So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi?
And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.
I went out fill, and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD bath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me?
As Naomi passed over the border from Moab into Israel, a glimmer of light burst forth upon her, although she was not yet ready to perceive its deepest significance.
Moab had proved to be for her a horror of darkness. She had come into the land full, with a faithful husband and two fine children. They had come there to escape a famine which had fallen upon Israel because of its wickedness, a wickedness in which they had not taken part and for which they had not felt that they should be held responsible. At first it had gone well with them there, and it had seemed to be a wise move. Life was easier in Moab than Israel. So their stay had lingered on, even though they were very much alone there in the service of Jehovah. It was then that the first blow fell upon her, her husband died. It had been a hard blow, but her sons had grown and were ready to marry two fine Moabitish young women. So she had tarried until the second blow fell, harder than the first, and her sons had died in quick succession. Naomi was left empty, without livelihood, husband, or children. This for a child of Israel was a terrible thing, not just from a material point of view, but spiritually too. It meant that her family, the family of her husband and children, had come to its end in the covenant of Jehovah. For, in spite of their long stay in Moab, Naomi and her family held the love of God within their hearts. They had always known that they belonged to Israel and that some day they would have to return. It was just that other considerations had always seemed to interfere, until now at last it was too late. The family of Elimelech had become a dead branch.
At last Naomi began to understand; it was the hand of the Lord that afflicted them. They had never joined in the idolatrous sins of Israel; but they had sinned just the same in going to dwell among the heathen. Thus God had cut them off from the line of the covenant. Her husband and sons were dead, and there were no children left to carry on their name into the promised days of Israel’s glory, which some day would surely come. There were the two young widows of her children, but she had no more sons and would have no more who would be able to bring up children unto their brothers. Moreover, they were Moabites. They were good girls, they always had been. They had never objected to their worship of Jehovah, but had taken part in it willingly. But they were Moabites, and it had been contrary to the law for her sons to marry them in the beginning. Surely it could not be expected that any of their kinsmen in Israel would feel any responsibility toward them. Neither could she be certain that their participation in the worship of Jehovah was anything more than the goodness of their nature. The place of Elimelech’s family in Israel and in the covenant of Jehovah was as good as ended. There was nothing left for her to do but to return to her land and her country and live out her days in the sorrow of repentance.
It was when Naomi came to the border of Israel, accompanied by her daughters-in-law, that an entirely new thing happened which Naomi had not expected. She counseled the girls to return to their homes and their country because there was no future for them in Israel, and Orpah had consented. But Ruth refused to go. Her reason was sincere and beautiful, “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee:” she said, “For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” Here was a confession of faith to which the faith of Naomi could not help but respond. Ruth knew where Naomi was going. She was going to a life of repentance and sorrow, with no promise of hope for the future. The hand of the Lord had afflicted Naomi and there was nothing left for her but to live out her days in the patient acknowledgement of her transgression. But still Ruth spoke with unwavering resolution, for with Naomi there was still one thing which was more important than anything that Moab could provide: a true religion and a living God. All that she had learned from Naomi and Chilion had penetrated deeply into her heart and had changed her whole life. She firmly believed that their country was the country of promise, that their people were the people of God’s own choice, that their God was the only real God of mercy and power. She could not return from that faith and worship back to the superficial folly of Moab. No matter what the cost might be, this was a faith which had to be followed even to death.
Here at last was a light to lighten the darkness of Naomi’s affliction. It was the sign that God had not rejected her completely and that their stay in Moab, as sinful as it was, had not been left completely without any fruit. True, Naomi did not yet understand how it could be that this heathen girl could come to the faith which so many of her own countrymen had rejected, or how she, a Moabitish girl, could ever find a place among the chosen people of Israel. But she knew this that she could not send such faith as this back to live alone amid the wickedness of unbelieving Moab. Ruth would have to go along with her. Together they would have to live out their burden and their sorrow.
