Naomi and Mara
Orpah returned not only to her own people but to “her gods” (Ruth 1:15), much as the Israelites had often wanted to return to the gods of Egypt. It is easier to take people out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the people. So also today, it is easier to get people to recite the formula for salvation and to join a church than to truly walk with God and receive His promises.
Ruth, on the other hand, refused to leave Naomi, even after being given every opportunity to return, for she believed in the God of Israel and was strong in faith. So we read in Ruth 1:18,
18 When she [Naomi] saw that she [Ruth] was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
In other words, Naomi accepted the fact that Ruth truly wanted to go with her to Bethlehem and adopt this new life in God. No doubt she had seen Naomi’s faith and way of life and understood it to be far superior to the way of life of idolatrous Moabites. Naomi is the real hero of this story, for she followed prophetically the example of Moses.
The Moabite Way of Life
We should also note an underlying motive that does not appear on the surface. The Moabites were among those who offered their first-born sons to Chemosh as a burnt offering. Their worship was similar to that of the Ammonites, who worshiped Molech. John D. Davis tells us in his notation on Chemosh:
“Chemosh. The god of the Moabites (Num. xxi. 2; Jer. xlviii. 46; Moabites Stone 3), worshiped in the same manner as was Molech, by the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings (2 Kin. iii. 27). (A Dictionary of the Bible, p. 128)
The reference above to the Moabite Stone is taken from the third paragraph of this stone pillar, inscribed by “Mesha, son of Chemoshmelech, king of Moab.” It reads:
“And I have made this high place for Chemosh in Krhh on account of the deliverance of Mesha.”
Surely this horrible practice was something that every mother dreaded as an inevitable part of their culture. Ruth must have known that in Israel such sacrifice was not practiced except during times of apostasy. Because Ruth was childless and yet desired to be remarried and to have children, she must have known that by going with Naomi, she might yet have a firstborn son that would not be sacrificed upon the altar of Chemosh.
The Book of Ruth was written with the laws of Sonship in mind. So the horrendous and sad religious practice of the Moabites provides us with a contrasting backdrop to the joyous account of Ruth’s son, Obed. Obed was the grandfather of David and the ancestor of Christ.
The Moabite practice of offering up their firstborn sons to atone for sin was a perversion of the truth. Christ, the Son of God, was the only true and perfect sacrifice for sin. No other baby born after the flesh could qualify as an unspotted lamb. Furthermore, Christ’s death on the cross was to satisfy the demands of the “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2, KJV), not by a literal fire, but (as seen later) by crucifixion.
All judgments of the law were represented by this metaphorical “fire.” This “fire” included, as Jesus said, lashes from a whip (Luke 12:48, 49). Perhaps it is significant that the law limiting such judgment to forty lashes in Deut. 25:1-3 was immediately followed by the law of Sonship in Deut. 25:5-10, separated only by the law that forbids muzzling “the ox while he is threshing” (Deut. 25:4). This is a labor law that ensures that the one doing the work is the first partaker of its fruits (2 Tim. 2:6).
In this particular context, it indicates that when Christ received forty lashes just prior to His crucifixion, we received the benefit of healing (Isaiah 53:5). Yet Christ Himself, being the “ox” in this case, was the first partaker of that fruit, being healed of the ultimate disease of death at His resurrection. He then led “many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10) according to the law of Sonship in Deut. 25:5-10.
By linking these three laws in this way, Moses prophesied the order of events in the process of salvation. First the forty stripes that Christ endured (along with crucifixion), then the healing of resurrection, and then His presentation to the Father as the Son give us the prophetic progression. Yet in the story of Ruth these truths are only implied as part of the backdrop of the story. In her time, the worship of Chemosh was more well known than it is today, making it necessary now to explain the contrast between Moabite and Israelite worship.
Ruth 1:19-21 continues,
19 So they both went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came about when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 And she said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” 21 I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?”
Recall that Bethlehem means “house of bread,” and that Naomi was returning to her hometown after a famine had driven her to Moab for a decade. Her experience in Moab had been sad, having lost her husband and two sons. Her family inheritance had been sold to others when they moved to Moab, and she probably returned to Bethlehem with very little money. Unable to redeem her property, there was little she could do but wait for the year of Jubilee, when her property would return to her.
