The story of Naomi in the Bible, though often overlooked, reveals the power and purposes of God working in and through those who have lost everything yet cling to hope. The Book of Ruth is not just Ruth’s story; Naomi also has a lot to teach us.
O God, give us the faith, the courage, and the resilience of Naomi. Turn our hurt into hope, our pain into growth, our cries into character, and our grief into gain. Amen.
The Book of Ruth
“‘For [Ruth], who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne [a son].’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi!’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David” (Ruth 4:15-17).
Introduction to Naomi in the Bible
Naomi tends to stand in the darkening space just beyond the border of the spotlight shining brightly on the Book of Ruth’s eponymous character, Ruth. But Naomi deserves her own spotlight. In fact, according to a fascinating recent study, some scholars believe Naomi was originally the central character of the story.
The story of Naomi in the Bible, as scholars now see it, was developed by a guild of female storytellers and performed for mostly female audiences. In this context, it functioned as a parody of the patriarchy, exposing its obvious limitations while acknowledging its oppressive challenges. As the story grew in popularity and approached canonical status, it came under the (male) gaze of scribes who committed it to writing and, in the process, softened its anti-patriarchal accents by shifting the focus from the disruptive and unpredictable Naomi to the loyal and courageous Ruth. Without taking anything away from the remarkable and fearsome Ruth, this study will highlight Naomi’s often overlooked contributions to this exceptional biblical story, told by and about women.
Digging Deeper: The Meaning of Naomi and Her Story
The name Naomi means “pleasant” in biblical Hebrew. But nothing about Naomi’s experience in the first chapter of Ruth is pleasant. The story of Naomi begins amid a disastrous famine in which Naomi, her husband, and two sons are forced to flee Bethlehem and settle in neighboring Moab. They became what today we would call climate refugees. Today, millions of people around the world are facing similarly tragic consequences.
Forced to flee their homes, their neighbors, their land, their ancestors, and their future, climate refugees are the invisible victims of climate change. They contribute the least to global warming yet suffer the full force of its devastating effects—while wealthy nations and their wealthiest organizations and citizens contribute most to the problem but are insulated from its effects (for now). Naomi’s story of ingenuity, agency, honesty, and humor in the midst of crisis resonates with the situation of millions of vulnerable people around the world and can be a source of both comfort and empowerment.
The loss of her homeland is just the first of Naomi’s devastating losses. Once in Moab, she loses her husband. Ten years later, she does the unthinkable: she buries her sons. In ten tragic years, she has gone from citizen to immigrant, local to foreigner, wife to widow, mother to bereaved. Within the patriarchal society of the time, she is in the most vulnerable position possible: an unmarried elderly woman without male children in a foreign country with two widowed women to provide for.
Naomi and Ruth: A Powerful Team
And yet, hope springs eternal. Naomi learns that the Lord returned bread to the “House of Bread” (in Hebrew, Bethlehem means “house of bread”). Since Ruth refuses to leave Naomi for an easier life in Moab, the two return to Bethlehem together and trade places, as it were: now Ruth is the immigrant widow who needs to care for her aging mother-in-law.
Naomi does not deny or downplay her losses; she embraces them. She changes her name from “pleasant” to “bitter” (Hebrew Mara). But she is not content to play the role of victim. Instead, she exerts her own agency and pulls the strings she can reach in order to provide for her beloved Ruth and her own future. Thus, upon her and Ruth’s return to Bethlehem, Naomi begins to expose the machinations of the patriarchy and its assumptions about the superiority of male strength, intelligence, and control as a farce and a sham. The character of Boaz is the puppet attached to Naomi’s strings, and Ruth is her able understudy.
Naomi knows Mosaic Law, and she knows her rights, such as they are. She exploits Boaz’s insecurity and his obvious attraction to Ruth to compel the indifferent powers that be to fulfill their covenantal obligations to her and her family. Naomi is the orchestrator of the pivotal threshing floor scene, which swirls with sexual energy. It is a risky-but-effective strategy. Boaz swallowed their bait—hook, line, and sinker. In the face of male privilege and indifference, two women working together overcome great challenges, and in the process bring an entire community back to the way of God, the way of Torah, of compassion, generosity, and belonging.
She Is Called and We Are Called
The arc of the gospel is comedy, not tragedy. The end of history is a wedding banquet, not a funeral procession. Good Friday is necessary but penultimate, giving way to Easter and ascension.
Naomi and Ruth’s story is the gospel in microcosm. Though it includes tragic elements, it is comedy, not tragedy. From grief to gain. From emptiness to fullness. From hungry to satisfied. From resignation to hope. From bitterness to joy. From exile to promised land. From death to life. From David’s seed to the seed of Christ.
We can learn from Naomi’s plucky resilience that we are never left without power and never left without hope. God is always with us and often working through our loss and grief to bring about God’s larger purposes—both for us and also for the world—purposes which we could not possibly imagine during the uncertain times of our suffering and grief.
We can learn from Naomi and from Ruth that God honors the courage, audacity, resilience, and wisdom of women. Ruth’s willingness to take on significant personal, physical, and emotional risks by entering the unpredictable and often unsafe world of men—as a female, foreigner, widow, and immigrant—speaks volumes to her character and her love for Naomi. Naomi’s resolve to see her life clearly and exert her influence toward making a better life for her descendants—despite personal trial and unimaginable loss, while leaving the rest to hope—is a model for us of faithful living east of Eden.
The story of Naomi in the Bible ends on a beautifully subversive note. After Ruth’s son is born, the womenfolk of the town gather to bless Naomi and name Ruth’s son. Boaz does not name him. Nor do the elders holding court at the city gate. Ruth and Naomi don’t either! The women of Bethlehem, who are forgotten or ignored in most biblical accounts, are here empowered both to name the significance of this moment and to name the one who would become King David’s grandfather: Obed (Hebrew for “servant”).
And the women do not disappoint! Beyond naming Obed, they also declare that Ruth is more to Naomi “than seven sons” (4:15). In a patriarchal world, this affirmation praises Ruth and names Naomi’s Job-like transformation: Naomi lost two sons, but gained seven in Ruth!
A playful textual clue reinforces the comparison. There are two genealogies listed at the end of the book, both ending with David. The first names three generations: Obed–Jesse–David. The latter lists ten (but doesn’t name Ruth). I’m no mathematician, but 10 – 3 = 7!
Naomi’s story is a rare gem within the Bible. A woman’s story, told from a woman’s perspective that prioritizes the trials and triumphs of women in the ancient world. Along with Miriam, Esther, Hannah, Abigail, and the unnamed Shunamite woman, this story confirms that women also stand before the face of the living and loving God, who cares about them and their experiences, and uses them to bring about God’s sacred purposes for the world.
- Naomi’s story is full of loss and full of hope. Do you resonate with one of these in Naomi’s story more than the other?
- How do you respond to the possibility of an ancient guild of women storytellers who told stories like Naomi’s to expose the excesses of patriarchy and celebrate the radical grace of God in ways distinct to women’s experiences?
- What surprised you in this Bible study session?
- What do you hear the Spirit saying to you/your family/your church/your community?
Rev. Dr. Travis West is an associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. One of his primary areas of research and interest is the Sabbath. When he isn’t at work or his writing desk he can be found searching for wonder, whether on long walks through the fields near his house listening to Audible, or hanging out with his artist wife whose art and reflections perpetually amaze him.
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