Naomi– Birth and Redemption

Naomi– Birth and Redemption

Yoel Halevi No Comments

Abstract 

The article analyzes Naomi’s character development in the Book of Ruth. The narrative begins with Naomi’s tragic loss of her husband and sons in Moab, setting the stage for her transformation from a dependent figure to a respected leader. The exposition explores key verses, highlighting Naomi’s evolving role within her family and the Judahite community. Notably, Naomi takes on traditionally masculine responsibilities, guiding her daughters-in-law and asserting familial rights. The analysis delves into the nuanced relationship between Naomi and Ruth, emphasizing Naomi’s role as a mother and caregiver. The narrative unfolds with Naomi’s strategic support of Ruth’s actions, showcasing her strength and wisdom. The adoption of Ruth’s child and public recognition further solidified Naomi’s leadership and matriarchal status. The article concludes by underscoring the significance of Naomi’s journey as a compelling tale of resilience, familial bonds, and the formidable strength of women in the face of adversity within the Book of Ruth.

Naomi’s tragedy 

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מוֹאָב הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּשְׁנֵי בָנָיו. וְשֵׁם הָאִישׁ אֱ‍לִימֶלֶךְ וְשֵׁם אִשְׁתּוֹ נָעֳמִי וְשֵׁם שְׁנֵי בָנָיו מַחְלוֹן וְכִלְיוֹן אֶפְרָתִים מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׂדֵי מוֹאָב וַיִּהְיוּ שָׁם.

“Back in the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, a certain man from Beit-Lechem went to live in the territory of Mo’av — he, his wife, and his two sons.  The man’s name was Elimelekh, his wife’s name was Na‘omi, and his two sons were named Machlon and Kilyon; they were Efratim from Beit-Lechem in Y’hudah. They arrived in the plain of Mo’av and settled there” (Ruth 1:1-2).

Our initial encounter with Naomi stems from a tragic circumstance. Her husband decides to depart from Bethlehem in Judah to settle in the territory of Moab, and during their residency there, she experiences the loss of her family. Initially, her husband passes away, but a glimmer of hope emerges as her sons marry local women. Unfortunately, death does not spare her sons, leaving Naomi alone with her daughters-in-law. This situation would be profoundly devastating for a foreign woman. In a world dominated by men, a woman without a husband is exposed to constant threats, making survival challenging without the protection of a man.

In traditional societies, a social system defined by gender and age-related norms exists. In most ancient societies (with a few exceptions like the Sarrar tribe in West Africa and the Nubians in East Africa), men overwhelmingly dominated and controlled almost all aspects of society, relegating women to subordinate roles and keeping them in the shadows of men. However, these dynamics do not necessarily diminish the importance of women in traditional societies. Many traditions, as exemplified in Jewish culture, emphasize the value and respect for women within the community. Illustrative examples of these dynamics can be found in the following passages:

“Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.” (Psalm 128:3)

“The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands, the foolish one tears hers down.” (Proverbs 14:1)

Nevertheless, even in cases where women assume leadership roles or show initiative, their dependence on men persists. Examples include Deborah, the prophetess, and Yael, the Kenite, who are both identified in association with their husbands: “Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth,” and “Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite.” Despite their independent actions, the text attributes them to their husbands for identification purposes. This becomes particularly notable when considering that Deborah and Yael are not merely narrative heroes; they are national heroines who played crucial roles in times of war. Additionally, they exhibit immense courage aligning with the classical male hero, leading their people in war, such as Joshua-Deborah and Ehud-Yael.

Similarly, in the legal materials of the ancient Near East, women are depicted taking on active roles for their families, almost mirroring their husbands. However, a limitation exists in that the man is the ultimate reference for the woman. For example, in Nuzi legal texts, women are appointed by their husbands in wills to be the guardians of their children, granting them the right to manage their households. This status is called “abbūtum,” etymologically related to “fatherhood.” A noteworthy observation is the arrangement of individuals in Chapter 5, where Elimelekh is positioned at the end of the list, potentially signifying a diminishing status with Naomi assuming a central role at the forefront of the family and the narrative.

In the face of adversity 

During the period described in the exposition, Naomi undergoes a significant transformation, evolving from a dependent figure into a leader. In Ruth 1:1-2, Naomi is introduced as the wife of Elimelech, and her sons are identified as the sons of Elimelech. Following her husband’s demise, Elimelech is later referred to as “Naomi’s husband” in Chapter 3, and the sons are specifically denoted as her sons. After their marriages to Ruth and Orpah and the subsequent deaths of her sons, the daughters-in-law are designated as her daughters. 

