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Three Models of Stewardship From the Book of Ruth Session Three: Naomi to Mara and Back Again

Dr. Jacobson summarizes these three sessions from the book of Ruth when she wrote,  "Living lives of blessings leads to blessings multiplied.  Those who steward their lives in the light of the blessing of God set the stage for that blessing to grow toward God's love incarnate in the world.  The harvest is bounteous, life is overflowing.  What begins as the study of three individuals who steward their lives in remarkable yet quite homey ways ends with riches beyond measure.

Three Models of Stewardship From the Book of  Ruth

For the previous two sessions, go to:

Session One: Introduction to the Book and to Ruth, the Moabite

Session Two: Boaz, the Farmer of Worth

*Whatever is underlined is a link.  Just place your cursor on it and click.

Living Lives of Stewardship:
Three Models From the Book of Ruth

Diane Jacobson

Leader's Guide
. . . Sections of background material on the Book of Ruth to be shared in some fashion with the group

. . . An introduction to one of the three main characters of the Book of Ruth

. . . To access a group of PowerPoint slides with pictures, texts and/or questions which can be used or not, as desired click on Ruth

. . . Interpretive comments on the particular passages to be shared in some fashion with the group

. . . Various questions, with some hints on directions the discussion might fruitfully take

. . . A Closing Time section which includes reflection on what the group has learned and a larger item for the group to consider.

Session Three: Naomi to Mara and Back Again Slide -- Intro Page

Gathering Time and Opening Questions
Once more gather folks together with a hymn and a prayer.

Think back on sessions 1 and 2.  What have we learned from Boaz and Ruth about living the abundant life of stewardship?  

How do these two characters differ?

In what ways are they alike?

In this session we will consider the final and most central figure in the Book of Ruth: Naomi.

Can you think of a reason why Naomi is considered to be the most central character of the Book of Ruth?

Our book might well have been called the book of Naomi in so far as the rhythm of the book actually follows the rhythm of her character.  Naomi begins full, with husband and sons.  She soon becomes empty.  Like the famine that led the family to foreign soil in search of food, Naomi's life becomes a famine.  The change is symbolized in her own change of name to "Mara."  Then for the remainder of the book we watch as she becomes Naomi once again, culminating in blessing and fulfillment.

Exploring the Character of Naomi

Slide, Szyk

Begin by reading the first five verses of the Book of Ruth.

In the beginning we think this will be a story about Elimelech (which, in Hebrew, means "God is King") traveling with his family to the dreaded land of Moab (see session one) to avoid the famine in his home town of Bethlehem (which ironically means "house of food").  But Elimelech quickly dies, and we are left with Naomi.  Her name means "pleasantness." Besides her now deceased husband, Naomi had two sons.  Their names were Mahlon and Chilion, whose names mean roughly "sickly" and "frail."  The sons live long enough to take two wives from Moab, Orpah and Ruth.  

Slide, Rothko  They lived ten childless years and then we are told that the sons die as well so that Naomi "was left without her two sons and her husband" (Ruth 1:5)

How do you suppose Naomi felt?  

How do you suppose society, both then and now, looks on widows with no family?

Naomi's loss was huge.  Her family was decimated, and she did not even have the comfort of grandchildren to give her personal joy to fill the emptiness or to carry on the family name.  Some widows are marked by wearing special clothing, often black.  Often folks don't even notice such widows; they tend to blend in with the church pew. Some might even blame them, perhaps unconsciously, for having outlived all of their family.  Certainly, such widows often blame themselves or feel invisible and unimportant.

Naomi has suffered a triple loss, her husband and two sons.  Her loss becomes magnified in three ways:  
First, she loses confidence in herself -- she sees no way that she can provide help for her daughters-in-law.  She clearly cares for them deeply, but because she feels she cannot take care of them, she entreats them to return to their own mothers:

Ruth 1:11-13  11 But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons,  13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters . . ."

She can be no mother to them.  She cannot provide for them what they need, which is husband and children.  In her imagination, the only way she could properly provide for them is though the system of the levirite.

