probably still missing her home but making the best of her circumstances.
Then her husband dies, and if they had been childless, she would have been desperate. But she has the consolation – and support – of her two sons to make sure she is cared for. So, she again readjusts her expectations and makes the best of things.
And then her sons also die. And she is left alone with two unrelated women, her daughters-in-law. They have learned to live together and love each other, evidenced by Naomi’s affection in calling them “my daughters” several times.
And when Naomi has to decide how she is going to take care of herself, she realizes her only option is to return home, to her family. Someone there will surely have pity on her and allow her to live out her days with them.
Naomi becomes consumed with her grief. Overcome by her anger. Distant in her faith.
And when she finally arrives back in Bethlehem, people attempt to welcome her back. But she rebuffs their consolation because she is so focused on what God has stolen from her. She has allowed herself to be consumed by the bitterness she has allowed to grow within her, allowing it so much power over her that she wants to be called by its name – “Do not call me Naomi [pleasant]; call me Mara [bitter].”
Call me bitter.
Because God has taken everything I cared about.
Because God has left me to die alone and forgotten.
Because God has turned my life into fear of tomorrow.
Because God has “afflicted” me with pain and sorrow too hard to bear.
Because God has emptied my life of blessing and beauty.
But did He really?
Because if you read the same verses I did and see the same truths, you probably come to the same conclusion I did.
“So Naomi returned [from Moab].”
Naomi was not harmed in any way after her husband died and then her sons died.
Naomi was not harmed in any way on her journey home from Moab to Bethlehem.
Naomi was not harmed in any way when she returned to Bethlehem.
What Naomi should have focused on was that God had been protecting her.
God protected Naomi while she lived in the foreign land among foreign (pagan) culture.
God protected Naomi while she buried her husband and then her sons.
God protected Naomi while she traveled and stayed along possibly treacherous roads.
God was with Naomi and keeping her safe from all the adversaries and enemies around her. How vulnerable a childless widow would be! Yet, Naomi was not drawn into the pagan culture surrounding her. Naomi was not taken advantage of or even kidnapped as an unprotected widow. Naomi was not a victim of violence on her journey back home.
God made sure Naomi stayed safe so she could return home and find her destiny.
“Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her.”
Naomi knew three people when she arrived in Moab – her husband and her two sons. Sure, she probably met plenty of other people and made new friends. And she gained two daughters-in-law who seem to have more of a mother-daughter than in-law relationship with her.
What Naomi should have focused on was that she was not alone.
She didn’t have to bury her family alone.
She didn’t have to grieve alone.
She didn’t have to travel alone.
God made sure Naomi had good support around her to deal with the circumstances she was living in. God gave Naomi two precious people who embraced her as family and probably looked to her as a role model. Naomi had support to lean on. Naomi had empathy of people experiencing the same pain. Naomi had companionship of wives who also lost their husbands.
And when Naomi needed it most, she had Ruth.
Who insisted on staying with her.
Who insisted on taking care of her.
Who insisted on loving her unconditionally.
Who insisted on being her family.
Who insisted on being her sister in her faith.
“Now they came to Bethlehem.”
Naomi found her way back home after over ten years away.
And when she arrived …
Naomi found people waiting to welcome her and embrace back into the community.
Naomi found support waiting to help her adjust to yet another life change.
Naomi found a life waiting to be redefined with God’s grace.
What Naomi should have focused on was possibility.
Because Naomi had just journeyed from Moab to Bethlehem.
And she arrived with her health and her possessions.
God had guided her safely and securely back home into a warm welcome.
And the possibilities for a woman who had already triumphed over so much should have seemed endless. She should have looked back and seen how far she had already come … and she might have realized just how strong, how amazing, and how courageous she truly was. I think that is part of what drew Ruth to her. Ruth wanted the possibility of what Naomi had – determination of spirit and security of faith.
“At the beginning of barley harvest.”
God knew Naomi and Ruth would need provision to sustain them. He had already planned they would return during the early spring, when reapers went out into the fields to chop down the barley for threshing. The pieces that fell from the arms of the gatherers and the baskets of the reapers were left for “the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19) to collect, per God’s law.
What Naomi should have focused on was provision. God put Naomi back in Bethlehem at the right time to participate in the harvest. And just as Ruth promised, she took care of Naomi by going out every day to gather whatever fallen barley pieces she could, bringing home provision to get them by.
God provided for Naomi’s physical needs. But He also provided for her emotional and mental needs by giving her a companion who fully embraced her faith and supported her as only family would.
Looking at the evidence, isn’t it easy to see that Naomi’s life was full of blessings? God gave her so much goodness. How did she miss it?
The same way we do.
Naomi had the same choice we all do – look at her life through the lens of loss and hopelessness, or look at her life as a product of God’s grace at work.
Naomi chose to be bitter, even though there was so much good, so much grace, and so much hope in her life. All right in front of her. But she chose to look at her loss as the end of her life. And she allowed herself to be mad at her husband, her sons, the world around her, and even God.
If she had taken a minute, an hour, a day, or even a week to consider and count her blessings, she would have come up full of the pleasant things in her life. And her bitterness would never have had a chance to blossom into her identity.
I pray we learn that we don’t have to be bitter. We don’t have to focus on the negative, the bad, the painful, and the shameful. We don’t have to misinterpret the grace of God working to make us stronger as God punishing us for not being good enough. We don’t have to ignore the support God is sending our way to encourage us.
I pray we use Naomi as the pivot point that helps us remember to count our blessings. To focus on the good things. To appreciate the people supporting us.
And to remember that no matter how badly things seem, God is always for us. God is always with us. And God is always working around us.
Just ask Naomi, the once bitter woman who finally allows God to rewrite her story and who becomes the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:13-17).
Marie Fremin. 1/11/20.