November 2, 2003   Shirley Macemon
  Woman of Valor: Naomi
Ruth 1:1-18

Valor: strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness, personal bravery

Fred Craddock gives us a helpful way to think about the opening chapter of the book of Ruth. He says,

"I am going to say a word. The moment I say the word I want you to see a face, to recall a face and a name, someone who comes to your mind when I say the word. Are you ready?

The word is bitter. Bitter.

Do you see a face? I see a face. I see the face of a farmer in western Oklahoma, riding a mortgaged tractor, burning gasoline purchased on credit, moving across rented land, rearranging the dust. Bitter.

Do you see a face? I see the face of a woman forty-seven years old. She sits out on a hillside, drawn and confused under a green canopy furnished by the mortuary. She is banked on all sides by flowers sprinkled with cards: 'You have our condolences.' Bitter.

"Do you see a face? I see the face of a man who runs a small grocery store. His father ran the store in that neighborhood for twenty years, and he is now in his twelfth year there. The grocery doesn't make much profit, but it keeps the family together. It's a business. There are no customers in the store now, and the grocer stands in the doorway with his apron rolled up around his waist, looking across the street where workmen are completing a supermarket. Bitter.

"I see the face of a young couple. They seem to be about nineteen. They are standing in the airport terminal, holding hands so tightly that their knuckles are white. She's pregnant; he's dressed in military green. They are not talking, just standing and looking at each other. The loudspeaker comes on: 'flight 392 now loading at gate 22, yellow concourse, all aboard for San Francisco.' He slowly moves toward the gate; she stands there alone. Bitter.

"Do you see a face? A young minister in a small town, in a cracker box of a house they call the parsonage. He lives there with his wife and small child. On Saturday morning there is a knock at the door. He answers, and there standing before him on the porch is the chairman of his church board, who is also the president of the local bank, and owner of most of the land round about. He has in his hands a small television. It is an old television, small screen, black-and-white. It's badly scarred, and one of the knobs is off. He says, 'My wife and I got one of those new twenty-five-inch color sets, but they didn't want to take this one on trade, so I just said to myself, Well, we'll just give it to the minister. That's probably the reason our ministers don't stay any longer than they do. We don't do enough nice things for them. The young minister looks up and tries to smile and say thanks. But I want you to see his face. Bitter."

Now, imagine that face that looks out at us from the story of Ruth. That face belongs to a women who has walked for days, carrying her life-belongings. She has traveled home from a foreign land, ever expecting to return home in worse shape than she left. Ten years earlier, Naomi, her husband and two young sons traveled to Moab in search of a place to make their way until the famine that devastated Judea lifted and they could return home with enough savings to redeem their family land. Now, leaving husband and sons buried in Moab, she has returned home.

She has returned home with every reason to tell the women of Bethlehem call her Mara Bitter. She is a widow a precarious status at best. Her sons died childless with no one to carry on the family name, no one to work the family fields, no one to carry on the family traditions. And though Naomi urged both her daughters-in-law to return to their own families, Ruth followed her back to her homeland: Naomi must not only find a life for herself, but also for this foreign woman with foreign ways. So, although her homecoming is greeted with excitement, Naomi, who's name means "sweet", makes it clear that she went away full, and the Lord has brought her back empty.

If we were reading Naomi's story in Hebrew, we would already know the irony of her life. Bethlehem, Naomi's home town, is "breadbasket", yet her family left because they were starving. Her family's clan, Ephrathites are literally "fruitfulness", yet they to Moab, literally "unfruitful". And her sons? Mahlon sounds like the Hebrew word for one of the plagues of Egypt, and Chilion is from the root word "to perish".

And the word "shub", to return, or "turn back" is used no less than 15 times in today's reading the 1st chapter--alone.

But, for all this play on words, for all the setup, we might expect that bitterness to have taken over Naomi's life. That each of her actions would reflect the bitterness she expressed, reflect back to others the emptiness and bitterness of a life whose plans had gone terribly awry.

"No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live." Deuteronomy 23:3-6

Racial politics aside, pressing the claim of levirate marriage on whatever male relatives might accept the claim would be tricky at best since, as Naomi so eloquently points out--she has no more sons for these women to marry.

Levirate marriage, by the way, is the law in effect up through and including Jesus' time intended to guarantee survivorship of a family name and ownership of property. If a man died childless, then (except in some certain circumstances) that man's brother was obligated to marry the widow to produce an heir in the man's name. Since men could have more than one wife, it didn't matter if the brother was already married, the widow could become co-wife with the brother's first wife. Some scholars speculate that at some times in history, this practice extended to a wider family, and perhaps across generations.

Whatever the practice was when the story of Ruth was written, Naomi urged these women to take the easier and safer option: their own lands, their own families, their own gods and customs. Naomi would travel alone, and the daughters in law would be safe, staying in their homeland of Moab. Orpah returns to her family--with no shame attached to that move. But Ruth could not be dissuaded from staying with Naomi.

Naomi, widowed and childless brought the young Moabite Ruth back to Bethlehem. They could not know what awaited them there--whether Elimelech's land would still be unclaimed after 10 years, whether Ruth would be scorned because she was a Moabite, whether or not the two widows could even make a go of it.

Valor is a strength of mind or spirit that enables a person to encounter danger with firmness, personal bravery. Naomi certainly demonstrates valor with each decision made to return to Israel, urging the daughters in law to remain in Moab, and finally, standing with Ruth as she procures gleanings for the day's food.

Think about the people in your live who may have been dealt a bad hand, had tragedy and misfortune surround them. Some continue to live in the tragedy and bitterness that has afflicted their life. Like Naomi, they not only had no good prospects, but no good prospects, and that defines who they are.

If we left Naomi with her self-definition as she entered Bethlehem, we might believe her words. But her actions belie those words. Yes, she had every right to be bitter, to feel that God had betrayed her. But she didn't lay down and stop. She had seen tragedy, and she wasn't going to live there. She journeyed to put herself in a place where God looked favorably on God's people; a place of hope and rebirth, where she believed God would look favorably on her as well.