Initially cast as a secondary character trailing behind her husband, Naomi emerges as the family leader, steering the rest of the family back to the land of Judah:

״וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי לִשְׁתֵּי כַלֹּתֶיהָ לֵכְנָה שֹּׁבְנָה אִשָּׁה לְבֵית אִמָּהּ יעשה [יַעַשׂ] יְהוָה עִמָּכֶם חֶסֶד כַּאֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם עִם הַמֵּתִים וְעִמָּדִי. יִתֵּן יְהוָה לָכֶם וּמְצֶאןָ מְנוּחָה אִשָּׁה בֵּית אִישָׁהּ וַתִּשַּׁק לָהֶן וַתִּשֶּׂאנָה קוֹלָן וַתִּבְכֶּינָה. ..שֹׁבְנָה בְנֹתַי לֵכְןָ כִּי זָקַנְתִּי מִהְיוֹת לְאִישׁ כִּי אָמַרְתִּי יֶשׁ לִי תִקְוָה גַּם הָיִיתִי הַלַּיְלָה לְאִישׁ וְגַם יָלַדְתִּי בָנִים.  הֲלָהֵן תְּשַׂבֵּרְנָה עַד אֲשֶׁר יִגְדָּלוּ הֲלָהֵן תֵּעָגֵנָה לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לְאִישׁ אַל בְּנֹתַי כִּי מַר לִי מְאֹד מִכֶּם כִּי יָצְאָה בִי יַד יְהוָה״.

“Na‘omi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Each of you, go back to your mother’s house. May YHWH show grace to you, as you did to those who died and to me.  May YHWH grant you security in the home of a new husband.” …“Go back, my daughters. Why do you want to go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb who could become your husbands?  Go back, my daughters; go your way; for I’m too old to have a husband. Even if I were to say, ‘I still have hope’; even if I had a husband tonight and bore sons;  would you wait for them until they grew up? Would you refuse to marry, just for them? No, my daughters. On your behalf I feel very bitter that the hand of YHWH has gone out against me.”.'” (Ruth 1:7-13).

Traditional interpretations often overlook the pivotal turning point in the transformation of Naomi and downplay the significance of the female characters in the story. However, a re-examination is warranted considering the extended dialogue between Naomi and her daughters-in-law, which uniquely focuses on female characters—a rarity in the Bible. Zakovitch argues that Naomi’s development is marked by a shift from being solely the mother of her sons to embracing the responsibility of being the mother of the entire family.

After enduring hardships in Moab, Naomi returns to Judah with her daughters-in-law following her. In this scene, she attempts to persuade them to return for a chance at a normal life. One can argue that Naomi’s actions serve as a corrective measure to her husband’s mistakes, casting her in a positive light in comparison to him. While the situation is imposed on her by her husband, she demonstrates familial responsibility toward her Judahite family’s inheritance. Simultaneously, she cares for her daughters-in-law and advises them to return home, offering a more favorable alternative than joining her on her isolated journey as the sole survivor of her family. Moreover, in her argument in verses 11-13, Naomi takes on a certain responsibility for levirate marriage—a role typically ascribed to male family members (Leviticus 25:10-5).

Kambel identifies the concept of returning to the mother’s house as a clear patriarchal perception, considering it a deviation from common custom (Leviticus 25:16, Deuteronomy 22:21, and Judges 19:3-2). However, it is crucial to note parallels to the story of Rebekah returning to her mother’s house (Genesis 24:28) and references in The Song of Songs 3:4 and 8:2, where the female character goes to the mother’s house. Thus, while Kambel’s core idea is valid, the restrictions he presents may not be universally accurate.

A distinctive aspect of the story is Naomi’s role as a representative of the people of Israel by accepting Ruth into the community. Ruth insists on staying with Naomi, declaring, “…your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried…” (Ruth 1:16-17). Normally, in the Bible, a person relies on the God of their fathers and is buried in the tombs of their fathers. However, Naomi here replaces the typical male role in this regard, aligning the God of her God and her tomb with the female character. This highlights that women can assume male roles in situations where men are absent.

Naomi and Ruth in the Land of Judah

Upon returning to the land, Naomi assumes a relatively secondary role compared to Ruth, but her leadership role is not diminished. Instead, she stands behind Ruth, providing approval and guidance in various situations.Naomi informs Ruth about Boaz, a close relative who is one of their redeemers. Naomi encourages Ruth to go to Boaz’s field to glean and seek favor in his eyes. Naomi’s role is not obscured; rather, she actively supports and directs Ruth.

