Bitter Old Widow (Ruth 1)
By David Feddes
The old widow was bitter, and she didn’t try to keep it a secret. “I’ve got nothing,” she moaned, “absolutely nothing. I used to be full of good things, but now I’m empty. I used to have a home, a husband, and two sons. But now I haven’t got anybody. God has taken it all away. My life used to be sweet, but now it’s bitter–and it’s all God’s doing. That’s my main problem, you know: God is against me.”
When you hear that bitter complaint, how do you react? If life is going well for you, you might rather just avoid this widow and her whining and not think any more about it. But if you’ve suffered a lot of trouble yourself, you may identify with her and say, “I feel the same way. My life is miserable, and I can’t help thinking God is out to get me.”
So let’s try to understand this woman. What happened that made her so bitter? Was God really against her? Did she stay stuck in her bitterness or did things turn around? Her story is a gripping one, and it can show us a lot about ourselves and about what God is doing in our lives. The woman’s name is Naomi, and the Bible book of Ruth tells her story, beginning at a point where Naomi still had husband and home and family.
When the Judges Ruled
The story opens with a mention of the historical setting in which Naomi lived: “In the days when the judges ruled…” Stop right there. When you hear In the days when the judges ruled, the words may go in one ear and out the other. But it’s important to pause long enough to note what an awful period that was.
The Bible book of Judges portrays a time when the villains were dreadful, and the heroes were almost as bad. In the book of Judges a man named Ehud pretends to be a negotiator and then whips out a hidden dagger and stabs an overweight ruler in his fat belly and kills him. A woman named Jael gives a meal to an exhausted general, lulls him to sleep, and then pounds a spike through his head while he is napping. A person named Jephthah is born the son of a prostitue and becomes an outlaw. Eventually he is made commander of an army by people desperate for strong leadership. Jephthah wins a battle–and then sacrifices his only daughter to keep a stupid vow he made. A man named Samson sleeps with prostitutes, vandalizes and burns the crops of people he doesn’t like, and kills thirty men when he’s in a rage about losing a bet. And believe it or not, those are the good guys!
When you get to the bad guys in the book of Judges, the stories are even more awful. One man butchers his entire family–all seventy of them–to advance his own ambitions. Another man serves as a priest who makes money providing idols to the highest bidder. The people of a certain village take part in a brutal gang rape and murder. Then comes revenge, a genocidal massacre of nearly all the men, women, children of the tribe to which that village belonged. Several hundred men survive the bloodbath by fleeing to the desert. They need new wives to start new families, but no women are available to them. The solution? The men of yet another town are massacred so that the young women of the town can be carried off as wives for their kidnappers.
The book of Judges ends with this grim summary of the whole period: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). It was a time of no authority, no stability, no law, no order, just people doing whatever they felt like doing, no matter how bad. If you live today in a crime-infested neighborhood overrun by gangs, or in a part of the world which is tormented by continual war at the hands of roving armies and terrorists with nobody really in charge, you’ve got a glimpse of the general situation in Israel during the time of the judges. Most people ignored God and did whatever they wanted.
The only thing that prevented total ruin was that every so often, after decades of Israel sliding downhill, God would punish the Israelites through enemy invaders and harsh foreign rulers, and then, once God got their attention, he would move his people to repent of their sins and raise up heroes to rescue them. In many cases, the heroes (often called judges) were badly flawed, but they brought relief from the foreign oppressors and provided an occasion for people to thank the Lord and change their ways. The overall level of spirituality and morality, however, remained dreadfully low among most people throughout that whole era.
Now put yourself in Naomi’s shoes. You yourself worship the Lord, but your society is full of false religion and immorality and nastiness of every kind. That’s hard, even scary at times. But at least you have a private, personal haven of happiness and security, living at home with your husband and two sons. You hope you can maintain your happy haven even though your country is corrupt and your culture is crumbling. But eventually trouble strikes close to home. The book of Ruth tells what happened.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
In our world today some famines result from weather conditions, while other famines come when gangs and lawlessness ruin an economy or when politicians and armies use food as a weapon and try to starve their enemies. That would fit the time of the judges, but the Bible doesn’t say what caused the famine that affected Naomi and her family. Whatever the cause, the famine was real. Even Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem was hard-hit. The name Bethelehem means “house of bread,” so Bethlehem may well have been considered the “bread basket” of the region. But even bread basket Bethlehem was caught in the famine.
