An Expositional Study Through: Ruth
By: Caleb Fleming
Session 4: Naomi’s Mixed Reception (Ruth 1:19-22)
Before we jump into the text for this week’s study, let us make a quick review of what we have seen thus far in the book of Ruth. Consider the outline you were provided in week 1 (Introduction), in this outline you will recall the book of Ruth is presented in the form of a drama, and as such a helpful way of outlining the book is to consider major movements as acts in a play, and the development of each act as a scene. This week we will close out Act 1 by looking at Scene 4 but let us go back and review Scenes 1-3.
Review: Before we begin our review of Scenes 1-3 it is important to remember the overall theme of Ruth’s story; the faithfulness of God. If we will remember to study this book through that understanding, Ruth will take on more depth of meaning for us today. It becomes more than a historical narrative and becomes a dynamically chronicled account of God’s sovereignty and providential care for His people.
In Scene One we are presented with the setting of the drama. This story takes place during the time of the Judges. This gives us insight into the current condition of Jewish religious life. During this time, there is a famine in the land. This famine causes Elimelech to leave Bethlehem with his family and move to Moab. At this point we considered the importance of the names of this family unit, especially that of Elimelech (God is my King) and Naomi (Pleasantness/Pleasant One).
In Scene Two we are introduced to the problem in the story, and the hope of that problem being resolved. Remember, the problem was not the famine, and the problem was not the death of Elimelech and the sons. Rather, the problem was a lack of a progeny.
In Scene Three the problem comes to a head as the plot thickens. Naomi hears that YHWH has visited His people (this should remind us of the central theme to this story, the faithfulness of God). As Naomi begins her return to Bethlehem, she calls her daughters-in-law to return to their homes in Moab. The hopeless state of Naomi is magnified as she prays for YHWH’s blessing on them and their search for rest (a significant biblical concept). The hopelessness of the widow peaks as she explains she is too old to remarry and bear children. And even if she did conceive again, would the women wait until her hypothetical sons were grown? At this point Orpah kisses Naomi and returns to her home, but Ruth, valuing being a daughter over being a wife and mother, clings to and stays with Naomi.
This now bring us to the close of Act 1 where we will look at Naomi’s Mixed Reception…
The Arrival: There is nothing more told to us about the journey to Bethlehem. Verse 19 simply tells us, they continued until they arrived. In fact, we might consider verse 19a as a brief interlude setting the scene for the completion of the first act. Once the pair is in Bethlehem, they are greeted. Now verse 19 says, “by the whole town,” but goes on to indicate it was the women who greeted Naomi. There are couple of interpretations we could take here. First, she was greeted by the whole town, but in a highly patriarchal society the men did not typically greet the women. This would point to the fact that the text specifies the women verbally recognizing Naomi and Ruth. Second, verse 22 gives us an interesting possibility. The arrival of the widows came at the start of barely harvest. This would indicate most men would be in the fields preparing for the season to fully begin. Thus, the women would be left in town to great the returnees. Third, we should consider the range of meaning for the word translated stirred (הום). This Hebrew word literally means, to be out of one’s senses, to wander about. Throughout the Old Testament it has been used to communicate everything from groanings, panic, and anxiety to excited noise (1 Sam. 4:5; 1 Kgs. 1:45). This does not necessarily indicate a warm greeting, but perhaps indicates both understandings taking place at the same time. This might be what is reflected by certain women speaking to Naomi upon her return. In my opinion, I think any of these options is plausible and would be faithful to the account given, but I would think some type of combination of option two and three is likely the case.
Condition Upon Arrival: Upon her arrival the women inquire, “Is this Naomi?” This is an important clue into Naomi’s state. Remember, she has lived through a famine, the death of husband, the death of her sons, the departure of a loved daughter-in-law, and the reality that there is no hope for her lineage to continue. This sorrow and pain would have taken a toll on her appearance; in addition to the decade that passed. Naomi even points to this in verse 21 as she highlights the fullness of her exodus from Bethlehem contrasted with the emptiness of her return.
It is at this point Naomi brings the fullness of her plight into the picture. She instructs the women not to refer to her as Naomi (Pleasant One), rather to call her Mara (bitterness). This she ascribes to the bitter dealing of the Lord in her life.
Verse 21 presents Naomi’s thought process. The condition of her departure with her family was that of fullness. It is the action of Elimelech and Naomi that initiate the move from Bethlehem. By contrast, it was the action of the Lord that returned her empty. In our lives how often is it the case that we step out on our own initiative, thinking that we know better just to learn life outside the will of God is utter emptiness? Additionally, how we perceive things through our way of thinking is often not reality. Our idea of fulness is not always God’s idea of fullness. Our idea of blessing is not always God’s idea of blessing. Our expectation of what God’s presence should be like is not always how it is. Naomi’s condition upon her arrival in Bethlehem is one that we should consider in light of what we know about God and His character.
Naomi’s Argument: From the end of verse 20 through verse 21, Naomi presents an interesting argument. One in which we should consider in more detail. She refers to God in two distinct ways. She calls Him the Almighty (A) and calls Him YHWH (B). If we break down this argument, we have something that flows like this:
- A1: The Almighties bitter treatment of Naomi
- B1: YHWH returned Naomi to Bethlehem empty
- B2: YHWH has testified against her (might also be understood as afflicted)
- A2: The Almighty has brought calamity upon her
Not once does Naomi accuse the Lord of any moral evil, but she does testify to the severity of the Lord’s hand in her life (Is. 13:6; Joel 1:15). In this I think we see a broken and bitter woman. One who is realizing the futility of her life apart from the will of God and is reaping the consequences of a life lived void of His blessings. Again, remember the theme of the book. In light of her bitter estate, Naomi will still be the beneficiary of God’s grace, and through Obed is able to testify of God’s faithfulness.
Concluding Act 1: Verse 22 serves as an inclusio that closes out Act 1 of our story. It sets the scene for Act 2 to begin at the time of the barely harvest (March through mid-April), and returns the focus to the heroin of the story, Ruth.
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 Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 242.
 Note: it is understood that both Naomi and Ruth arrived, but in this scene, Naomi plays the main role.