While the narrative primarily focuses on Ruth, Naomi consistently plays a pivotal role by approving and endorsing Ruth’s actions. Naomi gives permission for Ruth to glean in Boaz’s field and even encourages her to pursue a relationship with Boaz. Despite Ruth being at the center of the story, Naomi retains her status as Ruth’s “mother” and guardian even when a male figure appears, Naomi remains central:

״וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי לְכַלָּתָהּ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לַיהוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָזַב חַסְדּוֹ אֶת הַחַיִּים וְאֶת הַמֵּתִים וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ נָעֳמִי קָרוֹב לָנוּ הָאִישׁ מִגֹּאֲלֵנוּ הוּא…וַתֹּאמֶר נָעֳמִי אֶל רוּת כַּלָּתָהּ טוֹב בִּתִּי כִּי תֵצְאִי עִם נַעֲרוֹתָיו וְלֹא יִפְגְּעוּ בָךְ בְּשָׂדֶה אַחֵר.״.

“Na‘omi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by YHWH, who has never stopped showing grace, neither to the living nor to the dead.” Na‘omi also told her, “The man is closely related to us; he’s one of our redeeming kinsmen… So she stayed close to Bo‘az’s girls to glean, until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law..״(2:20,23).

We observe that Naomi approves of Boaz’s words and serves as a validator for Boaz. It seems that Ruth was not comfortable taking action until she received permission from Naomi. This reality indicates the importance of Naomi’s role in Ruth’s life.

Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz

Even when a male figure, Boaz, enters the scene, Naomi remains central. In Ruth 2:22-23, Naomi continues to guide Ruth’s actions, emphasizing Boaz’s importance and safety:

״וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ נָעֳמִי חֲמוֹתָהּ בִּתִּי הֲלֹא אֲבַקֶּשׁ לָךְ מָנוֹחַ אֲשֶׁר יִיטַב לָךְ.  וְעַתָּה הֲלֹא בֹעַז מֹדַעְתָּנוּ אֲשֶׁר הָיִית אֶת נַעֲרוֹתָיו הִנֵּה הוּא זֹרֶה אֶת גֹּרֶן הַשְּׂעֹרִים הַלָּיְלָה.  וְרָחַצְתְּ וָסַכְתְּ וְשַׂמְתְּ שמלתך[שִׂמְלֹתַיִךְ] עָלַיִךְ וירדתי [וְיָרַדְתְּ] הַגֹּרֶן אַל תִּוָּדְעִי לָאִישׁ עַד כַּלֹּתוֹ לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת.  וִיהִי בְשָׁכְבוֹ וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב שָׁם וּבָאת וְגִלִּית מַרְגְּלֹתָיו ושכבתי [וְשָׁכָבְתְּ] וְהוּא יַגִּיד לָךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשִׂין.  וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרִי [אֵלַי] אֶעֱשֶׂה״.

 Now there’s Bo‘az our relative — you were with his girls. He’s going to be winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor.  So bathe, anoint yourself, put on your good clothes, and go down to the threshing-floor; but don’t reveal your presence to the man until he’s finished eating and drinking.  Then, when he lies down, take note of where he’s lying; later, go in, uncover his feet, and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”  She responded, “I will do everything you tell me.”.” (Ruth 3:2-5).

Naomi’s role as a guardian and guide becomes even more evident in Ruth 3:2-5. Naomi suggests a bold action for Ruth—approaching Boaz directly. Naomi’s advice is both assertive and courageous, deviating from traditional cultural norms where women were typically passive in marriage proposals. This bold step suggested by Naomi showcases her as a guardian acting outside of societal norms in the absence of a male figure.Naomi’s advice to take such a direct and assertive step is a courageous move due to the fact that in traditional culture a woman was usually passive in marriage proposals. In the absence of a male guardian, Naomi acts as Ruth’s guardian and deviates from societal norms.

Jones draws a parallel between the threshing floor story in the Book of Ruth and the assertiveness and boldness of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19:38-29. In Genesis, Lot’s daughters decide to lie with him to bear seed, expressing concern for the continuity of their family line. Jones notes that while both narratives share a concern for the continuity of the seed, the actions taken by Ruth and Lot’s daughters are very different.

Despite the differences, there is a common thread of concern for the continuation of the seed and family line in both stories, leading to the birth of male progenitors. Jones acknowledges that in ancient cultures, the responsibility for ensuring the continuity of the family line was typically associated with men. However, exceptions exist, such as the cases of women like Rachel and Tamar seeking seed in more acceptable ways (Genesis 30:3, 38:13).

