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Thursday, 5 June 2014

Ruth part 4: Understanding Naomi.(Updated 16-07-2014)



Ruth 1

English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

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?” 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?”

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.

Naomi: A bitter sweet lady:

As we discovered in an earlier study bible names often have great significance. This is certainly the case when it comes to Naomi. Her name means sweetness, she might in England be called “Sugar” and I suppose in the USA it would be “Honey!” But as we will discover Naomi was no sickly sweet character. In fact the more that I consider her character she could possibly be the prototype for many of the Christian ladies that I have met in churches in many places during my 40+ years of being a Christian. Very often in churches we meet ladies just like Naomi, sadly we also meet some who are the opposite, it is these Christian ladies that would do well to study and learn from the life of this dear lady of God.

We will consider:

  • Naomi's grief.
  • Naomi's witness.
  • Naomi's friends.

Naomi's grief:

Naomi lived in a time when we might say that “men were men” and so she went into Moab under the leadership of her husband Elimelech. It is not possible for us to make the case that she went against her will, in fact they seem to have been a happy family that by circumstance made a decision to go to Moab because there was food there when Bethlehem suffered from famine. The scripture tells us that they sojourned there in Moab which suggest that they had settled there. Her sons were settled into married life with their Moabite wives and so we see from the outside a happy family until one disaster follows another. I approximately a ten year period firstly Elimelech her husband died followed by both of her sons leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. Very often in grief we discover the true character of a person, Naomi is a wonderful example of this. As matriarch of the family she makes the decision to return home to Bethlehem because she had heard that the famine was over and food was now freely available at home. But her decision was made not entirely upon the news of the famine being over but due to the fact that the LORD had visited His people and had given them the food. Naomi was returning to the place of blessing. Moab had been a place of provision but Bethlehem was the place of blessing.

We can only imagine the memories that Naomi would have of Moab. There would have been happy times such as the wedding celebrations of her two sons but there were also very sad memories. She was leaving behind the graves of the her husband and both of her sons. She would no longer be able to sit at their gravesides and reflect upon them and the good times. It was a big decision for her to make but she decided and so she packed up her belongings and along with Ruth and Orpah she set off towards Bethlehem.

At some stage early in the journey Naomi must have had second thoughts about the decision to take along Ruth and Orpah. What would they do in Bethlehem. It was not possible for Naomi as was the custom to supply them with other sons in order that they might give the girls children on behalf of their deceased brothers. Logic told Naomi that the girls would be better off in Moab. There may also have been a little concern as to what her people might thing of her family when they found out that they were guilty of inter-marriage with Moabite men. There is no evidence of that from the passage but we know from experience how the sinful human mind plots and plans and so it is certainly a possibility.

Naomi attempts to send them on their way, pragmatically it is the right decision, they will be far better with their own families and their own people. They will meet good men there and marry. Naomi sends them on their way with prayer and a blessing from God. The girls immediately protest and want to go along with Naomi. This is great testimony to Naomi's character. Comedians often parody the relationship between mother-in-law and son-in-law by dragon and victim stories but again from my vast years of experience both personal and observational the relationship between son-in-law and mother-in-law is more often far more cordial than between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law! These two ladies really wanted to be with their mother-in-law which suggests that she was kindly and affectionate towards them. As we will see later in our studies that is a fair assessment of Naomi's character.

After pressing the issue further Orpah decides to take Naomi's advice and return home but Ruth is determined to go to Bethlehem.

Naomi's witness:

Naomi breaks all of the rules for modern evangelism, it seems to be the modern way that we do all in our power to persuade people to follow us to Jesus. We do all in our power to cajole them to do this, that or the other in order to find salvation. Naomi did just the opposite, she seemed to do all in her power to send both Ruth and Orpah far away from the place of blessing. Her gospel to them was go back home to your unbelieving families, to your false gods and to a lifestyle far away from a God fearing one. Her gospel persuades Orpah and she returns home but Ruth follows Naomi and at the same time makes one of the most amazing statements of faith found anywhere in scripture but more of that next time!

What is it that persuaded Ruth? Humanly speaking it cannot be Naomi's words, they were persuasive enough to send her back along with Orpah. Ruth clearly loved Naomi and wanted not only to be with her but to belong to all that Naomi was, her people, her God and her very self. That can only be the product of the witness that Naomi had been all of the time that Ruth had known her, her witness at this time for Ruth superseded her words! I am fully convinced that the gospel must be articulated with words and as such it is clear that Naomi had previously spoken of God to Ruth because she desired God for herself. But our actions and our lifestyle must always speak as loud as our words do. That was evidently the case with Naomi. Her life's witness was impressive to Ruth and was effective in Ruth's decision.

Witnessing within the family is one of the hardest tasks that God entrusts to us, they see us as we are. Sadly I have recently been involved with two young people who have had the exact opposite experience to Ruth's they have both got father's who have “made decisions for Christ” but whose witness in the home have preached a very different gospel to the one preached from the mouth! Their violence and bullying has caused their children not only to run away from them but also to hate the God that is preached! Having the opportunity to declare a very different Saviour to that one has been a great privilege but a sober reminder that we must live the life that our words proclaim and that is worthy of our calling. Naomi was a great witness even if not always a great gospel preacher.

