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The Book of Ruth as “The Book of Naomi”

Ruth is one of my favorite books, but I have a serious problem with it. The problem is the name.

Now, I know that the Jews also called the book “Ruth” and that I should respect that, but honestly I just can’t bring myself to do it. The book isn’t about Ruth. The book is about Naomi… and in a future post I’ll tell you that it’s about someone else, as well.

When a magician does his magic, he often works with distraction. I’m not a magician, but I’ve heard that this is the case.  No wait… I just looked it up while you were reading the previous sentence… no, I swear, when you first started reading this I really didn’t already have this quote ready from the Wikipedia dictionary, which says, “Magicians use distraction techniques to draw the audience’s attention away from whichever hand is engaged in sleight of hand. Magicians can accomplish this by encouraging the audience to look elsewhere or by having an assistant do or say something to draw the audience’s attention away.”

That’s what happens when a person reads the book of Ruth and, because of the name, focuses all of his or her attention on Ruth instead of on Naomi, the real star of the show.

Ruth is parading about and everyone sees her wonderful self. She is loyal, self-sacrificing, hardworking, honorable. She forsakes her pagan gods, one of which was a child sacrificing deity by the name of Chemosh, who was a lot like his Ammonite similitude Molech. She commits herself to YHWH in a conversion confession that proves more than a sentimental promise.

In Ruth 1:16-17, she says, actually using the covenant name, YHWH, “”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.”

My wife recited this to me at the altar… then she met my people. Ba-da-bump.

Ruth leaves her homeland, forsakes her language (sort of, they are sister tongues), journeys to be a stranger in a world not known for being kind to strangers.

Indeed, the village women in the telling of the story ignore Ruth when she arrives at Naomi’s side and never mention her name even when praising her worth in Ruth 4:15; she is simply “your daughter-in-law.” Indeed, Ruth is designated as “Moabite” or “the Moabite” seven times in the book, being called by name alone only six times. Her status as “daughter-in-law” is restated four times.

Ruth is a wonderful example of kinship, loyalty, grace, and dedication. We could only be so blessed as to share her nobility, but when we get our eyes too much on her, then we miss the big magic of the book as literature… because that is happening with Naomi.

The story part of the book begins and ends with Naomi. As does each story section.

She departs from her divinely inherited estate with her husband during hard times and sojourns among child-murdering pagans. Her sons marry pagan women who worship child sacrificing gods. Her husband and sons die, and Naomi decides to return home. Naomi tries to convince her daughters-in-law to return to their families and their child-sacrifice-demanding gods, but Ruth won’t have it and insists on coming with her… noble creature that she is.

When Naomi arrives home, the village women greet her exuberantly, but Naomi (whose name means “pleasant”) scorns them in deep bitterness of soul decrying her name and grumbling about YHWH’s treatment of her in life. In Ruth 1:20-21, she says, “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?”

She went away full and came back empty? What about Ruth?

There is Ruth, who gave up everything to stay with her as a support and a help, and she says she’s come back empty? Reminds me of the temptation to look at a room with fewer than expected attendees and to say, “Oh, nobody came tonight.” Can’t make Ruth feel too good, but even Ruth herself does not know that in the midst of Naomi’s deepest sense of emptiness and loss, her worst struggle with faith and bitterness, with the very syllables of her darkest complaint still on her lips, the seed of YHWH’s restoration is already at Naomi’s elbow, encased inside the controversial husk of the Widowed Moabite.

The second chapter also begins with Naomi, saying, “Now Naomi had a kinsman.” This sets up the “foreigner at the well”[1] scene that is about to unfold. At that divinely ordained random encounter, life will spring anew in the heart of Naomi, who also ends this chapter—“And she lived with her mother-in-law.”

It is Naomi who says of Ruth’s gleaning plans, “Go, My Daughter,” who explains the implications of the “chance” encounter saying, “May he be blessed by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” It is Naomi who says to her, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers,” and who instructs Ruth to accept Boaz’ generosities. It is Naomi who helps Ruth navigate her homeland, saying, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted.” At the happenstance of Ruth’s random journey, Naomi’s faith springs up like a well-watered chia seed. YHWH has not forsaken her or the men in her life, dead as they may be.

The Third chapter, also begins and ends with Naomi, opening with “Then Naomi, her mother-in-law said to her,” and concluding with “She (Naomi) replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.” It is Naomi who concocts a plan to nudge Boaz into fulfilling yet more fully his obligations as their near kin, and who sends Ruth to seek covenantal promises of protection from Boaz. The wing of YHWH’s protection mentioned by Boaz in Ruth 2:12 turns into Boaz’ own wing (hem and wing are the same word in Hebrew)[2] when Ruth entreats him to spread his garment hem over her… i.e. take her into his covenantal protection, by redeeming Naomi’s sold land, and by marrying her and raising up a son in the name of her dead husband. Boaz is elated, but has a competitor… a closer relative who has dibs.

When Ruth reports the whole discussion and shows Naomi the grand present of food Boaz has given for Naomi, Naomi both ends the chapter with her motherly wisdom and initiates the next scene. It is Naomi who concludes the last portion of the story part of the book.

Boaz gains the right from this other kinsman to marry Ruth and buy back Naomi’s land, and he and Ruth bear a son… for YHWH grants it. At his birth, the village women speak again. It is a literary answer to her initial complaint about YHWH’s emptying of her life.

Naomi says, “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?” And here, in the last chapter, the women reply, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”

The child is “set upon the knee” of Naomi, who becomes “his nurse” and the village women give the child the name Obed, saying “A son has been born to Naomi.” This is not the only scene of grandparent adoption for inheritance sake. Jacob does the same thing with Joseph’s sons and makes each an equal inheritor with their uncles. Obed gets all the land of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, and Naomi becomes his second mother.

There is much to be said about the details of each of these chapters, and of the implications of the unfolding of the end of the story portion of the book, but for now, I simply want to emphasize the importance of reading this as the Book of Naomi… in which Ruth, Boaz, and even Obed become instruments of YHWH’s covenant loyalty to one who might rightly be deemed by human measures as the least of YHWH’s people. YHWH redeems Naomi from loss, sorrow and suffering, working in her life even before her faith had caught up.

Stay tuned for “The Book of Ruth as the Book of David, the Prequel.”

[1] See my six part series on the Foreigner at the well for more information. Search on my homepage for Foreigner.

[2] See my series on garment hems as instruments of covenant. Search on the home page for HEM.

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