Death and Destitution (Chapter 2)

The Multiplication of Naomi’s Grief

Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons. And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Bethlehemjudah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there. And Elimelech Naomi’s husband died; and she was left, and her two sons. And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years. And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband. Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread. (Ruth 1:1-6)

In the previous session we saw the spiritual disintegration of Naomi’s family, which was caused by her husband’s decision to leave Bethlehem and go to Moab. This session we will focus on the physical death of Naomi’s family and the resulting loss of the means to provide for herself. Lost and bereft in a foreign country, Naomi finds that God has not abandoned her.

The Loss of a Husband

There is an ancient Middle Eastern story of a man in a crowded marketplace who saw Death staring at him, looking very puzzled. The man jumped on his fastest horse and fled to Samarra to escape the icy clutches of Death. When he arrived in Samarra, he was astonished to find Death staring back at him, this time looking relieved. The man had left his original location to avoid dying, only to discover that his unknown appointment with Death was in Samarra.

View a scene from Appointment with Death

We cannot help but see the irony in Elimelech’s decision to leave the Promised Land in order to escape famine. He had moved his family out of Bethlehem because he thought that was the only way for them to escape death. Then not long after settling into life in Moab, he was the first to die. His marriage to Naomi, which produced two sons, was cut short, despite his efforts to prolong life for himself and his family.

His death must have been devastating to Naomi. When God pronounced in Genesis that it was not good for Adam to be alone, he created Eve as a co-worker to share the responsibility given to Adam to have dominion over the earth. He declared that in marriage, the husband and wife become one flesh. The sacred bond shared by a husband and wife is like no other, and the loss of a beloved spouse is emotionally devastating because it is like losing a part of one’s own self, as well as loss of identity and purpose.

But Naomi’s grief was compounded in several ways. For one, the friends who would have consoled her were far away in Bethlehem. She had the comfort of her two sons, but depending on their age at their father’s death and on her financial situation, they may have only added to her heartbreak. At that time for a woman who had no inherited wealth and no livelihood other than what her husband provided, widowhood was the way to poverty and death unless she could marry again. Naomi certainly would not have wanted to marry a man of Moab, even if that had been a possibility, which it apparently was not (Ruth 1:12).

Years later, Elijah would meet a destitute widow who had only enough food for one more meal for herself and her son, and the prophet would utter God’s blessings upon her food supply (I Kings 17).

Read more about the plight of widows

But there was no husband to replace Elimelech, and no prophet to help Naomi in her loss of income. Nor were there laws that would give her the full measure of protection she would have received in Bethlehem. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, found at the link above this paragraph, indicates that while the laws of most Near Eastern countries at that time made some provisions for widows, only God’s law had specific measures to ease her burdens and ensure that her dignity and worth as a person would be honored. Because a widow’s situation made her subject to exploitation, God uttered strict warnings to those who would take such evil advantage of one who had already suffered so much and who was left helpless.

The obvious question is why Naomi did not pull up stakes at that time and return to Bethlehem. If she had left when her husband died, her sons would not have married foreign women, and they might have lived to an old age, since early Jewish scholars assert that their early death was a punishment for marrying outside the faith. The scriptures are silent on why Naomi stayed, but a few possibilities come to mind.

First, grief can be paralyzing. After enduring a major loss, a person will often experience emotional and mental inertia. Making even the simplest decision can be overwhelming.  This reaction, however, can be a blessing in disguise. Grief is a major emotional blow, and like any other injury it requires time for recovery. If a major part of your life has just crumbled, it is not wise to continue tearing down the walls around you.

Avoid making decisions while grieving

Second, grief can be stupefying. In the process of trying to reorient their lives following a loss, people often say, think, and do irrational things. I can remember after James died wondering why people at the gas station were going about their business as though nothing had happened. After my father died, my mother refused to attend the Anglican church with us. She said she wanted to stay in the Baptist church because Daddy was a Baptist when he died, as though she would be betraying him if she made such a huge decision without his approval.

Third, on a more practical level, Naomi had no way of knowing whether moving back to Bethlehem would improve the situation for herself and her sons, for whom she now had sole responsibility. Her husband had taken their family into Moab because of food insecurity, so to return now would not only mean second-guessing him but possibly undoing any good that his decision might have done. It was only when she had news of plenty again in Bethlehem that she considered returing home.

