This is the second post in our Empathy series. Chrystal is a friend and fellow blogger from my Story 101 class, as well as the greater Story Community. I am so happy to introduce you to her today.
I’ve lived my life according to the rules, why have I lost everything? Have my sacrifices and accomplishments been for nothing? Have I outlived my usefulness? Am I no longer valuable? Where is God? What could I possibly have done that God would judge me and find me guilty? Why has God abandoned me? These questions filled Naomi’s mind as she continued to silently place one foot in front of the other, day after day, on the long trip back to Bethlehem.
Naomi started out well in life. She was an observant Jew, respected in her community. Her family arranged a marriage for her with a man from a good family who would be inheriting a large amount of land. In a farming community like Bethlehem, a family’s wealth and influence was gauged by the amount of land it held. Naomi gained even more respect in the community when she gave birth to two sons. The measure of a woman’s success was marriage and her ability to provide sons to continue the family line. Naomi had every reason to believe God smiled on her and rewarded her righteousness.
Then everything began to go horribly and unexpectedly wrong.
The first catastrophe was the famine that overwhelmed Bethlehem. Naomi must have looked into the hungry faces of her two young boys on many days, grief stricken at her inability to provide food for them. At the end of another day with too little food, I can see her gathering her small boys into her arms and trying to sing them to sleep in spite of the pains in their empty stomachs. Naomi and her husband were willing to give up everything to make the move to another country in the hope that they could feed their children. Naomi’s husband sold his land and the family set out for Moab. I’m sure Naomi and her husband thought to themselves, “we’ll just stay in Moab until the famine is over, then we’ll return home.” But time went by and still no word came from Bethlehem that things were better.
Catastrophe struck again. Naomi’s husband died. She was forced to bury him in a foreign country, with no one to mourn with her other than her two sons. Her beautiful boys, her guarantee that the family line would continue. She had no choice but to look for wives for them in Moab. Wives who followed different gods and different beliefs. Wives who knew nothing about raising children to follow the ways of God. As it ended up, Naomi wouldn’t have to worry about her non-Jewish daughters-in-law raising non-Jewish children. Ten years went by with no sign of grandchildren.
The depth of Naomi’s despair at the lack of grandsons came from her knowledge that no female could be an heir. If there were no sons, the land and property didn’t pass from the husband to the wife. It went to a male relative. No grandsons meant the end of the family line. As Naomi’s hopes flickered, the final devastation fell. Both her sons died.
The circumstances for a widow without a son were bleak. Without a husband or son, a woman had no access to the resources of the community. She effectively became invisible. She couldn’t conduct business. She couldn’t represent herself in court. Without a husband or son, if a merchant chose to cheat her, she had no recourse. If the landlord decided to double the rent each month or to kick her out, the authorities would not intervene for her. She had no voice.
This is Naomi’s situation as she heads back to Bethlehem. She believes that she has been abandoned by God, judged and found wanting even though she has followed the ways of God all her life. These aren’t the whining complaints of a querulous old woman. Like Job, Naomi’s experience poses honest questions about who God is and just how far we can trust God when we’ve been stripped of everything and are left broken and vulnerable. Her story challenges our expectation that following all the rules guarantees we’ll be saved from disaster.
Naomi’s story is told in a book named for her daughter-in-law, Ruth. The Book of Ruth was usually described to me as a kind of love story between Ruth and Boaz. (You can read the Book of Ruth here.) However, I think the real love story is between God and Naomi. God shows great love for Naomi in the way both Ruth and Boaz give sacrificially to Naomi’s needs. The book might just as appropriately be named for Naomi as for Ruth. It ends with the birth of a boy named Obed. Even though his biological parents are Ruth and Boaz, the women of Bethlehem declare that Obed is the son of Naomi, ensuring Naomi’s full restoration into the community. She is no longer an invisible, voiceless woman. (If you’re interested in reading more about how Naomi’s story reflects the loving, redemptive nature of God, I highly recommend the book “The Gospel of Ruth” by Carolyn Custis James.)
There are so many reflections I take away from Naomi’s story. I am encouraged that even when I am most despairing and believe that God has abandoned me, I can continue to hope in the One who always sees. I am also encouraged to give sacrificially into the lives of the ones who are invisible or have no voice, knowing that I reflect the image and love of God when I do.