The Book of Ruth is one of my favorite books of the Bible. Ruth is one of the true heroes of the faith. The fact that the Book is titled after Ruth and she shows such wonderful faith in God during a time of trial can obscure some of the other lessons that God intends for us in the account of the family of Elimelech.
The possibly saddest is the tremendous cost in the life of a believer of allowing a root of bitterness to take hold and dictate behavior. In an account that focuses on the admirable faith of Ruth, the loss of faith and bitterness of her mother in law Naomi presents as an ugly contrast.
If you are familiar with Ruth, the account begins with Elimelech and his family, his wife Naomi and his two sons leaving Israel because of a famine and relocating to Moab. The wisdom of this decision will be the subject of a subsequent post. While in Moab, the two sons get married to women of Moab, Ruth and Orpah and then the sons and their father all die. This is a terrible moment for the women of the Elimelech clan, not just because of the pain of their loss which obviously would have been substantial.
In the culture of the time, if a woman lost her husband she would be reliant on her grown sons for legal protection and for provision. Women were not part of the workforce and generally could not work to make a living. If a woman lost her husband and then lost her sons or had no sons, her outlook was bleak. It is the reason why it was such a big deal when Jesus raises the only son of the Widow of Nain in Luke 7 – she would have been left with no obvious means of support.
Such is the case with Naomi, she is in a foreign land with no way to provide for herself and her two daughters in law while going through the loss of her husband and her her children. It is a terrible time in her life and her grief is certainly understandable.
When faced with a great trial though we always have a choice – whether we turn to God and trust Him in what seems like great darkness or turn away from God and trust our perspective on the situation.
Think about Paul and Silas in the prison in Philippi from Acts. They are beaten half to death and in the bottom of what was likely a disgusting Roman prison chained in a terribly agonizing position while being totally innocent. Their choice was to either look around them, despair and curse God and die as Job’s wife so eloquently puts it or trust the Lord that His plan is being carried out and praise Him regardless of circumstances. Paul and Silas chose praises and they are singing worship songs all night long in the midst of an agonizing trial. This is when the prison doors are opened, the jailer is saved and the entire prison is effected by their trust and praise of the Lord. (If you notice, none of the prisoners of the entire prison leave when the doors are opened).
Naomi is faced with the same choice when her husband and two sons die unexpectedly – trust in God and praise Him despite the storm going on knowing that He will work it out for good or turn inward, despair and turn from God.
When Naomi hears that there is good conditions in Israel, it does appear that she is on the right track as she decides that she is going to leave Moab and head back to the Promise Land. Yay!
But unfortunately, it says specifically her motivation is to get bread and not to return to God and the land of her God, but for bread. Boo!
Her attitude is made clear when she gets back to Bethlehem and she tells the people there to no longer call her Naomi, but Mara which translates to mean Bitterness. Yikes! Her grief and loss have turned inward rather than upward and been allowed to grown into a bitterness and anger. Reading it on the pages of the Bible we can see how Naomi loses her ay and shake a finger at her, but honestly, who hasn’t been here at some point. Grief, loss and suffering hurt and it is easy to get swept away in the powerful emotions that pain brings into our lives.
Now Naomi has had a tough time, this is clear and people get beaten up by life all the time. It is understandable that the pain of loss would have been immense. But bitterness is never a legitimate response of a child of God.
We are chosen out of the world despite our sins for an eternity with Him. Regardless of how bad it is now, this is just a vapor compared with eternity. Naomi is still breathing, has two women who love her and as we see when she returns to Israel is accepted back into the village along with her foreign daughter in law. She also serves God, the one who made her.
With God all is never lost. But if we have to choose to trust in God and not in our resentment, no matter how justified we feel. Choosing the alternative leads to terrible decisions and can inflict significant collateral damage on those we love.
When Naomi makes the decision to return to Israel, does she turn to her only remaining family in the world, Ruth and Orpah and tells them to cling to the only True God, Yahweh who will redeem them as He promised? Does she beg them to come with her back to Israel and the God of Israel where she now realizes that they never should have left to begin with?
No, tragically, no she says just the opposite. Because she feels abandoned and she feels pain, she tells them to return to their original families homes and leave her. Naomis is not abandoned, God will never leave her or forsake her, but her loss has caused her to feel bad and blame God for it. She transfers this feeling onto those around her.
Based upon the fact that they are tears at this direction, it appears that these women genuinely love each other and want to stay together as a family. Both daughters in law initially refuse to leave Naomi but after some additional begging on Naomi’s part, Orpah eventually leaves them and returns to her Moabite family.
Do we realize that Naomi is begging Orpah, her son’s wife to return to a life of paganism? A life that ends with no relationship with God?
In her pain and bitterness over her own fate, Naomi begs Orpah to abandon her relationship with Israel and with God and return to a life in a nation that were by and large idol worshippers.
Orpah could surprise us and we could meet her in heaven one day, but at very least Naomi has made the odds of that happening much lower than if she had encouraged her to continue back to Israel and trust in God for provision. Would there been a brother of Boaz for Orpah? Instead, out of a sense of her own bitterness stained wisdom she effectively causes Orpah to walk away from God. Naomi even acknoweldges it:
And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi. 15 “Look,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.”
Naomi had lost her own trust in God as a result of circumstances and it tragically impacts a young lady who was going to continue with her following God back to the Promise Land. In her bitterness, her time as Mara, she caused great damage.
In our lives we are presented with the same opportunities on a small scale and sometimes larger scale every day. Jesus told is that in this life we are going to have great troubles and sorrows, this is not yet heaven, we will face pain.
Our choice is how we are going to deal with that pain. Are we going to trust and praise God like Paul and Silas in the prison at Philippi when circumstances are unpleasant and testify to our Savior?
Are we going to be like Naomi, Mara and choose our bitterness?
When we are struck at the checkout line at the supermarket and the older lady brakes out her checkbook only after all the bags are packed and asks for the total 64 times or in terrible morning traffic with an important meeting fast approaching are we going to curse God and die or sing his praises?
Or when something truly terrible happens like the loss of a husband and children like with Naomi, do we trust that God is truly who He says He is and will do what He says or do we trust ourselves and our emotions? They are simple enough questions, but how you answer them defines your relationship with God and can push people around you either towards God or back towards the pagan worshipping world that we came out of.
We know from the rest of the Book of Ruth that God was still there for Naomi and for Ruth. That through Ruth’s faithfulness they are redeemed by Boaz, a man who presents a picture of Jesus in the Old Testament. When we are trusting and faithful, we trust that Jesus will always shows up to redeem us.
It is just remembering that in the darkness caused by life that allows us to be faithful and strain forward towards the joy that is set before us.
One thought on “The Book of Ruth and the Cost of Bitterness”
Thanks, Tom. Excellent observations on Naomi’s bitterness. I can’t criticize her though because I had the same attitude for a much longer time.