By Liz Rhodebeck
A widow living in a foreign country with two dead sons and no job skills–what did she have to offer? Maybe not much. Or, maybe the difference between life and death; a place in history. This was the woman who had no book of the Bible named after her, but whose protégé would alter history and claim a spot in the lineage of Christ. And none of it could have happened without her, though direct credit is seldom given to her.
This woman was Naomi. And I want to be like her.
Naomi had two sons and two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah from the country of Moab. At the death of Naomi’s sons, their husbands, both daughters-in-law “clung to Naomi” and grieved. Both women had similar experiences living in the same household, and were in the same situation. All three women were widows, with no help in sight. But, there is no book named “Orpah” that changed the course of biblical history. It is the daughter-in-law who chose, who begged to go with Naomi back to Judah whose name, is immortalized. It was Naomi who made the difference in how the story would turn out for one of these Moabite women and fulfill the plans of God. What did she do that was so remarkable?
Well, she didn’t prophesy or judge like some great women in the Bible. She wasn’t a beautiful queen who had any influence with political or religious leaders. She was an older woman with no children or grandchildren to support her, without income, with only poverty to offer. She was a rather ordinary woman, who didn’t feel any kind of dramatic calling from God; her decision to return to Judah was mostly practical, since the famine was over, and she had relatives there. And yet, a marriageable young woman from a different country and different culture with different beliefs couldn’t tear herself away from her mother-in-law, professing a devotion that is nearly unrivaled in the Scriptures: “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” (Ruth 1:16).
What Naomi did have was faith and a mentoring love for a young woman who inspired her trust and love in return. It was not pity for her mother-in-law that Ruth felt, but a willingness to embrace all that was meaningful to Naomi, to be a part of her life whatever came.
From the way Ruth and Orpah respond to Naomi in their mutual bereavement, it is evident that Naomi loved her daughters-in-law from the heart with genuine affection. She accepted them as part of her family wholeheartedly, despite their being from a different background. (Relations between Judah and Moab were not always friendly.) Though women have always found a commonality in distress, the power and poignancy of their relationship is particularly striking.
Despite her own critical need for support, Naomi ultimately put the welfare of the two young women before her own, urging them to “go home” to their own people, while she continues her journey to her own homeland. Her sardonic remarks: “Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?...I am too old to have another husband. 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?” reveal a kind of tough love and selflessness that pushes them away for their own good (Ruth 1:11-13). But when Ruth insists she is staying with her, Naomi listens to her request and respects Ruth’s decision. Naomi could have stated that she knew what was best and refused Ruth, but she chose to honor Ruth’s intelligence and maturity.
What is also admirable about Naomi is what modern culture would call her “transparency” of emotion—a valuable attribute to today’s young adults. She openly shows her bitterness and anger at God for her circumstances, even requesting people call her Mara, meaning “bitter”; she’s real about admitting she feels that God has mistreated her. Naomi doesn’t deny her belief in God or His sovereignty, but readily admits what a rotten deal life has been for her. Oddly enough, this does not dissuade Ruth from going with Naomi to a place she’d never seen—a place which could be unwelcoming to her.
As Ruth and Naomi travel back to Judah, they develop their love and interdependency. While Naomi certainly would benefit from the labor of a young woman to support her, it is questionable what Ruth would gain in the deal. After all, she would be a stranger among a people and culture she didn’t know. While there might have been the possibility of compensation from her dead husband’s property, there were no guarantees for Ruth; she still had the option to hope for a second husband among her own people as Orpah had done. There must have been something more desirable about taking her chances with Naomi and the Lord God, something she sensed was truer and more powerful than anything she’d known in Moab. Perhaps Naomi’s character and love for Ruth kindled in her a hunger for God, for what Naomi had in her life. Whatever the reason, God honored that choice and devotion beyond what either of them ever knew.
As they settle in Judah, it is indeed Naomi’s advice and guidance that ensures the future of both women. This is territory and culture that she knows about; she uses her family connections shrewdly to help obtain a new husband for Ruth. Without question, Ruth does all that Naomi instructs her to do. While Naomi depends on Ruth’s work for their daily sustenance, Ruth trusts Naomi with her very life–and Naomi willingly takes on the responsibility.
Can I, like Naomi, change the course of history? I can’t know what influence I will have beyond today, but Naomi’s example shows that anything is possible, and that God’s plans are far- reaching. She reminds me that as an older woman I still have something to offer and a role to play; that my mentoring younger women is an act of faithful obedience, because no one does the life of faith “alone.” Sharing my heart and life with the women who come behind me is needed, significant, and a potential game-changer. I may not see the results in my own lifetime, but can trust that God will use my actions today for a legacy tomorrow.