How awful that must have been! If you’ve grown accustomed to feeling fairly secure, it’s dreadful to find that you suddenly have no source of steady income for your family and you don’t know where your next meal will come from. Things looked so bleak to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, that he decided their best chance was to get out of Bethlehem and leave the land of Israel for a while and see if they could find work and food in the foreign country of Moab. Struck by famine, uprooted from their homeland, living as refugees in a foreign country–that would be bad enough, but the worst was yet to come. The Bible says,
Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. (Ruth 1:1-5)
Naomi’s husband died and left her a widow. If you’re a person who has lost a spouse, you know how crushing it is to lose someone you’ve loved and depended on for so long. But even that wasn’t the end of Naomi’s troubles. Her sons, probably contrary to her wishes, married Moabite girls, pagan young women who had grown up serving other gods–not exactly the kind of wives a God-fearing mother would want her sons to marry. But the two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, were grown men by that time, making their own decisions, and they married the women they wanted to marry. Though it may have been a heartache for Naomi, she learned to get along with her daughters-in-law. But then came the final blow: Mahlon and Kilion both died. Put yourself in Naomi’s place: You’re a refugee in a strange land, your husband is dead, and your children are dead. Wouldn’t you feel utterly devasted?
“God Is Against Me!”
By this time Naomi had lived in Moab for about ten years. Then came news from her homeland: Israel was prospering again.
When she heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law [Ruth and Orpah] prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me–even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons–would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!” (Ruth 1:6-13)
Naomi was telling Ruth and Orpah, “I appreciate your concern and kindness, but for your own good, you’d better leave me. You don’t have any future with me, because I don’t have a future.”
Why didn’t Naomi think there was any future with her? One reason had to do with a custom of that time. If a man died without leaving any children, his brother or closest relative was to marry his widow and have children with her. The first child they had together would be counted as the dead man’s and would inherit the dead man’s land. But what hope did this custom hold for Ruth and Orpah? Naomi’s sons were dead; she had no others; and she couldn’t think of any other relatives of her husband back home who would marry Ruth or Orpah. So if these young women wanted any hope of a husband or family, they had better forget about Naomi and start over somewhere else. That was Naomi’s first reason for telling them to leave her and return to Moab.
But Naomi had a second and stronger reason: “God is against me. I’m jinxed. I’m under a curse. So do yourselves a favor and make a fresh start without me. I’m just a dead end; God is against me, and if you stay close to me, you may get clobbered too. You young ladies deserve better. You deserve another chance at a good life, and may the Lord bless you in it. It’s worse for me than for you. You still have possibilities; I don’t. How can I have a future when I’m under attack by the Lord himself?”
“Your God Will Be My God”
When Naomi told Ruth and Orpah to go back, did she really mean it? Sometimes we say things we don’t really mean, or we say things that part of us means, but that another part of us isn’t so sure of. Did Naomi really want Ruth and Orpah to leave her, or was she simply offering them the chance to leave, hoping secretly that they would say, “No, we’ll stick with you.”
Whatever Naomi may have been thinking, her words were enough to convince Orpah to leave her. Orpah cared about her mother-in-law and felt bad for her, but she wanted to get on with her life. After Naomi ended the plea to leave her by saying, “the Lord’s hand has gone out against me,” the Bible says:
At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (Ruth 1:14-18)
What an astonishing development! What love and loyalty on the part of Ruth! How did Ruth become so attached to Naomi and to Naomi’s God? Ruth didn’t start out loving Naomi so much, and she didn’t start out with faith in God. She started out as an idol worshiper who happened to meet a fellow named Mahlon and married him. At that point, Ruth probably saw Naomi and the Lord as just minor parts of the marriage package. Because Ruth wanted to marry Mahlon, she was willing to put up with Mahlon’s family and their religion, but it didn’t start out as anything deep or heartfelt. So, when her husband died, why didn’t Ruth simply move on? That’s what Orpah did. When Orpah married Kilion, she took the family and religion that came with him, but when Kilion died, she was ready to find a new family and follow whatever religion seemed necessary. But not Ruth. Ruth started with only minor interest in the God of Israel, but somewhere along the line, whether through her husband or her mother-in-law, Ruth discovered the living God, and she came to the point where she wouldn’t let go of the Lord or the family that introduced her to him, no matter what.
Many people still today come in contact with God in ways that seem almost accidental. You marry somebody, and his religion is almost beside the point. His beliefs don’t bother you enough to refuse marriage, and you even go along with any rituals that are necessary, but it seems like one of the lesser parts of the marriage package. But as things develop, you reach a decisive moment. You have to choose one way or the other, once for all, whether the God and Father of Jesus Christ is really your God or not. You have to answer the question: “Will the God I first met as someone else’s God now be my God too?” For Orpah the answer was no. For Ruth the answer was yes–an absolute, resounding yes! What’s your answer? Is the God of the Bible your God? Is the Jesus you perhaps first met as someone else’s Lord your Lord too, personally and totally and forever?
