Strangers in a Strange Land
Summer 2020 Series: The Story of Ruth (Part 1 of 6)
This is part of a series of reflections, exploring the short story of Ruth, from the Old Testament. In this article, we focus on Ruth chapter 1, verses 1-5 and 19-22. The story is set against a backdrop of national crisis but it concentrates on one particular family. And there's a health warning - this first bit is not an easy read.
We meet the man of the house first, Elimelech, from a well-known, well- to-do family in Bethlehem. The name Bethlehem means 'house of bread' but the town is not living up to its name as there is a famine. Food is short, times are hard and Elimelech decides to move his family to a different and hopefully better place. With his wife Naomi and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, he travels to Moab. It must have seemed the best bet at the time but things did not work out well.
Elimelech died. Naomi was left on her own, with two poorly sons to bring up. The name Mahlon meant 'sick' and Chilion meant 'failing' so the boys' future didn't look bright. Naomi was an economic migrant, she was a woman, she was a widow in a culture where your social status and economic security depended on the man in your life - she was in an extremely vulnerable situation. But she must have managed somehow because the boys grew up and each married a local girl before they too died.
Poor Naomi – her life has gone from bad to worse. It is a catalogue of crisis and catastrophe, grief and difficulty. Again, she is left "without her two sons or her husband" in a foreign country with little means of survival. How do you picture her at this point? In tears? With her head in her hands? Angry?
Naomi decided to go home, back to Bethlehem as the famine there is now over. Her two daughters in law set off with her. There are discussions along the way as Naomi feels she can no longer provide for them. We will look more closely at those conversations in our next article, but now we are leapfrogging to verse 19 of chapter 1. Naomi's return home to Bethlehem.
It turns out to be quite the public humiliation. Remember, Naomi had left a fairly wealthy woman. That would have shown in the way she had dressed and the jewellery she would have worn. She is returning with nothing but the strain of years of hardship and grief and this causes a stir in the whole town. The women of Bethlehem come out to see. They can hardly believe this is the same Naomi. Is it really her they ask?
Naomi's response is brutally honest. She doesn't attempt to paint a positive picture or put a gloss on the situation. She has had a terrible time. So much so that her name Naomi, which means 'pleasant' is just not appropriate anymore. She suggests that they call her Mara which means 'bitter'. It is so much more suitable for her sorrow, for her struggle and her hardships, for her desperate situation. Now she is home, things seem so much worse in comparison to how she they used to be. She had gone away full but the Lord has brought her back empty. She had left with her wealth, her husband, her two sons and a hope for the future. She is back with nothing.
Naomi's words are a powerful, no-holds-barred lament. Verse 21 might read like an accusation or blame. She says "the Lord has brought me back empty...the Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." But Naomi is not losing her faith here or turning against God. The tragedies of her life, her losses, her struggles were always in God's hands. Naomi's understanding of God means that she can express her grief and her problems within the framework of her resilient faith in God.
The word she uses for God is the Hebrew word "Shaddai" - Almighty. It is related to the idea of a mountain - durable, solid. It is the word used for God in the Bible in many difficult and testing times:
In Genesis chapter 17 when God promises the 99 year old Abraham the unlikely blessing of many children
In Genesis chapter 43 when Jacob asks for God's blessing on his sons as they return to Egypt to seek relief from famine
In Genesis chapter 49 in the prophecy that Joseph, after 13 years in the pain and isolation of prison, will be rescued and given a position of power.
It's a word for all powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing God - beyond time and over circumstances. It describes God who holds all things, all twists and turns of our lives, both good and bad.
The story of Naomi is a challenge for us when we are tempted to cling to a 'good time gospel' and assume that if life is hard then God must have wandered off or turned away. Naomi's understanding of God does not depend on the circumstances of her life. He is not only a good God when life is going well. He is an Almighty God in all times.
Over these last few months some of us have lost more than others but maybe everyone has lost something during the Coronavirus pandemic. We don't need to pretend we are ok. We can acknowledge the loss and the hurt before God. There has been nothing that was outside God's control and there has been no moment where God was not right with us through it all. We, like Naomi, can turn to Almighty God, to Shaddai, and rely on his power and faithfulness through all the circumstances of our lives.
If you were to change your name to reflect your feelings or circumstances at the moment, what would your new name be?
Are you able to lament and share your griefs before God? (Many of the Psalms give voice to lament)
What difference would it make to think of Naomi's Shaddai as God of your life?
You may like to listen to our Podcast which accompanies this Blog. Click here.
You may also enjoy watching our Sunday gathering related to this Blog, where you can hear this message along with worship and prayer. This video was originally aired via Facebook LIVE on Sunday 26th July 2020.