Naomi sat alone among the women who came to comfort her. Several of them were widows, yet none had experienced the devastation that was her sole inheritance. In a nearby tent, two widows wept as they prepared bodies for burial. I should be with them, thought Naomi, those are my sons. But Naomi, sunk deep in despair, couldn't lift herself from the ground.
Naomi had married well. Her husband, Elimelech, was a man of standing in Bethlehem. His clan traced their ancestry back to Judah through Nahshon, who led their tribe through the wilderness, and Amminadab, whose daughter married Aaron, the High Priest. Elimelech's position in one of Bethlehem's 'first families' brought him considerable admiration. When Naomi gave birth to their sons, Kilion and Mahlon, her future was secure.
Her arms was full.
Each morning, Elimelech joined the elders at the gate as they conducted the town's business. But Elimelech began to come home from these meetings distant and silent. Naomi knew that she shouldn't question him too closely about city affairs, but his countenance troubled her.
One evening, Naomi was discussing the household budget with their steward when Elimelech entered the family compound. His clenched jaw, visible even beneath his beard, told her that the day's negotiations had been particularly troubling. She dismissed the steward and approached Elimelech's side.
“We are leaving Bethlehem,” Elimelech declared.
“Our home? Why? When?” Naomi asked.
“As soon as we load up our possessions.”
“Where are we going? Where will we live?”
“Across the Jordan? Isn't it dangerous? Can't we at least stay within our tribe, within the boundaries of Israel, our promised land?”
“Ha! A land of empty promises. Famine is in the land and there will be no harvest again this year. The elders asked me to give up what I have to help others, but I do not wish to stay and feed those who have not saved up their own grain. I will not risk my sons' inheritance. There is no future here. We will start anew. I shall increase my fortune on the plains of Moab."
“But we would not starve here. Surely our family would survive the famine. Our grain and flocks will insulate us from Israel's troubles. We have enough ....”
“Quiet! I don't want enough. I want more. We are taking our flocks, our grain, our possessions, and our sons and leaving.”
As they departed Bethlehem, Naomi found herself in agreement with Elimelech. She too was restless for more. Perhaps, in Moab, they could make alliances that would ensure prosperity for generations. With their caravan of goods, Elimelech's family went to live for a time in the country of Moab.
The King of Moab shrewdly welcomed Elimelech into his tents and granted him a parcel of land. His plans began to bear fruit. The women envied Naomi her wealth, her prosperous husband, and her handsome sons.
Then things began to fall apart. A mysterious malady claimed many of their animals. Crops and trading agreements failed. Naomi quietly sold pieces of jewelry to maintain the illusion of wealth. Then Elimelech grew ill and died. His dying words chilled Naomi's soul. “We should never have left.”
Her sons lost their attachment to Judah and married Moabite women. Ten long years produced no children. They sold their flocks, their land, and their fine clothing to feed their diminished family. And yesterday came the final blow. Kilion and Mahlon were dead. Without children to carry the family name and line, Naomi, Elimelech and their sons were dead forever. Their branch, withered, would bear no fruit.
Her arms were empty.
Naomi's anguished cry tore through the muted voices of her comforters. “Yahweh. I have sinned. I ran away from my neighbors' need. I ran away from you. I forsook your blessings for the riches of the world and now I have nothing. I don't deserve your kindness. I place myself under your judgment. Deal with me however you wish.”
“Ima Naomi?” Strong arms embraced her. It was Ruth, her precious daughter-in-law. No. More than that; the daughter she'd always wanted back when anything seemed possible. “A caravan from Judah has just arrived with news. The harvesters are gathering in Bethlehem. Your God has provided food for your people once again.”
Elimelech, I will return empty handed, Naomi thought bitterly as she rose from the floor. Will the promised land ever offer me promise again?
“Ima” is a familiar form of “mother” in Hebrew.
Numbers ch. 2, 7, 10
Ruth ch. 1
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