In the preceding posts we read about Nahshon, Shalmon and Boaz, three generations of leaders in the young nation of Israel. This family, as we saw, was well connected and held in high esteem in the nation.
It’s not too much of a reach to surmise that the uncles, aunts and cousins of Israel’s first family were probably regarded highly as well. You’ll recall from the previous thrilling episode of As The Lion Turns that every Jewish mother worth her salt probably was trying to find a way to get her daughter to marry Boaz, who steadfastly withstood the relentless onslaught.
Well, if Boaz wasn’t the marrying type, then the next best option would be his brothers and cousins, right? It’s probably fair to assume that only the upper echelons of society figured they had a chance to have their daughter marry into the extended family of Shalmon and Boaz.
We know of one of those close relatives. His name was Elimelech, meaning “God, King,” or God is King. From the end of the story and the sequence of redemption, we can conclude Elimelech was a first cousin of Boaz, with an older brother (also Boaz’s cousin) who refused to redeem.
With the background we have, it’s easy to think Naomi was not just a common girl. In order to be selected to marry into the elite of the nation, she had to have been remarkable enough to set her apart from the competition. She was probably their culture’s equivalent of the smart cheerleader, who happened to be good looking and have a pleasant disposition — quite the catch, in other words. Who knows? She may even have been proposed as a potential bride for Boaz himself, before being let down as gently as Rahab could.
On Elimelech and Naomi’s wedding day it’s easy to imagine great expectations all around. But the subtleties in the narrative kind of lead us to believe things went downhill from there.
All the Bible tells us is there was a famine. Now, I’ve heard several preachers link things like famine to sin in the land, but that’s not accurate. Yes, there were times when the Lord sent a famine in response to something. But there are also other times when famines just happened in the normal course of life. Abraham had two famines so severe he had to leave the country, but nowhere in the Bible is there any suggestion that God was punishing Abraham for anything.
Famines, then, are part of the course of nature: they happen every now and then. In our times, we can think of recessions as the modern equivalent of famines: shortages brought on by forces beyond our control. And part of life.
Although a famine affects everyone, it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. Here are two cousins: Boaz and Elimelech. The same famine struck both, but one prospered and the other lost his property.
From what we know of their society, Elimelech went into debt as the famine caused his revenues to dip below his expenses, and he used his property as security. When he defaulted on the debt, Elimelech had two choices: go into slavery to work off the debt, or flee. He fled.
To Naomi, this had to be a bitter blow. The homecoming queen had to face the equivalent of bankruptcy, and had to leave her circle of well-heeled friends in shame. Moreover, the place they went to, Moab, was the place of Balak, who called on Baalam to curse Israel not too long before.
Naomi no doubt hoped that Elimelech would find a job or some source of income with which to repay his debts back in Bethlehem. That clearly didn’t happen, and the years went by in Moab. Naomi went from somebody to nobody: a homecoming queen on the fringes of Israel’s first family to a struggling stranger in the land of a traditional enemy of her nation.
It got worse. When the time came for their oldest son to get married, Elimelech and Naomi selected a local girl. We read that in the Bible and move right along.
This is not a trivial thing. The right and proper thing would have been for the parents to make an effort to find a good girl from Israel.
And they didn’t.
If you have a mental picture that Elimelech and Naomi moved to the end of the earth, think again. From where they lived, a good Jewish girl was no more than about 10 miles away — an easy day’s walk. Abraham sent his servant way further than that to find a bride for Isaac. Ten miles is nothing. In all likelihood it would have brought them to someone from the tribe of Manasseh, so it’s not like they would have had to face the shame back in Bethlehem. Why didn’t they do that? Or at least try? We will never know. All we know is: they didn’t.
The picture we get of Elimelech is not a flattering one. If Boaz could not only survive the famine but prosper, why not Elimelech? And the others? We don’t read of anyone else leaving the country. Neither do we get the inference that the famine was unusually severe.
And now he was allowing his sons to marry into the enemy.
This all had to be hard on Naomi. But, it seems, she did the best she could with the hand she was dealt. We get the impression that she got along well with her neighbors and, more importantly, her two daughters-in-law.
To no avail. One by one, her meal tickets literally died. In those days there was no Rosie the Riveter. Women depended on their husbands and their sons to earn a living. When all three died, Naomi’s world, second class as it had become, ended.
She had no choice but to return home, face the shame (“Oh, look at poor Naomi! Marrying into the top family of Judah, and look where that got her!”) and accept the provisions the welfare system allowed widows.
It’s easy to see why Naomi, when she returned, said, “Listen, don’t call me Sweet (Naomi). My name is Bitter (Mara). I’m a different person now. God has dealt harshly with me and, as a result, my identity, my nature, has changed.”
The Bible writer(s) ignored her wish, and kept on calling her Sweet.
We know why. Because we know how the story ended.
When they got back, Naomi still had a good working knowledge of how to snag the top bachelor in the nation, and wasted no time getting Ruth hooked up.
Happily Ever After
And Ruth and Boaz lived happily ever after.
But… so did Naomi. When she hit rock bottom, the Lord provided for her in the most miraculous fashion. She went from the poorhouse of Moab, right into the granny apartment Ruth made sure Boaz built for her. And she no doubt returned right back to having tea with her old acquaintances from way back.
It’s interesting to me how God reached out and took care of Naomi, even though she broke every rule in the modern charismatic book: she made one negative confession after another, had absolutely no faith, insulted God and even went so far as to change her name to reflect her bitterness.
God, though, is so much bigger in his His love and grace, isn’t He? Even when we mess up, even when we do everything wrong, even when it looks like we blew every chance we got… even when we give up looking and just resign ourselves to the misery we think is unchangeable, God can reach down and with a flick of His finger set our feet back on a rock and reinstate us back into the best place of our lives.
Simply because He loves us sooooo much!