Naomi's friends:

It is good to have friends, it is even better to have long term friends. We enjoy going to Coventry, our home town. The difficulty that we have when we return is that we never have enough time to see all of our friends. It is the same when we return to South Wales, our friends are precious to us and it is always good to see them. I love it when somebody spots me across a crowded church and calls “is that really Peter Thatcher that I see?” We embrace and catch up on old times. That was the experience that Naomi had when she returned to Bethlehem. “Is that you Naomi?” her friends called. Have you ever noticed how quickly human nature likes to point to ourselves and our tales of woe?

Naomi immediately wants to tell her friends about her difficulties. She would like them to change her name. She no longer wants to the “sweetness” but would rather be known for her “bitterness.” You see God had dealt her a harsh blow! Naomi was both depressed and was wallowing in self pity. She wanted all to know her plight and so would want to be known by her self professed bitter name of Mara!

It is easy for us to blame God for the difficulties that we experience but sometimes as is with the case of Naomi the difficulties all span from the wrong decisions made at least a decade previously. I am not saying that the deaths of her husband and sons were necessarily judgement on them because the text does not allow that but they really should not have gone to Moab and now Naomi returns without her direct family. Their graves are in a foreign land and Naomi must start afresh back at home without the support of a husband or sons. The bitter blow that Naomi suffered would have been a little easier if she had been surrounded by her friends and extended family in Bethlehem. We cannot dwell on that too much because it is not in the text and neither is it the point of the story but we can learn from the experience and maybe not be so quick in the future to blame God for our difficulties. As we shall see as the story further unfolds these difficulties soon turn into great opportunities and have far reaching effect. Far more than Naomi could ever have thought in her times of bitterness and grief.

I am glad that Naomi's friends are true friends indeed. They obviously care for her as is hinted at in the rest of the account but they do not bow to her depression either. She wants to be called Mara but they always refer to her as Naomi as does the writer of the book! She may have been temporarily bitter of spirit but bitterness was not her nature. I have known many bitter people in my time most of whom love to think that they are pleasant but are known generally for their bitterness, nothing hides their true nature, we can see with through them. This was the case for Naomi's friends, they could not bring themselves to see her as bitter. It is true to say that she was grieving but that was quite understandable and good friends understand grief!

I am glad that they did not treat her as many do today by putting an arm around her and saying “never mind you will get over it in time!” That I believe to be one of the greatest lies in humanity! We never get over the death of a loved one, we simply in time learn to live without them and until such time grief is a massive hurdle to climb. Naomi had good friends because she was a good friend. Do we have the friends that we deserve? Are we good to them and do we understand them in their times of great difficulty and grief? Do we weep with those who weep and mourn with those that mourn as we are commanded or do we simply write people off as bitter old crones as Naomi might have expected her friends to?

Discussion points:

  1. Naomi's grief: Ruth 1:3-5 This is the background of all that follows and is helpful for our understanding of why Naomi says and does the things that she does. Grief is a powerful emotion that causes irrational thinking, actions and words. We will all have to help people in their grief and will undoubtedly experience it ourselves. Try to appreciate Naomi's emotions etc and discuss what we can learn from her desperate situation. Remember that the Lord told us to weep with those that weep and mourn with those who mourn, with tears of sorrow for Naomi try to understand her and apply that to today's issues that we face.
  2. Naomi's decision: Ruth 1:6-7 News from home changes everything. Discuss.
  3. Naomi's concern: Ruth 1:8-9 Naomi is going home after many years to a very different culture to Moab. She will have to return without her husband and boys but with two Moabite daughters in law. How do you think that might have influenced her concern that Ruth & Orpah return to Moab?
  4. Naomi's surprise: Ruth 1:10 Both Ruth and Orpah refuse to go. Discuss.
  5. Naomi's message: Ruth 1:11-13 Consider what it is that Naomi is preaching to the girls. It is basically the anti-gospel, eg God is against me therefore you will be better off in idolatry and away from the place where God is. Remember she is speaking from emotion and grief rather than truth.
  6. Naomi's affect: Ruth 1:14 Orpah took Naomi's advice and went but Ruth clung to her. God calls those whom He chooses. Here is evidence of the effectual call upon both of the girls for Orpah Naomi's words effectually called her back home but for Ruth she followed.
  7. Naomi's persistence: Ruth 1:15 Naomi could not be more persistent but Ruth would not be dissuaded. (We consider Ruth's conversion in the next study.) Discuss in the light of modern day evangelistic techniques employed by the church in order to be effective in our evangelism. Naomi could not have been more negative but yet Ruth is converted. What can we learn about God's calling upon individuals?
  8. Naomi's acceptance: Ruth 1:16-18 Ruth's confession causes Naomi to accept the situation and to take Ruth with her. An inconvenience but as we shall see in later studies an amazing bonus to her but as for now she did not know that! Do you have testimony events affecting you inconveniently in the past but are clear blessing today?
  9. Naomi's perspective: Ruth 1:19-21 She was bitter in spirit and wanted to be known as a bitter old lady. Spiritual depression in the face of amazing blessing but she could not see it yet. Discuss.
  10. God's purpose: Ruth 1:22 It was at the time of barley harvest in Bethlehem which meant that the covenant curse was over and blessing had returned. Co-incidence? God's timing is perfect, His plan is absolute, this families experiences were God's way of bringing a Moabite widow amongst the people of God in order to bless a hurting old widow but also the nation and ultimately the world. A subject that can be discussed from now to eternity!

Enjoy!!!!!

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