The explicit continuity of the seed for Naomi becomes even more explicit in the story when Ruth bears a son for Boaz. Boaz takes Ruth as his wife, and she conceives and bears a son named Obed. The women of the community acknowledge the child’s significance to Naomi:

״וַיִּקַּח בֹּעַז אֶת רוּת וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה לָהּ הֵרָיוֹן וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן.  וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הַנָּשִׁים אֶל נָעֳמִי בָּרוּךְ יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא הִשְׁבִּית לָךְ גֹּאֵל הַיּוֹם וְיִקָּרֵא שְׁמוֹ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.  וְהָיָה לָךְ לְמֵשִׁיב נֶפֶשׁ וּלְכַלְכֵּל אֶת שֵׂיבָתֵךְ כִּי כַלָּתֵךְ אֲ‍שֶׁר אֲהֵבַתֶךְ יְלָדַתּוּ אֲשֶׁר הִיא טוֹבָה לָךְ מִשִּׁבְעָה בָּנִים.  וַתִּקַּח נָעֳמִי אֶת הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּשִׁתֵהוּ בְחֵיקָהּ וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאֹמֶנֶת.  וַתִּקְרֶאנָה לוֹ הַשְּׁכֵנוֹת שֵׁם לֵאמֹר יֻלַּד בֵּן לְנָעֳמִי וַתִּקְרֶאנָה שְׁמוֹ עוֹבֵד הוּא אֲבִי יִשַׁי אֲבִי דָוִד״.

“So Bo‘az took Rut, and she became his wife. He had sexual relations with her, YHWH enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.  Then the women said to Na‘omi, “Blessed be YHWH, who today has provided you a redeemer! May his name be renowned in Isra’el.  May he restore your life and provide for your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”  Na‘omi took the child, laid it on her breast and became its nurse.  The women who were her neighbors gave it a name; they said, “A son has been born to Na‘omi,” and called it ‘Oved. He was the father of Yishai the father of David. (Ruth 4:13-17).

Ruth gives birth to a son for Boaz, and Naomi’s role becomes more explicit. In Ruth 4:13-17, Naomi takes the child in her lap, becoming his nurse and caregiver. The child, named Obed, is recognized by the people of Bethlehem as a son born to Naomi. This act is not only symbolic but also serves as actual consolation for Naomi after her suffering. Zakovitch, Kambel, and Brenner-Eden discuss the significance of Naomi’s role in adopting the child, as it establishes him as an heir in the levirate marriage and acknowledges him as Naomi’s own.

The act of Naomi taking the child in her lap is both symbolic and consoling after her suffering. Zakovitch argues that this act signifies Naomi’s role as a caregiver for the child, not necessarily as an adoptive mother. Kambel and Brenner-Eden suggest that Naomi may indeed be adopting the child. While Zakovitch emphasizes the educational role of a nursemaid, the act of placing the child in Naomi’s lap serves a different purpose.

The public acknowledgment of the child as born to Naomi and the act of placing the child in her lap contribute to the legal validity of the entire process initiated by Naomi. Without Naomi accepting and adopting the child, the child would lack the status of an heir, and the levirate marriage would not recognize him as Naomi’s heir. This adoption, along with the public recognition, provides legal validity to the genealogy presented at the end of the Book of Ruth. Boaz’s relatively distant family relationship to Naomi and the land redemption gains significance through this adoption, making the entire process legally sound and meaningful within the cultural and legal context of that time.

conclusion

The exploration of Naomi’s character in the Book of Ruth reveals a profound narrative of transformation and leadership. From the initial tragedy of losing her husband and sons, Naomi emerges as a central and influential figure in the unfolding story. The exposition demonstrates her progression from a dependent widow to a wise and strategic leader, taking on responsibilities traditionally assigned to men.

Naomi’s role in guiding her daughters-in-law and her assertive approach to familial matters showcase her strength and resilience. The relationship between Naomi and Ruth becomes a focal point, emphasizing Naomi’s maternal and caregiving role. Even as the narrative shifts focus to Ruth, Naomi remains a significant force, approving and validating Ruth’s actions.

The later stages of the story highlight Naomi’s bold move in advising Ruth to approach Boaz directly, challenging societal norms. The adoption of Ruth’s child and the public acknowledgment underscores Naomi’s pivotal role in the family’s legacy, consolidating her status as a leader and matriarch.

Ultimately, Naomi’s journey from tragedy to triumph adds depth and complexity to the Book of Ruth, portraying a narrative of female strength, resilience, and familial bonds. This analysis encourages a reexamination of traditional interpretations, emphasizing the agency and impact of female characters in shaping the course of events. Naomi’s story stands as a testament to the strength of women in the face of adversity and their ability to lead, guide, and shape the destiny of their families.

Bibliography

ברנר-עידן עתליה, נשים במקרא, תל אביב 2018

זקוביץ יאיר, “רות מבוא ופירוש” (מקרא לישראל), ירושלים 1990

יעקבזון לאה, מעמדה המשפטי של האם במזרח הקדום ובמקרא, ירושלים 2017

פליישמן יוסף, הורים וילדים במשפטי המזרח הקדום ובמשפט המקרא, ירושלים תשנ״ט

Campbell, Edward F. JR., Ruth The Anchor Bible, New York, 1975

Jones, Edward Allen III, “Who Are You, My Daughter?” A Reassessment of Ruth and Naomi in Ruth 3”, inCatholic Biblical Quarterly 76 (4), October 2014, pp.653-664

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