Today’s reading is Judges 21:1-Ruth 1:22, John 4:4-42, Psalm 105:1-15, Proverbs 14:25.
In our passage today, we wrap up the story of the time of the judges, which led to the era with no king—a time when people did as they saw fit. It was a dark, evil time period. The book of Judges ends this way:
25 In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.
This anarchical model may appear to be ideal, but in actuality leads to chaos and disorder. We need a standard, we need boundaries. We are all tempted to push the limits on those boundaries, but we need them nonetheless. Psychologists confirm that from the earliest age, children are most content, happy, and secure when there are boundaries in place. It starts with the swaddling clothes and ends with social, moral, and spiritual boundaries. These margins give us comfort, rest, peace, and stability and without them, things would tend towards unrest. This sense of disorder defined that time period.
During the time of the judges, there arose a severe famine, symbolic of the spiritual and political famine of those days. This is the time period of the story of Ruth and Naomi, a story defined by loyalty and redemption.
There was a man named Elimelech from Bethelehem in the land of Judah who left his home because of the famine and went to the country of Moab with his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. It was there they settled.
Mahlon and Kilion married Moabite women, Orpah, and Ruth, and all seemed to be going well. That is, until the waves of tragedy came forcefully upon this family. First, Elimelech died, then both sons died, leaving three widows to fend for themselves. In those days, widows and orphans were the absolute bottom of the social ladder. They were completely destitute. Hearing that the famine in Israel had ended, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, with hopes she could better survive among her own people in her own homeland. One of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, insisted on going with her, leaving behind her land, her family, and what little security she still had. She famously said to Naomi, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”
And so, the destitute widows returned to Bethlehem. We glimpse their despair in the following passage:
19 So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. “Is it really Naomi?” the women asked.
20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara,[a] for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer[b] and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth, the young Moabite woman. They arrived in Bethlehem in late spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest.
This verse is the end of today’s passage. We don’t know what will happen, we don’t know if they will survive. All we know is that their despair is so great that Naomi wants to change her name to reflect the great changes in her life. The name Naomi means “sweet, pleasant”. She can longer fathom a sweet and pleasant life. Her grief can only see the pain and the despair, and so she declares that her new name is Mara, which means “bitter”. Her affliction is definitely a bitter pill to swallow, and it has changed everything. She is no longer sweet and pleasant. She is no longer who she used to be. And she sees this bitter change as an endless, eternal lot which she can’t escape.
In the midst of grief, we often feel the same way. We become bitter and full of despair. We feel that we may drown in the grief. Surely there is no way to survive, we think to ourselves. But Naomi did do one important thing, which was a step toward redemption. She headed home. She headed to the place where she could freely worship God and be surrounded by others who worshipped God, unlike the land of the Moabites. And that step of faith toward home set the stage for a huge redemption that would ultimately affect us, as well.
Are you Mara? Is your name “Bitterness”? Has life dealt you such a blow that it is hard to live life fully? Do you feel abandoned, alone, disappointed, full of despair? Take heart, my friend! Take a step home, where Abba Father is waiting to rescue you and redeem your situation.