Ruth’s commitment to Naomi and to the Lord God is amazing, and it’s all the more amazing in light of what Naomi had been telling her. Naomi said, “God is against me.” Ruth’s reply was, “Maybe so, but he’s the living and true God, the only God there is. So whether he’s for us or against us, your God is my God.” Naomi cried, “I’m a dead end.” Ruth replied, “Maybe so, but if you’re a dead end, then I’ll die where you die and be buried there too.” What love! Sometimes depressed people try to chase friends and family away, but the truly loyal ones stick with them even in their misery. Naomi had nothing to offer Ruth except a bitter attitude and an empty future, but Ruth loved her too much to leave her, and she loved the God of Israel too much to go back to her own gods.
So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, ‘Can this be Naomi?'”
“Don’t call me Naomi [which means pleasant or sweet],” she told them. “Call me Mara [which means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:19-21)
What do we make of this depressed widow who wants to drop her name, Sweet Naomi, and be called Bitter Mara instead, because the Almighty marred her life? Well, in fairness to Naomi, let’s recognize that she was absolutely right about two things. First, she was right that it had indeed been a bitter decade. There’s no denying the agony and sorrow she endured in the famine, the death of her dear husband, and the deaths of both her sons. The years and the tears had taken such a toll on Naomi that the people who had known her ten years earlier could hardly recognize her.
Naomi was also right about something else. She was right to see the hand of God in her bitter experiences. Nowadays many people pretend that God has nothing to do with the painful parts of life. They may believe in a god of sorts, but their god is too nice to hurt a fly, and he’d never send such awful pain into the lives of his people. Naomi knew better. She knew that her God is the Almighty, the living Lord who directs every event, even the painful ones. He rules over even the wildest of nations and the most wicked of situations. Nothing that happens can escape his plan and purpose. All things come to us not by chance but from his hand. He sends food, and he sends famine. He gives a husband, and he takes that husband away. He gives children, and he takes those children away. Absolutely nothing can happen to us apart from his will. This God of Naomi is the same God revealed by Jesus when he said that not a bird can fall from the sky and not a hair can fall from your head apart from the will of the heavenly Father. So even in her bitterness, Naomi was right to see God’s mighty hand as the ruling, guiding force in all things.
But Naomi was not right to think that God was against her. She endured such sadness that it’s understandable she felt that way, but that doesn’t mean she was right. Even when God made life hard and seemed to be against her, he was planning and arranging things for the good of Naomi and Ruth and all of God’s people.
Not So Empty, After All
Naomi was not right when she said God was against her, and she was not right when she said God had left her empty. Empty? What about Ruth, who showed her such love and loyalty and swore to stick with her no matter what? How could Naomi say she had nothing when she had Ruth? How did that make Ruth feel? People like Naomi can be so despairing and depressed that they seem not to notice or value the people who still love them. At times like that, their dear ones must try not to take it too personally, and instead stick with them until better times come.
Grief-stricken people often exaggerate their troubles and forget what they still have going for them. Naomi overlooked Ruth, and she also overlooked someone else. Remember how Naomi earlier told her daughters-in-law that her family was a dead end and that there were no relatives for them to marry? Well, she had forgotten someone. Right after the Bible records Naomi’s bitter complaint that God was against her, it says that Ruth was with her and that harvest was just beginning in Bethlehem, and it adds: “Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, from the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing, whose name was Boaz.” Naomi had forgotten about Boaz. But God hadn’t.
As events unfolded, God arranged for Ruth to meet Boaz, and from there great things began to happen. We’ll get to that later, but for now let’s just say that by the halfway point of the book of Ruth, Naomi is praising the Lord and saying, “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead” (2:20). And by the end of the story, the women of Bethlehem (who were stunned at Naomi’s earlier devastation) are praising God and congratulating Naomi on a newborn baby in the family and on having a daughter-in-law better than seven sons (4:14-15).
As it turned out, Naomi wasn’t so empty, after all. God wasn’t against her, after all. Naomi came to see that her dead loved ones were in God’s hand, and that the living were still in his hand as well. There is life after death, both for those who have died and for those who have to go on living. Just when Naomi thought she had nobody to stick with her, God gave her Ruth. Just when Naomi thought she was empty, God was starting a fresh harvest. Just when Naomi forgot Boaz, God brought this wealthy and godly man into the story. Just when Naomi thought her family’s future was dead, God was making plans to bring Naomi and Ruth and Boaz into a family line that would become the greatest family line in human history.
What does this say to you and me? It says that the God who sometimes makes life hard and bitter for the moment is doing things greater than you or I can possibly imagine. He has a plan centered in Jesus Christ which includes all who trust and love him. In Romans 8:28 the Bible says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
If you’re a child of God who has endured almost more than you can bear, if you have no hope for the future and think God is against you, take heart. When you’re at the end of your rope, remember that God is at the other end. If you could somehow phone heaven and talk with Naomi right now, she would tell you, “Look what happened in my life. God was working all things for my good and the good of his people, even when I was a bitter old widow and thought he was against me.”
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
and works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
and scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
and He will make it plain.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.