The Story of Ruth: Bitter Choices

Ruth 1:12b-13:

“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!”

Naomi hears that the Lord has provided for his people: there is food again in Israel. With little to keep her in Moab, she prepares to return home. Her two daughters-in-law prepare also and set out on the road with her. Before long, though, Naomi tells them to stop. She blesses the young women and bids them to leave her, to go back to their own mothers and start over.

The women are distraught, and Orpah and Ruth protest, offering to stay with Naomi and go with her to her own people. But Naomi rebuffs them forcefully, insisting they leave. What they need, she says, is husbands — the particular thing that brought them into Naomi’s life in the first place, and the thing which she can’t provide them with again. Naomi believes that cutting her personal ties to Orpah and Ruth is the only thing she can do to provide them with good lives. They are all that’s left of her family, and for their sakes she is trying to make them leave her too.

Naomi is despondent and bitter in spirit, and that colors her actions. Bitterness and depression cloud the mind and narrow the vision, making it hard to see any way out of difficulties. Naomi sees very little hope for herself, and the only hope she sees for her daughters-in-law is the obvious path, the path they have already walked with her — find husbands and start new families. Naomi says the Lord’s hand has gone out against her, but she does not here remember the Lord’s love and constant faithfulness. Her view of the world is very stark.

I’m not about to blame Naomi for her hopelessness, though. She has suffered great blows, emotional, social, and economic. She has lost people she loved, and who she also depended on to live, as families needed to work together in order to make a living. It’s possible she was leaving for home because the loss of her sons had left her homeless; maybe the property they had lived on was inherited by other male members of their families, and Naomi was left with nothing. She may not have had anywhere left to go. Naomi has experienced truly great tragedy, and she is not wrong to express the pain and loss of it.

The story here shows us two things that Naomi still had, though, which ultimately lifted her out of despondence. First, God is still with her, and she still acknowledges him. Even in her grief and loss, she blesses her daughters-in-law in the name of the Lord; when she speaks of her lost family, she says it’s the Lord’s hand which has gone against her. Naomi still speaks as though she is in the presence of the Lord, and God is still present in her story. He doesn’t explain why he lets hardships in, but he is constantly faithful to us, even in the midst of terrible times.

Second, Naomi isn’t left alone. We need other people to remind us about hope when we are in despair, or sometimes we need other people to hold on to hope for us, when we simply can’t. Sometimes the worst thing you can do for a person who is hurting is to tell them “it’s all right, there’s hope, it’ll all turn out okay.” To that aching soul, encouraging them to feel hope instead of pain can seem like a negation of their experience; pain is real and has to be felt before it will ever really leave. Sometimes what a person in pain needs is for other people to step in and stand with them, sit with them, listen to them, take care of their needs, and stick with them through whatever they are feeling. A person in despair needs someone to actively love them.

Naomi intended to walk home alone, but she needed company. She needed the Lord who she feared had turned against her, and she needed someone close to her to share the journey and the hardships. The Lord refused to abandon her, and so did the young woman named Ruth.

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