Whatever her reasons, she stayed long enough for her sons to become old enough to marry, and presumably to provide for her for a short time. When they died, however, all hope was lost, and grief multiplied to a devastating level.

The Loss of Children

The very first death recorded in the Bible, that of Eve’s faithful son Abel, is a foreshadowing of the death of Mary’s faithful Son, Jesus Christ. No doubt, when Eve learned that her son was dead, her thoughts were haunted by remembrance of the curse that she incurred through disobedience, and she realized that childbirth was neither the only pain nor the greatest pain that a mother could endure.

One of her beloved sons lay lifeless, his future obliterated.  He would not give her any grandchildren. He would not be there to comfort and provide for her in old age. Even worse, he would not be able to carry on the dominion mandate to exercise dominion over the earth after she and Adam were dead and gone. That is what it means to lose a child. Losing a parent severs a connection to the past. Losing a child severs a connection to the future.

Meanwhile, Eve’s other son was spiritually lifeless, having surrendered himself to sin and death. He received a curse even greater than the one pronounced on his father Adam. Exiled from his family and doomed to wander, he learned that he could no longer expect to reap the bounty of the earth that he had once tilled; he had lost that privilege because of the blood he had spilled. The gentle earth had already been plunged into sorrow when Adam sinned, and now it had been violated when it was forced to soak up the blood of faithful Adam (Genesis 4:10).

But so much worse than all of that, Cain was sent away from the presence of God (Genesis 4:16). To be separated from God is the definition of hell, and in Cain’s cry that his punishment is too much to bear, we hear echoes of our Lord’s lament from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

Poem: It Is Finished

Although Eve certainly mourned the loss of her first two sons, her future was not completely cut off by the loss of Cain and Abel. Adam was still alive, and she was young enough to bear other children, even though they could not replace the sons she lost. When her son Seth was born, new hope sprang to life. It was as though the world had begun again, so much so that after Seth’s birth is mentioned at the end of Genesis 4, the fifth chapter begins with a summary statement of God’s creation of man in His own image, followed by a detailed account of Adam’s descendants.

Naomi’s loss, on the other hand, seemed quite final. She said as much when she tried to discourage her daughters-in-law from following her. Both of her sons were gone, and nothing could be done about it. She was left with the companionship of her daughters-in-law, but as before, her lack of financial means made their presence a burden as much as it was a blessing. She had no means to support them and therefore begged them to return to their mothers’ homes where they would have shelter and food, as well as the possibility of a future. They had no children, but were young enough to remarry and build a life to replace the dreams that had shattered when Mahlon and Chilion died. They, at least, had some hope. Naomi had none.

The Destruction of Naomi

In light of the griefs we have discussed in the first two chapters, is it any wonder that Naomi rejects her name? Indeed, to bear a name that means “pleasant” while enduring such great sorrows must have seemed to be a cruel joke. Out of blesséd Bethlehem and into pagan Moab, out of marriage into widowhood, out of plenty into poverty, out of motherhood into hopelessness, the once-pleasant Naomi has turned to bitterness and near-despair. She was shattered, utterly downcast, left with only the comfort of her sons’ foreign brides.

But thanks be to God who never leaves His children to sink into total despair but always meets our needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).  Like the prodigal son, who lay famished in the pigsty and heard the sweet call of his father’s bountiful table, Naomi heard that God had once again made Bethlehem a house of bread. When all hope seems lost, God always provides a way, but that way always requires that we leave Moab, that we turn away from the pigsty of this world, and that we trust in His unfailing providence.

Even though all hope was not truly lost, the pleasantness of Naomi had been destroyed through many trials and tribulations. It would take a miracle to restore her to the joy she had once known. During our next few studies, we will see that miracle unfold.

Journal Prompts

  1. Very few people reach adulthood without experiencing at least one major grief: the death of a loved one, a divorce, a chronic health problem, an unrealized hope. What is the greatest grief you’ve ever experienced, the one that has changed you the most? How did it affect your outlook on life?
  2. How has your faith in Jesus Christ enabled you to bear disappointment and loss?
  3. Have you ever been tempted to despair because of loss? If so, you are certainly not alone. What comfort would you give to someone who is sinking into despair?
  4. Can you think of other examples from the Bible about how people dealt with the death of a loved one? Do you find any similarities to Naomi’s reaction to the death of her husband and children?

Recommended Reading:

C.S. Lewis, Sadness, and What Eternal Hope Looks Like

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