Background Material: Understanding the Levirate System

The system of the levirate was Israel's legal way to insure that a family line not die out when a man died without children.  This system is described in
Deuteronomy 25: "5 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband's brother to her,  6 and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel."
Interestingly, given the exchange between Boaz and the nearest next-of-kin in chapter 4, this law continues:
Deuteronomy 25: "7 But if the man has no desire to marry his brother's widow, then his brother's widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, "My husband's brother refuses to perpetuate his brother's name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband's brother to me."  8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, "I have no desire to marry her," 9 then his brother's wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, "This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother's house."  10 Throughout Israel his family shall be known as "the house of him whose sandal was pulled off."

Naomi declares to her daughters-in-law that this system will not work because she has no other sons who might marry Orpah or Ruth, so she cannot be of any use to them.

Second, Naomi loses confidence in others, in their potential capacity to be useful to her.  She losses her capacity to see Ruth as one who might help her as a daughter would help a mother.  She listens to Ruth's remarkable loyalty oath in verse 16-17 and says nothing (Ruth 1:18).  

And finally Naomi loses confidence in God.

Slide, Dali  

We learn about Naomi's attitude toward God first in her speech to her daughters-in-law.  When she rejects her usefulness to them, she ends by saying to them:
Ruth 1:13 "No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter (In Hebrew, mar) for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me."
Then, listen to her speech to the gathered women when she returns home to Bethlehem and they say to one another, "Is this Naomi?":  
Ruth 1:20-21 "20 She said to them, "Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?"

Naomi here takes up the lament of the lost.  She has lost confidence in God's capacity to be for her rather than against her.  So she wails, like Job himself, that the LORD has dealt harshly with her and has brought her back empty.  She is no longer to be called Naomi, "pleasantness," but instead she is to be called Mara, "bitter."  Her triple loss has transformed her.  Because of what is behind her, she cannot see what is in front of her, so poignantly hinted at in the final verse of the chapter:

Slide, 1179 Illustration  
So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. (Ruth 1:22)

Naomi feels that the Lord has brought her back empty, and there stands Ruth beside her with the harvest about to begin.  

Do we not all know folks who remind us of Mara?  

Are we not surrounded by them?  

Have not many of us been there ourselves, bitter in our many losses, unable to see ourselves, others, or God?  

How does one even consider stewarding a life in such circumstances?

Slide, Chagall  
The key to Naomi's life of stewardship is found not in her physical journey to Moab and back, but rather in her spiritual journey from her self-perception as the bitter Mara to her renewed understanding of herself as Naomi, both blessed by God and a blessing to and with others.  The major scene of her rediscovery is found as the end of chapter two, the transition point of the book.  It happens just after Ruth has returned from gleaning in the field of Boaz.  After Ruth deposits before her mother-in-law all her riches of the day:

Ruth 2:19-20 Her mother-in-law said to her, "Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you." So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, "The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz."  Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, "Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness (hesed, often translated "steadfast love" as discussed last session) has not forsaken the living or the dead!" Naomi also said to her, "The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin."

What do you hear in this speech that might lead you to believe that Naomi is rediscovering meaning?

Listen to what Mara discovers in this event that brings her back to herself, to Naomi.  Someone took notice of Ruth, and it turns out the man is a relative.  Suddenly Mara has relatives, others to whom she is connected, others whom she might bless.  And she sees the circumstance of Ruth's happening upon the field of Boaz, this relative, not as a mere accident, but rather as the activity of God.  This capacity, this capacity alone, is perhaps the key.  To look at the world around you, and see happenings that could be mere good fortune as the very hand of God extended in mercy, in kindness, extended in the steadfast love of hesed.  Naomi discovers that God is not against her and that God will use the others around her to bring her home without bitterness.

Slide, Drost  
Through this new perspective on the world, this newly enlivened widow also discovers her own usefulness to others.  Older widows may not be able to exercise stewardship in the usually conceived of ways, but they certainly can scheme.  So after the ensuing barley and wheat harvests, leaving plenty of time for Boaz and Ruth to get acquainted, Naomi says to Ruth:
Ruth 3:1-4 "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.  (the very security she could not imagine providing in Ruth 1:9ff)  Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.  Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do."

And the rest is history.  

How does such scheming as Naomi does here build up the life of the community?

