19 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?”
20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almightyhas made my life very bitter. 21 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.”
22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
(Ruth 1:19-22 NIV)
Previously, Naomi learned that the famine in Israel was over. She decides to leave Moab and go back to her hometown of Bethlehem. Her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her. Naomi tries to dissuade them – Orpah decides to stay in Moab, and Ruth will not be talked out of her decision to follow Naomi back to Bethlehem.
So the two ladies begin their journey from Moab back to Bethlehem. There was no public transportation in those days, and as widows, they had no money for horses or donkeys, so they walked. Whatever little possessions they had, they carried with them.
Scholars estimate that the journey was about 40 to 60 miles, depending on available roads and terrain in their day. This would take about 7 to 10 days on foot. Needless to say, it was an arduous journey for anyone.
When Naomi and Ruth arrived back in Bethlehem, they quickly became the talk of the town. All the women were wondering, “Is this Naomi?”
Put yourself in Naomi’s place for a moment. You left Bethlehem with your husband and two boys, seeking refuge from the famine. Now ten years later you are coming back with no husband, no sons, a foreign daughter-in-law and no grandchildren. In a culture that equated material possessions with God’s blessings, it is obvious that something has gone terribly wrong, and you are under God’s judgment.
Naomi had known that this return to Bethlehem would be hard; she knew the cultural norms and thoughts about material possessions and God’s supposed blessings. What she likely had not expected was the pain of having to recount her story over and over as she encountered old friends, neighbors, relatives, and acquaintances back in Bethlehem. All the old memories and joy with her husband and two boys were swallowed up in the pain of their deaths and her current situation. And with each encounter, the inevitable question of “what happened?” would have to be retold. At each retelling, there would be a certain implied cultural pronouncement of shame and judgment on the part of the hearer.
The pain was too much for Naomi to bear. Naomi’s name meant “pleasant”. She was so afflicted by her situation that she told the Hebrew women to call her by a new name – “Mara”, which means “bitter”. She fully embraced the cultural norm and accepted the heavy weight of what appeared to be (by cultural standards) God’s judgment upon her.
All the while this was happening, Ruth was right by Naomi’s side, both a blessing to her as a faithful companion, as well as a constant visible and living reminder of her past ten years and the bitterness of her life.
The author closes chapter one by providing an anecdotal note about the season of their return to Bethlehem – just as the barley harvest was beginning.
As we look at life from Naomi’s point of view and the cultural lens through which she interpreted her situation, life is really hard. Naomi fully embraced the belief that God’s hand of judgment was upon her. She even changed her name to reflect this supposed reality.
When hard times come in our life, what measure do we use to understand and process our situation? Do we use cultural norms, our own feelings, or God’s Word? Do we try to ignore or gloss over our situation, like it never happened? Do we fully embrace our situation and let it define us like Naomi did? Or do we agree that hard times have come, but lean on God and His Word for help through the difficulties?
Thankfully the story does not end here.