“Returning Home: Strength in the Familiar” – Ruth 1: 19-22

Part 2 of 2

“Come home.”

I did. Returning home to the familiar gave me strength. My father’s words led me to a place of my beginnings when I had joy, when I was free, when I was loved, and when I was me.

Much more came from that experience that are beyond words, thoughts, and emotions. Now thirty years later and I still have no answers for the reason or purpose of that experience. But it has been for a lifetime.  There has been seemingly no redemptive value as a result of that devastating blow to my young life. It has been as though everybody and everything from that church proved to be futile.

As some have said, nothing good can come from Nazareth. I have said, nothing good has come from that experience.

God usually reserves a remnant in the midst of utter destruction. So for decades I searched God for a remnant through it all. Each time there was none. Nothing. Older now, I know time will tell. Time tells all things.

Though I came to a place of forgiveness, the memories are still with me. At times my memory is provoked to remembrance. That experience shaped my view of religion, church, and people who call themselves Christian or even spiritual.

Why God allowed my joyful and innocent spirit to be broken has always perplexed me. I could have learned it another way. It could have come at another place or through another time. But to be so young to learn such a harsh reality unequipped to comprehend. I came to believe that my Almighty God was no longer with me. And just like the final wind of a dying person’s breath my spirit vacated.

My faith took an unrecognizable appearance. Close friends who knew nothing of this experience said I changed, lost my joy, and was not the same bubbly person they once remembered.

My strength came from home. There I was able to start over and live a new life apart from the tragedy that impacted me and my faith for the rest of my life.

I entered that experience full. Full of joy, expectation, and hope. By the time it was all concluded I left empty. Loss of joy, loss of faith, and a lesser hope. I detached from what was, what could have been and what could never happen again. I paved my own road, walked my own path, and formed my own faith. Determined that I could rewrite my future and never look back again.

Such as Naomi when she returned to Bethlehem…

Ruth 1: 19 – 22:

“So they both went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” But she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?” So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.”

During this time in history was a period of the Judges. Nations divided. Total anarchy. There was no central government. There were no Kings. Like warlords in the midst. It was a time of great apostasy.

Naomi just lost her husband and two sons. A devastating tragedy for anyone, but for a woman in those days even more so. It was a patriarchal culture. A woman had to be attached to a man. Now she is a widow and has no one to take care of her.  Her life was measured as a wife and being a mother to her two grown sons. They were everything to her. They were her source, her joy, and her strength. Though she was gifted with two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, they were a detriment to her now. What could she give them? She has no sons. How could she take care of them? She has no husband. She was empty. Emptied of the life she once knew and the men she loved, to a desolate future with no horizon in sight.

So, Naomi and Ruth left Moab. Alone. Their destination was a sixty mile walk to Bethlehem. It must have been hard to fathom that God was at work when nothing apparently is taking place. God was as desolate as the circumstances that befell Naomi. To Naomi, this route was familiar when she and her husband Elimelech (meaning “God is King”) left Bethlehem to Moab when life was promising. And promising it was. Now some decades later, life was different. Naomi probably never thought she would do this again in reverse, and certainly not under these circumstances. The memories on the way back home to Bethlehem added to the strain of her loss. Too much to bear.

The walk was long and arduous, in the arid and dusty plains between Moab and Bethlehem. Naomi and Ruth made their way down a path of dryness which seemingly accompanied an equally dry existence. They were vulnerable to the elements as they walked alone. Ruth clinging to Naomi the entire way. Ruth wasn’t going to let her go. I imagine there were long periods of quietness between the two. Alone in their thoughts and recounting to themselves the memories of the good life and continued hope for the future. Her sons were married and the reminder there would be no grandchildren must have stung bitterly in Naomi’s heart. How devastating now to know that what was possible was impossible now. All hope was lost. Thoughts of what could have been were overcome by what was. Alone they walked, together, side by side. They could easily have been in harm’s way and taken advantaged of during that sixty mile walk but they traveled unnoticed the entire journey. An unmistakable trace of God.

Moab was a place of new beginnings for Naomi and her then husband. To leave behind her deceased husband and two sons must have been so painful. I imagine they wept their way to Bethlehem. Tears streaming down their faces not long enough before the dry heat soaked them up. Unbeknownst to Naomi and Ruth as they traveled out of Moab to Bethlehem they would soon be received by God’s loyal love.

Finally, Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem. However, the city was stirred at their arrival. Soon they were met with question.

The women said, Is this Naomi?” Naomi replied, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?”It was a sincere appraisal of her own loss.

It’s a bit hard to detect whether the women were being sarcastic or genuine. Nonetheless, they remembered her as if to say “you’ve returned to Bethlehem, what brings you home?” Though Naomi was recognizable, she was unrecognizable in her circumstances or perhaps her new countenance was reflective of the great loss she endured. Naomi and her husband must have caused a commotion to have left Bethlehem to Moab when there was a famine in the land, only for her to return some decades later. At that time they chose to go beyond the borders and into another country to live and become a part of that culture though they chose not to worship pagan gods.

Naomi was clear and quick to inform them of her new name “Mara,” meaning bitter. She named herself based on her circumstances. She took on the countenance of bitterness that she bore the words as well. Sixty miles is long enough to make conscious changes in the mind and the soul. The concept of fullness-emptiness expressed by Naomi is a Hebrew parallelism device used to heighten the expression of her own emotions. Once again, Naomi compounds the fact in her mind that the Almighty has judged her and afflicted her.

So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law, from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. Barley was the first crop to ripen in Israel and this period would mark the start of the harvest season. It was a sign that the famine in Bethlehem no longer existed and there was much to receive. Naomi’s return was symbolic – to Bethlehem, meaning “house of bread.” It was a pivotal move. Here was the return, a concept all too familiar with the Israelites in their history with God. The exception though is that a Moabite has joined the return as well. Ruth. A small story in the middle of the Judges.

Bethlehem was home and Naomi would be strengthened in the familiar. But there was more to this story.

A cynic’s story versus God’s story. Only He writes the story.

Copyright @ The Word in Motion. 2021

Photocredit: The author’s own. July 1987. The author and her father.