The Antidote to Bitterness
In writing the last post (https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/el-shaddai), I found so much to reflect on regarding God's Name El Shaddai that I never addressed the teaser of which woman in the Bible declares this Name of God.
This woman is Naomi, in the Book of Ruth.
As I learned last time, El Shaddai is a very ancient name of God, primarily seen in the books of Genesis and Job. Naomi is using a Name of God that is fairly archaic at this point.
She's doing it for dramatic and poetic effect. I kind of love it; she reminds me of older, ethnic family members with whom it's never unclear whether they're joyous, angry, or afraid. Whatever they're feeling, everyone knows it. I can kind of picture my Macedonian Baba delivering these lines!
Here's the context. We're at the very beginning of the book of Ruth. Naomi's life is in shambles. During the time of the Judges of Israel, she and her husband Elimelech move to the country of Moab to grapple with a famine that was plaguing their country.
That's an interesting point in and of itself. In the book of Judges, we don't see droves of other families migrating during this time, and when Naomi returns to Israel, there are plenty of people who stayed and survived. Their family chose differently. They migrated into enemy territory, away from their community, which means that they were also cut off from the tabernacle worship of God. Only pagan temple worship would be available to them. It's a curious and troubling choice. Not only did they migrate there, but verse 1:2 says "they remained there."
This doesn't pan out well for them. Both of Naomi's sons marry Moabite wives and then end up dying in Moab, as does the father. What a precarious place for a newly widowed woman to be--in foreign enemy territory, alone, grieving the loss of her entire family.
She decides to return to Israel, and her daughters-in-law set out to accompany her.
Those familiar with the book of Ruth know the beautiful story of one daughter-in-law turning back, but faithful Ruth staying with her mother-in-law. The events of the narrative play out with Ruth as the catalyst for all that transpires. Such loving exchanges occur between all three women, including Naomi's comments (" 'May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me'...she kissed them, and they wept aloud..."my daughters").
Naomi holds it together until they make it to Bethlehem.
Her return makes a big impact. The "whole town" is stirred, and the women of the town come out to greet her.
Now, think about high school reunions and all the various situations in which someone might return to a hometown. Lots of people in these situations want to look their best, to show themselves in their best light, to do some image control so that others see them as put together and doing well in their lives.
Not Naomi. She saves her lament for this group of women. Here it is:
Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty [Shaddai] has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty [Shaddai] has brought calamity upon me?
There are all kinds of problematic things with Naomi's lament. But let me say, the wrong thing to do with a newly grieved person would be to correct her theology and tell her to look on the bright side and start sentences with, "Well, at least you have..." Happily, her old friends say nothing and just let her voice her lament. Naomi needed to get this out. It may have been that there was no one back in Moab to voice this to.
Let's unpack her lament. Again, I have to picture a Middle Eastern, black-garbed woman loudly proclaiming her feelings to a group of ladies approaching her. This is a very dramatic statement, clearly telling all exactly what her mental state and feelings are!
First, Naomi wants to let the other women know that her own name no longer makes sense, since it means "pleasantness." She calls herself Mara (bitterness) instead.
It seems to be for dramatic effect rather than a wholesale identity adoption for Naomi because in the very next sentence, the Bible says, "So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite," and throughout the rest of the book, she is always referred to as Naomi. In the Bible, names matter (including Names of God!), and this is not a permanent change. It's just how she's feeling in the throes of grief. Life has not been pleasant. It has not been good for her.
She specifically attributes the cause of her woes to Shaddai. Now, it's probably obvious to all of us that it's problematic to make unwise life choices and then blame God. But we do this all the time ourselves don't we? We're not told that Elimelech and Naomi consulted God at all on their move. Usually in Scripture, we're told when people do reach out and pray to God for guidance. When we're not told, it's usually a fair assumption that they have not done this. So, it's a good chance that this family was in crisis, acted on their own to take care of it, did so in a way that cuts them off from church and community, bad things happened, and then the one surviving member blames God for all that transpired.
It's not theologically right or fair. But it's how Naomi feels.
As I wrote in the last blog post, up to this point in the Bible, God's name El Shaddai is given by God Himself to the patriarchs (and, once, invoked by Isaac when blessing Jacob). This Name has to do with powerfully sustaining and caring, especially for children. God as All-Sufficient.