From Naomi to Mara
And so Naomi told her friends and relatives in Bethlehem that they should call her Mara, “bitter,” rather than Naomi, “grace, favor.” From all appearances, God had treated Naomi not with favor but with affliction. Of course, we immediately recognize that this was prophetic of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who came to Bethlehem many years later, where she gave birth to the Son of God.
Mary’s Hebrew name was Miriam, a derivative of Mara. We are told little about Mary’s actual circumstance in being impregnated by the Holy Spirit, but we know that it disturbed Joseph greatly until he received revelation that she was yet a virgin (Matt. 1:20). She then hastily retreated to the safety of the hill country of Judah to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John (Luke 1:39).
Much is left unsaid, but her joy in bringing forth the Christ would always be overshadowed by the pain and bitterness caused by those who did not believe that she was really impregnated by the Holy Spirit. After all, the angel’s announcement was private, not public, and so it would always appear that she was just trying to defend herself by making up an implausible story.
Joseph himself was very disturbed. Matt. 1:20 says in the NASB, “But when he had considered this…” The word translated “considered” is enthymeomai, whose root is thymos, usually translated “wrath.” The word indicates that Joseph was very angry until the angel appeared to him in a dream and explained the truth of what had happened.
The entire experience put Mary herself in danger, for by law Joseph might have had the right to have her stoned. Being the victim in this case, Joseph had the right to prosecute her to the fullest extent or to forgive her. Such is the Law of Victims Rights. Joseph had decided to put her away quietly, but the angelic appearance changed his mind in this regard.
Mary escaped from Nazareth and went to her cousin’s house for a season. Upon returning to Nazareth, she soon accompanied Joseph to Bethlehem. Nazareth was an outpost of zealous Jews, and if Joseph had left Mary there by herself, the people might have mobbed the house and stoned her to death. Hence, God used “bitter” circumstances to bring Mary to Bethlehem, where she gave birth to Jesus.
Naomi was brought to Bethlehem in bitterness as well.
Mara is the feminine form of mar, which has a range of meaning and application. The word comes from the root word marar, which literally means “a drop; flowing down.” When applied to one’s feelings or emotions, it refers to bitterness or metaphorically to sadness for having been brought low.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, felt the bitterness of rejection among the religious zealots of Nazareth. Such also was the case with Naomi, who had lost nearly everything.
Yet it was Ruth who later gave birth to the type of Christ—her son, Obed. Would not Ruth be a type of Mary? Why then does Naomi call herself Mara? As we will see later in our study, the law of Sonship meant that Ruth’s biological son, Obed, was legally the son (heir) of Naomi, for we read in Ruth 4:17,
17 And the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi!” So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Hence, both Ruth and Naomi were Mara, for the child belonged to both of them in different ways, according to the law. The neighbors named him Obed, “serving,” because his name refers to one who serves another. In this case Ruth had brought forth a son for Naomi and in that sense served Naomi, so that Naomi, her deceased husband and sons would not lose their inheritance.
Returning at the Wave-sheaf offering
Ruth 1:22 says,
22 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 [techillah, “beginning, opening, first”] of barley harvest.
By law the beginning of barley harvest was the day that the first-fruits of barley were waved before the Lord on the first Sunday after Passover. This signaled the opening of barley harvest, according to the law in Lev. 23:10, 11, and 14,
10 Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, “When you enter the land which I am going to give to you and reap its harvest, then you will bring in the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. 11 And he will wave the sheaf before the Lord for you to be accepted; on the day after the Sabbath the priest will wave it ... 14 Until this same day, until you have brought in the offering of your God, you will eat neither bread nor roasted grain nor new growth. It is to be a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.”
In other words, the people were not to eat any of the new growth of barley until the first-fruits had been offered to God. Hence, the wave-sheaf offering was called “the beginning of barley harvest.”
We know, then, the time of year that Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem. It was the same day that Christ was later to ascend (John 20:17) and be presented to the Father as the first-fruits from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20). Though Jesus was raised “while it was still dark” (John 20:1), He could not ascend until the priest waved the sheaf of barley at the third hour of the day. Only then was His resurrection established officially in the divine court.
Though Naomi had suffered the loss of all things, her return on the day of the wave-sheaf offering signified her return to life—her resurrection, so to speak. She had “died” in bitterness (Mara), but she was raised to life in grace and favor (Naomi).