Travelin’ Tuesdays: Brought Back Empty

Aaaand we’re back with another Travelin’ Tuesdays post! This one even features a woman. Click on the category “Travelin’ Tuesdays” to see the other posts in this series.

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Some people travel for adventure, some people travel to see the world, some people travel because they are searching for something, and some people travel because they are fleeing. Naomi traveled because she and her husband and her two sons were starving, and they left Israel, their home, to travel to someplace named Moab. They were looking for food, for a fresh start, for hope.

Instead, Naomi found destruction. Her husband and both sons died while she was in Moab. The travel was hard, the life was hard, and finally, Naomi heard that God and food had shown back up for Israel. So she grabbed her Moabite daughters-in-law and headed back home, because there might be food back there and she couldn’t stand to live as a foreigner any more.

Perhaps as they started out their walk back, Naomi realized that she was requiring that her daughters-in-law to live as foreigners in her homeland, to give up any hope of marriage, to learn a new language, a new religion, a new culture. Perhaps she was tired of taking care of others. Perhaps the journey was hard. For whatever reason, Naomi stopped on the journey and told Ruth and Orpah to leave. Orpah, hesitantly, did turn back to Moab. But Ruth uttered one of the best known monologues in scripture:

Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.

Notice that Ruth says, “Where you die I will die.” Naomi was, presumably, old enough to be Ruth’s mother. She probably would die several decades before Ruth, but Ruth promises that she will stay in Israel even after Naomi’s death, that she will be buried in the same land as Naomi. She will never go back to Moab. She has turned from her old life and committed in blind faith to this new one she has been presented with.

So Naomi did not turn Ruth back and they traveled back to Bethlehem together. I love the description of Naomi’s return. Imagine the unexpected return of a dear friend after a long time away. The women recognized her, they remembered her name, even after all of these years. And Naomi responds to them honestly, from the depths of the despair she has suffered:

Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?

Naomi is saying this to the women who stayed, who did not leave despite famine and hardship. To women whose sons didn’t break the law and marry foreigners, to women who had seen their share of suffering. She comes back home after years away, with a stranger following her, and opens with “The Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” Naomi is honest and Naomi has guts.

But in the hardship of the journey, Naomi does not doubt God’s existence or power. And her daughter-in-law, Ruth, who did not grow up with the Bible stories, the heritage of the Passover or the campfire stories of the Exodus, she has faith to follow this God into everything unfamiliar, without ever leaving a door open to go back.

Sometimes, in my travels, I feel like Naomi. “Grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home,” sounds like a bit of an overstatement. Naomi would have said that while the journey may not have been safe, Grace has brought me. I make big declarations and sweeping complaints (I probably would have changed my name too. I see Naomi with a bit of a flair for the dramatic.) and I am impatient. Naomi doesn’t wait to see how life will turn out for her back in Bethlehem (which turns out to be great, if you get past chapter 1 in Ruth), but goes ahead and literally renames herself “Bitterness”. And God still provides for her.

Sometimes, I feel like Ruth. Sometimes the only way forward is to close the doors behind you, to step out in faith in a God who you don’t understand, in a people you have never met, in a life you cannot imagine. And while Naomi found impatience and despair (temporarily), Ruth found hope and freedom. Because God provides for her too, and honors her faith in such a way that she is listed as a direct ancestor of Christ, even as a foreigner, even as a woman.

May we have the faith and freedom of Ruth and the tenacity of Naomi in our journeys this week. And may we Know the God who provides no matter our attitude.

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