"And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the LORD, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel." Ruth 4:14
The book of Ruth is one of the most retold and commentaried in the Bible. It begins with Elimilech, his wife Naomi and their sons leaving drought-stricken Israel to travel to Moab, where they hoped to find a better life. In Moab, Elimilech died, but Naomi still had her fine sons, who both found wives and dwelt with Naomi in her house. The Bible doesn’t tell us why, but her sons also died, first one and then the other, leaving Naomi with two devoted daughters-in-law and an overwhelming grief.
In those days, having a husband and having sons were seen as evidence of God’s favor, so when she lost Elimilech and her two sons, she was devastated. She felt reduced to nothing. She accepted it as God’s harsh dealing with her; Ruth 1:13 says she felt He had actually turned on her. And she withdrew. She told her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, that she was too old to marry and too old to bear more sons. She implored them to go home to their families and just leave her be.
We know the story of loyalty: how Ruth clung to her, refused to leave her. But this is not about Ruth…it’s about Naomi, a woman who’d had a life filled with the things her culture valued most: a husband. Sons. Their wives. And potential grandchildren. She had status: she was a woman of worth. Her name tells us even more: “Naomi” is translated as “Beautiful. Pleasant. Delightful .”
What does our name say about us? Not our spoken name, necessarily: the “name” we have made for ourselves by the lives we’ve led, and the “name” others have assigned us by the life they’ve seen us live.
I tend to believe that we are already born “named” by God: named according to the unique set of attributes He has assigned to us. He assembled each of us using a particular, one-of-a-kind combination of talents and traits that make us useable for Him. For example, He probably knows me by my combination: “Noisy. Silly. Optimistic. Creative.” My friend Nina? “Joyful. Peaceful. Encouraging. Content.” And my friend BJ: “Strong. Gentle. Fruitful. Brave.” Gail? “Obedient. Faithful. Selfless. Peacemaker.” Cheryl: “Graceful. Serene. Organized. Reliable.” My sister Debi: “Determined. Patient. Generous. Caring.” Every woman, named for a different combination. Each combination, supernaturally designed to attract and inspire the ones He will place in our paths in the course of our days.
Naomi was these, then: “Beautiful. Pleasant. Delightful”. People probably loved being around her; she was pleasant. Her physical beauty probably drew some people closer in, where her inner beauty could then be a blessing to them. Delightful? People probably came away from her feeling somehow satisfied in their spirits. Naomi was a pleasing combination, a testimony to her Maker.
Yet, when the husband and sons that so defined Naomi in her culture and her own mind began to leave her one by one, Naomi’s sense of worth began to crumble. Where she had walked confidently in the company of her husband and sons and their wives, her head held high, their loss no doubt had the effect of a flower wilting. Her pleasant demeanor became one of stony resignation, and her beauty was diminished in direct proportion to the sagging of her spirit. There was little about her that was delightful, she told herself.
So changed was she by her perception of worthlessness that she insisted on changing her name to reflect what her spirit had become. Ruth 1:19 even tells us that when she and Ruth came back to Bethlehem, her countenance was so changed that people didn’t recognize her. They asked, “Is this Naomi?” To which Naomi responded, basically, “That Naomi is gone. Nothing left for me to be pleasant or delightful about, so scrap that name. I’m Mara now, for the Lord has dealt bitterly with me. Mara means ‘bitter’”. She was bitter because she had lost the things which she had allowed to define her worth. She left the Promised Land with everything, and she came back empty-handed. Too old to marry, and therefore too old to have more sons…in her mind, barren. In those days, a woman’s barrenness was equated with “pretty much nothing to contribute to society”. So Naomi changed her own name to match the bitterness in her heart.
We do that, don’t we? Although the name on our driver’s license stays the same, don’t we label ourselves by our failures and shortcomings (even those caused by the wrongdoing of others) and then begin to walk in less than the fullness God has laid out for us? We hear someone belittle our efforts, or question our church involvement, or judge our parenting, or find fault with our decisions…and then we just “buy it”. We accept as valid their judgment, their criticism, the isolation . It may hurt, but it just happens to line up with what we’ve already started to see in ourselves…because, after all, we ARE our own worst judge, aren’t we?
So Naomi suffers loss, says God did it (and so therefore she must deserve it), and she decides that others will just have to accept her lowered estate. And she settles into that bitterness. She walks in it, wraps herself up in it. And she changes her name. I can hear her telling each old friend she encounters, “That’s not my name anymore. Call me Mara.” And to Ruth, at the end of a long day of gleaning in the fields: “I don’t deserve your kindness. Naomi may have, but Mara doesn’t.” Naomi settled for being Mara.
Only someone else didn’t: There are still three chapters to go after Naomi decides that she is Mara, or bitter, or barren. After she declares her new name, God is not having any of it. Never in God’s Word does He agree with Naomi and call her after the fashion of bitterness. He calls her Naomi. And, as far as God is concerned, she remains Naomi for the rest of the story. Beautiful. Pleasant. Delightful.
To God, she is all of these - not for what she has to offer, but because she is one of His chosen people. A child of His. And His plan for her finishes where it started, for as Naomi is instrumental in bringing together Ruth with her deceased husband’s kinsman Boaz, God restores to her spirit that former pleasantness, and beauty, and delight. Through the union of Ruth and Boaz, Naomi is blessed to be the nursemaid to a boy baby in the lineage of David: a predecessor of Jesus Christ Himself. When Naomi had given up all hope of mattering to someone, God Himself called her to be a participant in His master plan to turn human hearts back toward Him through the ages.
So, who are you today? Are you Mara? Does it feel like God Himself has turned on you? Have you agreed with a person or situation that left you feeling empty and powerless and without the joy of the Lord? Maybe you are so “Mara” that the bitterness has prevented you from clawing your way in desperation to the feet of Jesus, where the healing is. Maybe you are so crippled by your “Mara-ness” that you haven’t even dared to meet Him in the first place.
I know some Maras too. Precious to me, but a burden on themselves. A failure, one friend believes, as a mother (and so it’s her own fault that a child is in jail, or abusing drugs, or making promiscuous choices). Not a good enough wife, believes another (so, naturally, she thinks, it’s her own fault that her husband’s eye has strayed and hass found another woman more appealing). Others: “dumb”, or “uninteresting”, or “just a burden”, just like their daddy told them as they grew up. It must be true, right? So, they say, “Just call me Mara. I’m no good to God. What could I possibly offer Him? I’m a waste of His time.”
Even me. I have my days. When I see one of my children struggle, Mara reminds me that I could’ve been a better mother. When I’m disgusted with my image in the mirror, it’s Mara looking back at me, saying it’s no use trying to do better. “Too far gone,” says Mara. “Why bother?”
But my God is the God of Naomi. He refuses to see me in any light dimmer than the glorious light He saved me into. He sees me in the light of His purpose for me, not in the dirty-yellow back-porch light of my own perception. He’s got work for me to do: there’s a Ruth for me to shepherd, a child for me to lead. There’s a sister in Christ (or a sister who needs Christ) waiting to hear from me. Not from Mara. From me. And as I return, again and again, to the feet of my Redeemer, He lifts me up onto my feet. Brushes me off. Stands me up straight, revitalized. Moves me forward, into my intended purpose.
Are there any Maras reading this? You don’t have to stay where you are, bitter, barren, unproductive. Come with me, and meet the One Who refuses to let me change my name.
I call Him Father.
He calls me “Naomi”.