I think of her often, Naomi, old and spent, making her way back home. Only it wasn’t home anymore. Hadn’t been for nigh on thirty years.
She’d packed up her belongings and her two sons, and off they'd set, a little family of four.
They call it uprooting, and for good reason. There’s a correlation between the sturdiness of a tree and the depth of its roots.
I moved so many times in my childhood that by the age of twenty, I’d lost count of the houses I’d lived in, the schools I’d attended. Even the countries were beginning to stack up, the cultures navigated, the languages tried, the experiences embraced.
We humans are resilient, aren’t we? It’s no small thing to leave behind grandparents and cousins and schoolmates, neighbours and communities. The goodbyes accumulate and they hurt, and we grieve and then, we move on. Before we know it, we’re immersed in the next thing, digging deep, doing what women across the world just do. We make a home wherever we are. We reach out to those around us. We serve another meal. Hang a load of laundry. We cry, we call home, but in the end, we are home. Wherever we are, we’re home. In a sense.
And I think of Naomi, of the day she left Judah. Her friends were experiencing the same drought, the same famine, but they were doing what generations before had done. Sticking it out.
Kindly they waved goodbye, but I can see the concern in their eyes, the intuitive sense that this wasn’t going to be the prosperity-generating move Elimilech hoped it would be. They’ll be back, a lot of them would have thought. They’ll be back. But they didn’t come back, did they?
And no one back home could begin to imagine the path that little family set out upon. The people of Israel went back a long way. They stuck together. They shared land, shared values, shared a future hope.
Did Naomi’s friends have a clue what it was like to start again with no connections, no childhood friends? Could they picture unfamiliar customs? The sort of customs that cry out to be followed when you’re new in a place, but mess with your head and your heart all at once?
It’s not easy for the ones who stay home. The women of Judah may have heard of child sacrifices, but had their spirit ever trembled at the frantic beating of drums and the screams of a frenzied crowd? Did they know loneliness? Fear? Had any of them visited a land where worship, their sort, at least, was nonexistant?
But more tender is the grief Naomi has encountered, away from the sturdy support of her friends; away from father and mother and generational roots. She knows the vulnerability of being a guest in another land. She knows the protection offered to Moabites doesn’t extend to her. She’s aware that if things don’t turn out well, there’s very few people in Moab for her to turn to.
And then she loses her very husband and sons. No one back home even knows. No-one comes for her, no-one sends their love. She’s out of sight and out of mind, and who could expect differently, after all?
And so it is, that as the unkindness of the years mounts, the strains take their toll, the hope once held is now long-dead, that this woman, in her old age, ponders who she has become. Who am I? What defines me? Who have I become?
And Naomi comes up with the only name that rings true. Marah. Call me Marah.
She’s not hiding it. There’s no pretending. Life’s been hard; God, for all she can see, has been heavy-handed toward her, and she’s bitter about it.
So she waves goodbye to Moab, to those who had finally begun to think of her as one of them, those who had at least some concept of what she’s lived through in recent years, and she turns towards home - if that’s what you call a place when the roots have been torn up. She journeys back to Bethlehem.
I can hear her thoughts as if they were mine.
Will anyone remember me? Do they still think we’re crazy? They never knew how great my boys turned out—what superb businessmen they made, how respected they were in the community. They don’t know how Elimilech cared for us all, and helped settle us as best we could. They don’t know I learned to speak the language of Moab, how I learned to feel at ease in their marketplaces. They can’t imagine that, yes, eventually, I called Moab, home.
Do I tell them how much I regret going? Oh I can nearly hear it now—the I told you so’s. The, what did you expect? And then the ones who openly shamed us, calling our loyalty into question, saying that if we valued raising our kids to fear the Lord, we’d protect them from crass, idolatrous people—not take them off to live with them.
Do they even want to know that Orpah was perfect for Mahlon? How happy he was with her?
She takes what few belongings she can—only what she can carry. A few changes of clothing, a flask of water, some small gifts from friends. But she couldn’t bring back the remains of her husband, couldn’t carry those three precious bodies back to home soil, and the tearing in her soul when she thinks of it wracks her body with pain.
Call me Marah. Bitter.
And if there’s one group of women in the Bible I love and admire, it’s the women of Bethlehem in Judah.
For, despite the insistence of an aged and sorrowfilled woman, despite all their offers of help and reaching out in womanly solidaity, there’s one thing they refuse to do. They refuse to call her Mara.
Naomi might use the name all she likes, but her friends know better. They remember. They know the true Naomi. So pleasant, so at ease, so loved.
The women of Bethlehem are happy to sit and listen to her stories, to place an arm around her when she sighs too deep for words; to honour what might have been. But call her Bitter? It might be the only thing she's asking them to do for her, but I can see those women shrug it off without a minute's thought.
Maybe they know how a woman lives up to expectations, and they’re not going to set the bar so sad.
Or maybe they know the power of calling out the grace and the loveliness, the real Naomi. The woman God purposed.
There’s no minimising what she’s been through, no lack of kindness and help, and before long the community has gathered around again.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this . . . Between the place of bitterness, isolation and shame and the place of delight and restoration and belonging, there needs to be women believing the best, speaking the truth, tenderly affirming what God says of us.
And if there is a woman whose roots are all upended, who's lost the very thing that speaks of stability and fruitfulness and any kind of future, I want you to know there is a Father in heaven who remembers the real you. He still calls you his daughter. He knows your heart wasn't made to carry bitterness, nor your spirit to sustain shame. You may call yourself hurt or isolated or hopeless, but none of us agree!
Honey, we hear you. We can listen to your story, and nod kindly. We understand.
But we’ll never stop calling you out the real you. We’ll believe for you even when you can’t believe for yourself. We’ll speak truth over you and into you and for you, until the lies the enemy has got you talking are silenced. We’ll speak words of life until life indeed returns, and one day, you’ll agree with us!
You've come home, and this homeland of ours is more glorious than the land in which you've been camped. You will find joy again. You’ll hold a baby or find a job, or own that home, or find family; you’ll be honoured again, loved, celebrated.
And til you believe it again, we’ll keep on calling you Naomi.
That’s just what women do.