Thus, together the two widows, one older and one so very young, left the borders of Moab into the land of Israel, Together they crossed the Jordan; together they climbed the rocky slopes; together they walked the dusty paths. But somehow the way was not as dark as it had seemed before. Their lives received strength through their mutual faith in Jehovah.
At last the two women, Naomi and Ruth, entered the town of Bethlehem. For Naomi it must have been a disturbing experience. In the slow pace of those years, the town had hardly changed. Everywhere she looked there was that familiarly strange appearance of a place which once she had known so well but now had not seen for many years. She was almost surprised that she recognized it all and yet knew that she could never forget. Each new sight pierced like a knife into her soul. These were the places where she had known all the pleasures and joys of former years; but they only served to remind her that such happiness would be hers no more. Even the people and faces, with a little effort, she could recognize. Only here there was a difference; those who had been the strong in her day were now old and worn; the carefree children of former years, they were now the community’s strength. That hurt more yet. She could only identify herself with the old and the worn, not with the young and the strong. Her children were dead. This was her home; but she did not feel any longer that she belonged. Nor did anyone else. Everyone looked on her with blank, unrecognizing faces, even those who had known her well. No one hurried up to her to bid her welcome. Her return was not expected, and her burden of sorrow had changed her beyond recognition. Neither did Naomi have the courage or desire to approach them and introduce herself. She preferred to bear her sorrow alone.
Slowly but unerringly the two women passed through the village to the place where Elimelech’s house stood, It was all that remained of the once proud and prosperous estate; and after so many uninhabited years, it had fallen into disrepair close to ruin. But it was the only place they had to which to go, and Naomi felt no inclination to impose herself upon any other. Into the house Ruth and Naomi entered and began to do what they could to prepare it again for habitation.
Then it was that the citizens of Bethlehem began to suspect who it was that had come so quietly into their village. It was now many years since Elimelech and his family had left for Moab with the promise that they would return as soon as the famine was over. For many seasons the people had looked for and even anticipated their return, but nothing at all had been heard. Now the people seldom mentioned them any more, and the dim memories were only occasionally revived when they took note of the sad state into which their former dwelling had fallen. Only when these two strange women in Moabitish garb entered that home and began to set it straight did they put two and two together and conclude that this must be Naomi with some Moabitish girl of whom they knew nothing.
Unsure of themselves, the women who had known Naomi so well in former years approached the door of the house. Timidly, ashamed of their uncertainty, they asked, “Is this Naomi?”
With this the floodgates were opened. From Naomi burst forth the bitterly anguished response, “Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the, Almighty hath afflicted me?” It was not rebellion which she meant to express. It was not dissatisfaction with the hand of Jehovah as though He had been unjust. If so, she would have never returned to Bethlehem. Hers was the bitterness, the anguish of heart, of one who had been caught in the web of her own sin. She and her husband and her children had had a place in Israel, a place which they had dearly loved; but they had been unwilling to bear the dealings of the Lord with His people. Because of material discomforts, they had left the land of promise to dwell among the heathen. Now God, as though giving recognition to their actions, had cut them off without a future in the land of promise; her husband and sons were dead. The Almighty in His justice had done it. All that remained was the anguish of a sin that could not be undone. Her old name “Naomi,” meaning “pleasantness,” no longer seemed to fit. More descriptive of her true state was “Mara,” meaning “bitterness,” for that was the way she felt.
What could these women say? What comfort could they give? The facts were there which no words could ever contradict. Long years of separation had left them strangers in her sight. All they could do was to quietly steal away, to leave her bearing her sorrow by herself.
Only one comfort did Naomi have: that was Ruth. She could understand, she could share Naomi’s sorrow, for she was in the same state. Though so recently she had come to believing, she could feel the sorrow of being cut off without a name to be carried on into the promise of Israel’s future, she could feel the pain. But one thing she had which Naomi did not. She had known what it was to be without Israel’s God completely, and the little which they now had was far better than that. Quietly and with strength, she ministered to the grieving widow, being a grieving widow herself.