Naomi takes us in a different direction, using dramatic irony. She drops the "El" uses the Name that connotates powerful, nourishing, and sustaining care for family, and points out how this has not been true for her at all. She would know the story of the promises that El Shaddai gave her forefathers. The God who supposedly is all-sufficient and provides all that we need did the opposite for her. She started out full, and now she's empty. And worse than being empty, she's had "calamity" brought upon her.
Incorrect theology notwithstanding, Naomi is testifying truly to her situation and how overwhelmed she feels.
Someone whose life is in a shambles, even when the shambles may be at least partially self-inflicted, has a right to voice their pain without our self-righteous corrections and pointing out that they brought this on themselves.
If we do this, we judge ourselves because all of us have had situations of our own making that we then became angry about. We found other things to blame--God, our parents, other people, bad friends. We blame everyone but ourselves. There are some great psychology theories and research on this--I'll spare you the details. But, this is a known human way of thinking. We have a tendency to blame others for problems but take credit for the good things that happen to us.
So, Naomi is no different than the rest of us, and if her anger and vitriol is a little excessive, only someone who has lost a husband and two sons in a short span of time in the midst of famine and in a semi-refugee status could understand somewhat what she's feeling.
My point is, she is never corrected for her lament, either by God or her community. And this opens the way to healing.
While the book is named after Ruth, some have noted that a significant theme of the book is the redemption of Naomi. Boaz (Ruth's future husband) is the kinsman-Redeemer and ends up rescuing them all. He's a Christlike figure, and ends up being an ancestor of Jesus. The rescue happens, though, because Ruth also is a rescuer. Naomi is in no state to problem-solve. It's Ruth who quickly adjusts to the new culture she's in, figures out that she can go glean wheat in fields, and suggests this as a course of action to Naomi. And, Ruth is a hard-worker with a servant's heart. Good things start happening.
This causes Naomi to perk up. She starts positively affirming Ruth and then Boaz and then orients toward action, giving Ruth essential and wise advise regarding next steps. She does so out of kindness and concern for providing for Ruth, who has been so ably providing for her.
We don't have a final statement from Naomi regarding her redemption and restoration, but we do have the women of the town making a return appearance, and telling her this (which Naomi presumably affirms, based on her actions concluding the chapter):
Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of kin, 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 borne him.
What great friends! They wait until Naomi is able to receive a statement like this, help her make sense of the incredible turnaround in her fortune, and point her to the Lord in ways that exactly parallel Naomi's lament.
Naomi may have initially been bitter about the all-sufficient Shaddai, but He did indeed restore life and nourish her family in a way consistent with the promises of El Shaddai.
He just did it in a way that Naomi didn't expect. The brokenness of this world results in terrible tragedies. El Shaddai is the One who takes this brokenness and tragedy and rebuilds us from the shambles and brokenness of our pasts. He does so in a way that is truly life-giving and speaks to what we truly need, rather than what we think we need. True restoration and new growth.
Naomi loved Ruth but she didn't fully appreciate her until later. She was willing to go it on her own until Ruth insisted otherwise. The ladies of the town point out (again, wisely, they do so later in the narrative) that while Naomi said initially that she had nothing, she always had Ruth. And this Ruth is better in character, industriousness, and caring than "seven sons." Part of Naomi's redemption is God opening her eyes to see what she has. And what she has is incredible.
The book of Ruth concludes with showing us that this newly formed family in Bethlehem is the origin of the line of David and, therefore, Jesus Christ. Christ, later to be born in the same town, would not have the lineage of David were it not for Boaz and Ruth. Were it not for Naomi's tragedies that resulted in her leaving and overturning what was possibly her husband's choice to cut her off God and community and return home and fulfill her dreams of family and connection. And fulfill them in exactly the same ways that El Shaddai fulfilled them for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Actually, Naomi's story becomes part of their story. She thought El Shaddai had ruined her, that the stories of the past that she had heard about were meaningless for her. But actually, she became part of the fulfillment of the the promises that El Shaddai gave Abraham and Isaac prayed over Jacob.
How glorious and awe-inspiring! Who knows in what ways we are participating in a larger story of flourishing and fulfillment, for ourselves and others. Will our eyes be open to the surprising ways that God brings life and beauty out of disaster? Will we put our trust in the Lord as our Sustainer and the one who is All-Sufficient, no matter what it seems like at the time?