Faith in the Valley: Naomi and Coming Home Empty

laundry timeAfter our knock-down, drag-out with Hagar, Abram, and Sarai last week, I admit that I was eager for an “easy” match-making, love-story about Naomi, sweet Ruth, and honorable Boaz. Aren’t they precious?

I’m gonna include the Scripture from the NIV in the text again. It will make for a long print, but you can cut it out if you want. I’ve deleted some verses that don’t relate to Naomi.

Ruth 1 New International Version (NIV)

Naomi Loses Her Husband and Sons

In the days when the judges ruled,[a] there was a famine in the land. So 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 Elimelek, his wife’s name was 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.

Now Elimelek, 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 also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

Naomi and Ruth Return to Bethlehem

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law 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 you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 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— 13 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 turned against me!”

14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

16 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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

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,[b]” she told them. “Call me Mara,[c] because the Almighty[d] has 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[e] 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 2 New International Version (NIV)

Ruth Meets Boaz in the Grain Field

Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz.

And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”

Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.

Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you!”

“The Lord bless you!” they answered.

Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, “Who does that young woman belong to?”

The overseer replied, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. ….

11 Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

…17 So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah.[a] 18 She carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough.

19 Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!”

Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,” she said.

20 “The Lord bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers.[b]

21 Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay with my workers until they finish harvesting all my grain.’”

22 Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.”

23 So Ruth stayed close to the women of Boaz to glean until the barley and wheat harvests were finished. And she lived with her mother-in-law.

Ruth 3 New International Version (NIV)

Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing Floor

One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home[a] for you, where you will be well provided for. Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”

“I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered. So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do.

….16 When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, “How did it go, my daughter?”

Then she told her everything Boaz had done for her 17 and added, “He gave me these six measures of barley, saying, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”

18 Then Naomi said, “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.”

Ruth 4 New International Version (NIV)

Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. 10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!”

11 Then the elders and all the people at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. 12 Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”

Naomi Gains a Son

13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”

16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The Genealogy of David

18 This, then, is the family line of Perez:

Perez was the father of Hezron,

19 Hezron the father of Ram,

Ram the father of Amminadab,

20 Amminadab the father of Nahshon,

Nahshon the father of Salmon,[d]

21 Salmon the father of Boaz,

Boaz the father of Obed,

22 Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of David.

For Study

1. Describe Naomi’s life when she left Bethlehem.

2. Based on the chronology we’re given, do her sons marry before or after their father dies? How might her sons’ marriages affected her mindset?

3. How significant is it that NEITHER daughter in law has children?

4. Choose a few words to describe Naomi in verses 3-5.

5. What does Naomi’s response to her daughters- in- law teach us about her?

6. Scan the story. About how many times does is mention that Ruth is a Moabite or foreigner? How significant was that fact? How does this seem to effect her relationship with Naomi?

7. To whom does Naomi attribute her situation? What name does she call Him? What are the VERBS that she says he has DONE?

8. In chapter 2 Naomi’s advice and encouragement to Ruth centers around survival and practical matters. What kind of advice does she give Ruth?

9. The whole story centers around “redeeming” the possessions of Naomi’s husband and sons to restore their name. Which names are mentioned in the geneology at the end of the chapter?

10. Just for fun, who is Perez? Check 4:12.

11. What is the reason that Naomi’s friends say that Ruth is better than 7 sons?  Why do you think they say that?

11. Naomi is not closely biologically related to Obed, but how do the women refer to him in 4:17?

For Discussion

1. What do you make of the fact that Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their gods?

2. Does Naomi seem eager or resigned to the fact that Ruth can’t be dissuaded from staying with her?

3. Look at 1:20.  In spite of Ruth being with her, Naomi describes herself as empty and bitter.  Have you even felt this way in spite of having SOME blessings right in front of you?

4. Look back at the verbs you listed in #6 above. Did God DO those things to Naomi? Allow them? Ordain them? What difference does it make?

5. How does the interaction between Naomi and Ruth seem to evolve in chapter 2?  How do you think it would feel to have your dead husband’s mother tell you to pursue a relationship with another man? (I KNOW IT IS ANOTHER CULTURE! But some of the basics of human relationships are the same.)  How do you think it would feel to encourage your dead son’s wife to pursue a new husband?

6. What do you think is the low point of Naomi’s valley?  Do you think God used Ruth to help Naomi out of her valley? Has God ever put someone in your life to help you out of a valley?

7. Even though this book is named for Ruth, most of the section headings are about Naomi. Why is her relationship to Ruth and Obed so significant for her? For the whole Bible?

8. Do you identify with Naomi at any point in the story? Why or why not? When?

9. In Joseph, his circumstances radically improve and his family is restored to him.  In Hagar, her circumstances also improve in that she is freed and has sole care of Ishmael. For Naomi, her lost family is NOT restored, but she does get a new one.  How do you react to this? We never hear from HER at the end of the story, only her friends. What does v. 16 signify to you?

