A Bitter Homecoming
Preached by Jason Abbott, senior pastor
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
1. The town is stirred up at Naomi’s arrival (v. 19).
But what kind of “much-to-do” is this? Are they—in a positive sense—excited to reconnect with an old friend who has come home, or are they—in a negative fashion—stirred up by the humbled and lonely state of Naomi’s homecoming?
It is most likely that the people are stirred by the pitiable scene before them. The question of the women who observe her makes this scenario more likely! They are disturbed by her lonely and humble appearance. So they ask:
“Is this Naomi” (v. 19)?
I presume she is almost unrecognizable to them. If she was one of the leading families of Bethlehem when she left for Moab (as I argued that she probably was in week one of this series) then her impoverished and humbled state shocks these onlookers! “Can it possibly be her!!?” they ask.
In literature the term peripeteia is used to describe a reversal of circumstances or a turning point. Certainly this is what’s being noted at this point of our narrative. In fact, the change is so drastic that it isn’t merely circumstantial—wife to widow, mother to childless—but physical. Thus, the onlookers wonder if this is really Naomi. She looks so changed to them that they have trouble grasping that it’s truly her.
A classic example of peripeteia is Saul’s conversion. Thus, all those who heard him preaching that Jesus is God’s Son in the Damascus synagogue, following his conversion on the Damascus road, ask (in disbelief) concerning him:
Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem on those who call on [Jesus’s name] (Acts 9:21, NIV)?
In short, they can’t believe that Saul is the same person. Their reaction is something like the reaction of those in Bethlehem when Naomi comes into town—Naomi cannot be the same person they used to know! The change is too drastic! What has happened to her?
Naomi now begins to fill them in.
2. Naomi honestly complains to them (vv. 20-21).
Look at what she says about what has occurred and why it has occurred:
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, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (vv. 20-21)?
a. Don’t call me lovely; call me bitter (v. 20)!
With her first statement (v. 20), she verifies that indeed there has been a transformation in her life. In fact, the transformation is so drastic that it entails a name change—from Naomi to Mara, pleasant or lovely to bitter.
We don’t often think about the meaning of names when we give them. We more likely think of people. So we name our children after parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles. However, in the ancient near-east this wasn’t the case. Thus:
In Israel, names were not just labels of individuality but descriptions of inner character which in turn presumed to influence the person’s conduct.1
So when Naomi says—“Call me bitter.”—she is suggesting that her situation and her conduct are more accurately described as bitter than lovely.
Why should they now call her this? Who is ultimately responsible for this name change? Bitter is quick to attribute responsibility. She explains:
Call me bitter “for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (v. 20).
Here (and in the next verse) Naomi sounds a lot like another prominent, suffering Old Testament figure—namely Job. By attributing her changed state—her new suffering state—to God, Naomi (like Job) is placing “God’s mysterious justice” under the microscope. 2
Such human questioning of God smacks of irreverence, but I want to highlight a more positive aspect of what Naomi is doing. She is attributing her bitter circumstances to God because in her view God is sovereign, he rules! In fact, the name of God she chooses to use indicates her emphasis on God’s control over all! Thus, it is Shaddai or “the Almighty” who has dealt with her in this way.
This is practically very important! When Job or Naomi or we are in a dark place, and we honestly recognize God as “the Almighty” then we come dangerously close to irreverence. Don’t we?
To say, “God is in control! God is sovereign!” in the midst of something like what happened during the ending moments of the Boston Marathon last Monday is close to saying God is responsible for it. Isn’t it?
Some have wrongly tried to explain away such tension by suggesting that God has blinded himself to future events—that God willing allows himself to not see future events so that we might have meaningful choices and, thus, things like the Boston Marathon bombing or 9-11 can happen.
This position is called Open Theism—God is open to future possibilities in order that meaningful choices can be made. (An unfortunate consequence is that evil choices slide by too.) Yet, in the end, this does not exonerate God. He would still be at risk of being charged with responsibility for evil events; after all, he is responsible for choosing not to see them coming! He is intentionally and irresponsibly asleep at the wheel! Is this a better way forward? Certainly not!
