There is a decent chance that you have heard of Naomi from the Bible. You might even know that she is connected with the story of Ruth. But have you heard of a woman named Mara?
It’s actually the same woman; she wanted a name change. But history has not given it to her. She is known as Naomi and not Mara. And that is because of the beauty of redemption that is found in her story.
Who Was Naomi?
We read about Naomi in the Old Testament book of Ruth. She was married to an Ephrathite man from Bethlehem named Elimelech. And she had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. You probably haven’t heard of those names. But Bethlehem probably sounds familiar because it was the birthplace of Jesus. And if you were heavily steeped in the Old Testament, you’d have likely been thinking of King David as well.
The key to this passage is to notice that it begins with a woman who leaves their hometown with her husband and two sons. By the end of the passage (verse 5) her husband and two sons are dead and all she has left are her daughters-in-law: Ruth and Orpah.
This is why she lamented and wanted to have her name changed to Mara. Here is how she said it:
“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21).
But bitterness and ruin would not have the last word. There is much more to Naomi’s story.
What Happens to Naomi?
There are a few more details to Naomi’s story that fill out her pain for us.
First, we notice that this was “when the judges ruled.” That was the time when everybody did what was right in their own eyes. It was a godless time. When a famine strikes (which is the second thing to notice) Elimelech believes it is best to move his family to Moab, which was a godless nation known for nothing good in the biblical record. Her sons end up marrying Moabite women, which wasn’t supposed to happen (Deut. 7:3).
Is it reasonable to assume that even before death strikes, Naomi’s life is not quite what she had envisioned? We don’t really know. Maybe she wanted to go to Moab. Perhaps she had no qualms about what this all meant in relationship to her God. But by the end of these few verses, the author wants us to know that Naomi is in a foreign land, with a dead husband, two dead sons, and foreign daughters. All her support is gone.
Naomi hears that the famine is over in her home country, so she decides to cut her losses and live out her days in her homeland. And she bids a painful farewell to her daughters. “Move on” is essentially the message that Naomi gives to these women. But they, especially Ruth, will not have any of this talk. She follows Naomi back into her homeland. She determines to be of the line of Naomi and to move away from her Moabite heritage.
Ruth 1:12-13 is a key passage to the entire book:
“Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.”
Her statement here is that their line has ended. There is no way for the line of Elimelech to continue. There is nobody who can marry Ruth. “There is no future with me” is what Naomi was telling these women. Orpah took her up on it and went back to her gods. But Ruth gave a stirring speech. She told Naomi that she would follow her anywhere. She was surrendering her life to Naomi.
How do you think Naomi responded?
She said nothing. Silence. That’s one of the things that trauma will do. And it’s often what happens when we are so overcome with grief that we move into a deep and settled bitterness. Hence her eventual response of a name change. She left Naomi, she came back as Mara. That is how she believed her story was to be written. But it was not to be so.
God called her Naomi, not Mara. As is typical she did not know the whole story.
Why Does Naomi Encourage Ruth to Seek out Boaz?
Much of the story of Ruth is centered around her relationship with Boaz. We find out in the beginning of chapter 2 that Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s husband. This will play a significant role later as we learn that this makes Boaz a kinsman-redeemer. Iain Duguid explains:
“A kinsman redeemer was obliged to buy back his relatives if they fell into debt and had to sell themselves into slavery (Lev. 25:25–55). Under certain circumstances, the kinsman redeemer also had an obligation to marry the widow and raise up a child for a brother who had died childless (Deut. 25:5–10). In this way, the inheritance would continue to be associated with the name of the man who had died."
In other words, Boaz was a light at the end of the tunnel. If Ruth married Boaz, then it would mean rescue for their family. Ruth made it known to Boaz that she was open to marriage. They sought for others to potentially redeem her, but there were no others. It was up to Boaz, but he was happy to oblige.
At the end of the story Naomi, who doesn’t seem to want to be called Mara anymore, does get a new name — blessed.
“Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’”
The story doesn’t end with Naomi though. It ends with another name – David. This tells us that this story is part of the line through which the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would come. This is not a story of only Naomi’s redemption — it ends up being a story about our redemption as well.
What Does Naomi's Story Teach Us about Faith?
There are many lessons to learn from the story of Naomi. Here are three.
1. God Writes Our Stories
If Naomi had held the pen by which her story would be written, it would have ended as a tragedy. The title of the book would be something like The Painful End of Mara. She believed that her life was over. All her decisions, or more so her husband’s decisions, led them to this bitter place. And it ended in death and no hope. She hadn’t even considered a kinsman-redeemer. In her mind her story was over.
We can make similar assumptions about our life. We can either cut God’s power to redeem short or even pridefully assume that if anything positive happens it will come from our own hands. The story of Naomi reminds us that if God wants her to be called Naomi instead of Mara, he will certainly write her story so that it is not one which ends in bitterness but in blessing.
2. He Restores the Years the Locusts Have Eaten
That phrase comes from Joel 2:25. The people had experienced great famine and locusts had eaten so much of their land. Naomi had a similar experience. Not only did she experience the pain of famine but also the death of her loved ones. Yet, we see that by the end of the story, God had blessed Naomi and gave her restoration. It’s not that anyone could ever fully replace the things she has lost, not in a one-to-one fashion, but somehow through God’s kindness, even those lost years are restored by joy.
3. His Plan to Redeem Will Not Be Stopped
The story of Ruth and Boaz is a story about the improbable ways which King David came to be. But even more than that it is a story about the improbable ways in which King Jesus came to be. Had this story not happened, there would be no King David and there would not have been the birth of Jesus, as a descendant of David.
There have been many times in history when it has seemed like God’s plan of redemption was on its last breath. But God is faithful to His story. He always works out redemption. This is great news for us. God plans to redeem, and nothing will stop His plan.
Iain M. Duguid, Esther and Ruth, ed. Richard D. Phillips and Philip Graham Ryken, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 162–163.
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