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When Naomi returns to her hometown at the beginning of Ruth, she addresses the women:

"Don’t call me Naomi," she told them. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me."

Ruth 1:20-21 NIV

Does the narrator share this viewpoint, that God is the one afflicting Naomi, the one who has made her life very bitter? What evidence is there in the text that the narrator does or does not share this idea?

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Yes, the "narrator" shares Naomi's perception of divine agency ... yet also implicitly challenges Naomi's understanding of her situation.

That judgment is based on the following observations:

  1. It is more or less a given in the Hebrew Bible that YHWH is the ultimate "agent" beyond which there is no other. Naomi, in claiming with some insistance that her plight is the Lord's doing, is essentially asserting a common-place. A comparison is often drawn with Job's similar claims in Job 1:21:

    "Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    And naked I shall return there.
    The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
    Blessed be the name of the LORD."

    or Job 2:9:

    "Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?"1

    One can think also of Samson's first ill-fated choice of spouse (Judges 14:4), or the prophetic word at the division of the kingdoms following Solomon's death (1 Kings 12:22-24). At this level, then, it is to be expected that Naomi would credit YHWH with her misfortunes, and that the narrator would concur.2

  2. Beyond this, however, the narrator is implicitly critical of Naomi's assessment of her situation.

    • Naomi asserts that she has returned "empty" (1:21a - "I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty"). Quite pointedly, the narrator's comment follows (1:22):

    So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.

    Not so "empty" after all, then.

    • There is a further clue in the use of the key word √šûb, "turn, return". Its distribution in the book of Ruth is quite telling: 1:6; 7; 8; 10; 11; 12; 15(×2); 16; 21; 22(×2); 2:6; 4:3; 4:15 = fifteen times in total, but twelve of those in chapter 1! Ch. 2:6 identifies Ruth as the "returner" who came with Naomi (echoing the words of 1:22) - the same form of the word used to identify Naomi (this time) as "returner" in 4:3. (More on 4:15 in a moment.)

    Bound up with the occurrences in ch. 1 is a subtle tug-of-war about who belongs where, with a number of ironic overtones. It's difficult to resist the sense that the narrator is drawing attention to displacement and choice -- both of Naomi (and her family) at the beginning of ch. 1, the daughters-in-law in the middle of the chapter, and Naomi in the company of Ruth at its end.

    • Finally, the last use of √šûb ch. 4 deserves special attention. By this time, Ruth has had the child, fathered by Boaz:

    [4:13] So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.

    Just as the LORD is responsible for deprivation, so is he responsible for provision. Then 4:14-15 drives the point home, as the towns-women declare to Naomi (!):

    “Blessed is the LORD who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel. 15 May he also be to you a restorer [מֵשִׁיב mēšîb] of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”3

    It is worth noting that the final verses of the book's narrative (4:14-17, excluding the genealogy) are wholly about Naomi -- not about Ruth!

By the book's conclusion, then, the tables have been turned on Naomi -- she is right (in the narrator's eyes) that YHWH was responsible for her "bitter" state -- but in the ways outlined above (and others), the narrator leaves plenty of clues that Naomi's perception of her "bitterness" was significantly over drawn.


Notes

  1. Lest some think that the Satan is the one responsible for Job's woes, please note that this is not how YHWH himself sees it, and who takes responsibility "above" the Satan in Job 2:3.
  2. Beyond these examples, there are two more "programmatic" statements of this principle in the Hebrew Bible:

    See now that I, I am He,
    And there is no god besides Me;
    It is I who put to death and give life.
    I have wounded and it is I who heal,
    And there is no one who can deliver from My hand.

    2 There is no one holy like the LORD,
    Indeed, there is no one besides You,
    Nor is there any rock like our God. ...
    6 The LORD kills and makes alive;
    He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
    7 The LORD makes poor and rich;
    He brings low, He also exalts.
    8 He raises the poor from the dust,
    He lifts the needy from the ash heap
    To make them sit with nobles,
    And inherit a seat of honor...

  3. The "he" who is the "restorer" in 4:15 must refer to the child who is now a kind of "redeemer" to Naomi, just a Boaz was to her and Ruth -- but this is a "redeemer" as provided by YHWH.

Bibliographic note

There is a remarkable set of essays on the depiction of Naomi in the book of Ruth - it becomes a fairly intemperate exchange by its conclusion, but any interested in this topic would find them illuminating and stimulating:

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