Instead, it is better (and biblical) to err on the side of being mistaken for irreverent! It is biblical to firmly assert that God is sovereign and that Boston Marathon bombings happen in a fallen world! It is biblical to say that God is in control yet that somehow he is not responsible for evil events! It is biblical to say that terrible things happen and that God is able to use those terrible things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). How this works out is a divine mystery, but—even though we cannot explain it—we must assert it no less fervently!
Naomi deserves credit here for continuing to assert the sovereign hand of God even though she takes his level of responsibility, in the evil that has befallen her, too far.
This brings us to the second statement she makes concerning her current miserable condition.
b. I went away full; I have come back empty (v. 21)!
With this, Naomi explains that God has reversed her circumstances. She basically says, “I was rich when I left, but God has brought me back poor. I was content when I left, but God has brought me back discontent. I had much when I left, but God has brought me back without anything.”
Again, Naomi is taking God’s responsibility (in the tragic events of her life) too far. She assumes two things that she cannot prove here! (1) She assumes that—because God is sovereign—he is responsible for the evil that has befallen her. And (2) she assumes that—because her circumstances are bad—God’s hand in her circumstances could not possibly be for her but, instead, must be against her!
Why can’t she prove these things? Because: She does not see fully; she does not see the end, the result!
Let me illustrate what I mean.
If my wife leaves me with our 5 kids to hang out with her friends from church for a few hours one Saturday afternoon then calls me and tells me that she’s going to a movie with them and won’t be home for another couple hours, I might think she’s being a bit insensitive
If she then stays past that window of time, and I call her to see what’s going on, and she says she’s at Target looking for lampshades then I might think she’s mad at me and is passive-aggressively trying to make me pay for something I have done. When the kids begin to wake up from naps, and the baby begins to cry and she’s still not back, I might conclude that she wants me to suffer!
However, if Natalie finally comes home with my best friend from Missouri (who has come on a surprise visit), and I find out that his flight had been delayed 3 hours in St. Louis then I will recognize that all the crying and all the changing of dirty diapers and all the settling of toy disputes between warring parties of children has been something I had to endure not because Natalie was against me but because she was for me!
You see—my problem was that I didn’t understand the goal; I couldn’t see the end result. And that is also the problem with how Naomi views God! She can’t imagine that God could use all she’s going through for her ultimate good, and, therefore, she wrongly assumes that God is against her.
Naomi is correct in suggesting that God has allowed her circumstances to be reversed. She went away full and came back empty. She went away a wife and mother and came back a widow and childless. There has indeed been a reversal!
Yet, is there hope for another?
3. A subtle suggestion of hope from the narrator (v. 22).
Look at the final verse of today’s text with me.
So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest (v. 22).
It would be easy to pass over this verse without noticing the subtle but incredibly important ray of hope in it. Most of this passage has been taken up by Naomi’s description of her woes. But, here in the last verse, Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem safe and sound and right at the beginning of harvest time. So the narrator of Ruth brings this first chapter of his story to a hopeful end.
Yet, don’t miss the subtle reversal that’s being highlighted with this little barley-harvest-crowned ending. The narrator is contrasting Naomi’s complaints about her negative reversal (being taken from full to empty) with a note of positive reversal of his own. Think back to the beginning of the chapter. The story begins:
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land (1:1).
There was no food. The land was barren. The people were fleeing for foreign territory and survival. It was a dark time. Yet now the tables have been turned. The narrator writes:
And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest (v. 22).
Now there is harvest and food. There is the promise of prosperity that is coming. The people are no longer fleeing the land but returning to the land. The famine has been replaced with harvest. There is a positive reversal—the Israelites are moving from the experience of curse to the experience of blessing!
Naomi is too wrapped up in her own woes to celebrate this goodness, this blessing, this subtle sign of positive reversal. However, though she misses it, it is no less real for having been missed!
Moreover, Naomi is ready to say—in the midst of her dark hour—that God is against her and that God has reversed her blessings to curses. Yet, is she equally ready to credit God with reversing her reversal? Is she ready to believe that God can and will take her curses and turn them into blessings?
Are we ready to believe the same? Are we able in our darkest moments to trust God for reversal? To believe that God will restore? It is his character to do so:
- If you are a follower of Jesus, God can and will use such trials to build and complete your faith: Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
- If you are seeking Jesus, God can and will use the burdens of life in a broken world to bring you to faith and to relief: Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).