Often the role of older women in the community takes place behind the scenes.  They know what is going on; they have the history and the imagination.  They know when folks need care, when they need discipline or correction, and when they need direction and guidance,  Without such wisdom, communities cannot function.  Here is the positive side of gossip; it is called community care!

Naomi models a stewarding of life away from loss and bitterness toward the capacity to see the activity of God in her life, to see her connectedness to those around her, and to see her own role in furthering the work of the kingdom.  And Naomi, like both Boaz and Ruth before her, finds that in seeing God's hand at work and in reaching out to others, helping them to find security, she also discovers her own joy and fulfillment.  For her scheme, as we have seen, goes beyond her wildest imaginings.  

Slide, Michelangelo  
Out of the union which Naomi helps to make possible, a child is born.  And the child becomes for her  "a restorer of life and a nourisher of her old age."  

How do grandchildren restore life and nourish old age?  (Here is a question every grandparent in your group will love to answer!)

Significantly, there is more to Naomi's refreshment than even the birth of this grandchild.  For what makes this child so special is not his dead father's blood, but rather the nature of his mother's love and devotion.  Listen in full to what the women say to Naomi when the child is born:

Slide, Solomon  

Ruth 4:14-15 Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!  He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him."  

What surprises you about this verse?

Many aspects of this verse are significant or even surprising.

1 - We have yet another blessing.  Actually this is the fifth and final use of the word "blessing" in the book. (Others are in Ruth 2:4, 19, 20; 3:10 -- though one does find other blessings without the actual word being used.)  Now rather than the Lord being the giver of blessing, the Lord becomes the receiver of blessing which is a form of thanksgiving.

2 - Most remarkably the new born child now becomes the final and most significant go'el, the next-of-kin, the redeemer. The implications of this are profound indeed!

3 - And perhaps most surprising is the final phrase. Folks often think that in ancient Israel a woman is not deemed worthy unless she has given birth to a son.  But in this verse in the Book of Ruth we get just the opposite.  The child is special precisely because Ruth has born him!  The devotion and love shown by this Moabite woman to her mother-in-law makes Ruth more to Naomi than seven sons.  What a declaration!

The source of  joy is much more than we expect.  Everything is dependent on the relationships of loyalty, love, and care.  These relationships lead to the child, to the redeemer.  What is birthed here is more than a child.  What is birthed is a new family and a new community.  Striking in this book is what happens not only to the three main characters when they steward their lives toward God and each other, what is striking is the effect such stewardship has on the larger community.  

Slide, Raphael  
The elders at the gate and all the people act as witnesses to the marriage and issue their own blessing:  
Ruth 4:11-12 "Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, "We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; 4.12 and, through the children that the LORD will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah."

Think how remarkable it would be for this community to compare a Moabite woman to the matriarchs of the faith!  They are guided by the new imagination of community found in the acceptance of Naomi and Boaz and the goodness of Ruth.  Ruth becomes part of the community, not simply part of a private family.  The loving actions of three persons transform the entire community.

Slide, Rooks  
And in the process of the community's transformation, it is moved from the desperation of the end of Judges to the promise of the beginning of Kings.  The child who is born becomes not just the next-of-kin, the go'el to Naomi.  The child become the ancestor of the go'el, the redeemer of the world.  For Boaz becomes the father of Obed who becomes the father of Jesse  who becomes the father of David.  Both Boaz and Ruth become part of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5)!

Living lives of blessings leads to blessings multiplied.  Those who steward their lives in the light of the blessing of God set the stage for that blessing to grow toward God's love incarnate in the world.  The harvest is bounteous, life is overflowing.  What begins as the study of three individuals who steward their lives in remarkable yet quite homey ways ends with riches beyond measure.  

Closing Time

Slide, Living in Abundance  
The time has come to gather up all we have learned about stewardship from the book of Ruth.  Take this opportunity to let all participants share at least one thing they will take away from the study.  You might end with a community prayer where each person contributes a thanksgiving or blessing.


Deuteronomy 10:17-19  17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 25:25   25 If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold.

Session One: Introduction to the Book and to Ruth, the Moabite

Session Two: Boaz, the Farmer of Worth

(c)2006 A joint project by Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, 2481 Como Ave., St. Paul, MN 55108.


Dr. Diane L. Jacobson is a professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary serving as associate dean of MA/MSM programs.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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