No one wants to leave their homeland, but sometimes life calls for it. In this case, it was a time of severe hunger in the land. Each of our nations typically has had this narrative at some point in their history.
The hunger was so bad a little family moved to the land of their enemies, albeit a land that would receive them, give them a place and keep them alive. All was well until the husband died. Now Naomi was a single mom. Her sons grew up and then they died. And now she was a widow in a foreign land whose children married non-Israelites, something not welcomed.
Having heard that Israel now had food and things were better, she and her daughters-in-law decided to return to Israel. In one of the most selfless acts ever, Ruth sends her daughters-in-law back to their land to find husbands and begin again. It would mean she would be utterly alone and destitute, but she did it out of love.
They tried to stay but Ruth encouraged them to leave. Orpah, one daughter, finally left. But Ruth said no. She said no to her future, no to her self, no to a life with children, no to everything as her mother-in-law would probably die before her leaving her single. In a reciprocal act of great sacrificial love, Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law and they continued on to Israel.
When Naomi returned to her village in Israel the people greeted her with great excitement and welcome. But Naomi wouldn’t have it. She felt guilty for going away, especially to a land of their enemies, and having children that married foreign wives. Her guilt was heavy and she felt like all that happened was the Lord’s judgment against her. It was a heavy burden and she asked the people to now call her “Mara,” which meant “bitter.” The lamp of her soul had been extinguished except for the ember of a faithful daughter-in-law.
I can’t imagine the burden she carried, feeling as if all that happened in her life was God’s judgment against her. They had acted in a desperate situation to escape the famine. Yes, her children married foreign wives, but it was the land they were living in.
Clearly though she was a faithful, loving woman, or else Ruth would not have wanted to stay with her. She was good and caring to her daughters-in-law.
Was the death of her husband and sons God’s judgment? We’re not told by the text, we’re only told that is how Naomi felt. But whether it was or not, God wanted to extend to her his mercy and kindness. He was writing an extraordinary story that she could not yet see. So much so that I think this book in the Bible is wrongly named. I think the story is about Naomi more than it is Ruth, a story about redemption and restoration even more than about marriage and a good man.
Sometimes things get dark before they get really black. The times seem overwhelming awful and like God himself stands in opposition. But when all hope appears lost, God just may be preparing something so overwhelmingly amazing that we could not even imagine.
Hope is most beautiful when it’s found hidden in the darkness.