10. How do you see Naomi demonstrating or not demonstrating faith in God in this story?

11. What’s your impression of the way the women care for each other in this story, including Naomi’s friends?

For Reflection

This is a much nicer, less problematic story in many ways, but upon first reading, I began to feel that I might not be able to relate to Naomi very well and therefore, not necessarily have much to learn from her story.

I have never fled a famine.

I have never been widowed.

I’ve never given a child in marriage.

I have never lost a child.

I’ve never had a daughter in law who wouldn’t leave me alone.

I’ve never been totally reliant upon a man for my life and well-being.

I’ve never had a grandchild.

But I have DEFINITELY come home empty. TWICE.

In the summer of 2000, I planned to graduate college, move to a new city, start a Masters in English, and marry my fiance. Instead, we broke up, I moved back in with my parents, and I got a job teaching high school English at my old high school. During that hot, sad summer, I attended 7 weddings and watched my dreams just melt away.

Is there a sufficient way to explain how living at home WAS NOT THE PLAN?  I felt very empty and alone. And I was very confused by the dissolution of a plan about which I had REALLY sought God’s will. WHY? 

I was angry, embarrassed, lonely, and truthfully, pretty bitter.

Seven years later, in the spring of 2007,  I sat, 30 weeks pregnant, in possibly the world’s grimmiest airport in Goroka, Papua New Guinea. (Imagine the grossest gas station you’ve ever been in. Now give it the smell of stale wood smoke, body odor, and tobacco spit.  You’re almost there.) I  watched my two year old climb impatiently over our mountain of luggage and guitar cases as we waited for Jeremy to return from walking the streets to find a cash machine to pay for our extra baggage so we could go home to America. (In our preparation, the airport assured us that we could pay the weight overages with our credit card, but we didn’t anticipate the airport losing power and the machine being down.)  Leaving a piece of our luggage wasn’t an option anymore than staying was. We were leaving missionary service after only 20 months, our “career” commitment whittled away by work conflicts, three bouts of malaria, an armed robbery, and a dawning realization that short-term was the nice word for what we were. QUITTERS.

As our flight time neared and he didn’t return, I got nervous, imagining Jeremy getting killed and thrown in the river, a not unheard of fate for “whiteskins.” Only a few months earlier, a van we rode in was stopped by gun and knife-wielding teenagers, who’d held a bush knife up to my baby-Addie’s face while we were robbed. (READ that story HERE). Sitting at the airport waiting for Jeremy, waiting to go home, I still had no words to explain our failure as missionaries.  We were going home VERY pregnant and with a two year old, to leave our mission– with no job on the horizon, and a less than stellar report for our supporters and families. I was terrified. And alone. And confused about the dissolution of the plan about which we had REALLY sought God’s will.   WHY?

I was afraid, and embarrassed, and lonely, and undoubtedly VERY BITTER.

I’ll tell you the ending to both of these stories on Tuesday, but the short answer to  how I overcame that bitterness has less to do with ME and more to do with OTHERS.  In my story, focusing on my own pain, disappointment, and suffering–even blaming it on God, led me to a distrustful place where I questioned whether God was good or even cared about me.  But through the presence of friends in my life, over time God revealed to me how He intertwined my story with others’ stories in a way that helped them and ME.

Why does seeing that my story isn’t JUST ABOUT ME make me feel better?  Well, we are a family. If these valley stories haven’t convinced you that God invites messed-up people into his family, nothing will.  We are a born in, adopted in, married in, redeemed in, patched-together family of misfits, all of whom He cares about and intends to rescue.

With the passage of time and the faithfulness of Ruth and other friends, Naomi seems to emerge to a more hopeful, less desolate and bitter place.  Maybe she began to see, through Ruth, Boaz, and Obed, that God was taking care of her AND not just her.

1. How do you see that one of your valley stories might be about not just you?

2. Have you ever been a part of someone else’s valley story?  How does is feel to know that your stories intertwined together?

3. Naomi does inspire me in the honesty that she shows her friends about her bitterness. But they stick by her to the end and believe God’s best for her.  Do you have a crew of women in your life that are believing God’s best for you? Do you have a friend who needs you to be in her crew of encouragers? (PS: This is the reason I started You Go Girl! We need to do this.)

4. I sometimes feel it is a grossly overused and misquoted verse, but let’s finish with Romans 8:28. I’m including v. 29 because I like knowing that God’s “work” is to conform me to the image of Jesus, so that I can be in the FAMILY.

Romans 8:28-29 (NIV)

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[a] have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

Journal about some of the ways you’ve seen God “work” the valley times in your life for good.  Pray about bitterness, emptiness, and how you can let God redeem that part of your story.   Do you believe that your valley story could be for the good?  How do you see yourself becoming Jesus’s sister?____________________________________________________________

The document of this handout will be in the You Go Girl! Facebook files. Join that group if you are following along online.