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Women in the OT: Naomi - widow and match-maker

Monday, August 13, 2012
Naomi is a major character in the Book of Ruth. This short book is an endearingly told account of how Ruth, a Moabite woman and widow of a Jew (Naomi’s son Mahlon) commits herself to the Jew Naomi, helps to provide for Naomi and finds a Jewish husband, Boaz, who thus provides for her and continues the family line of Naomi as well as his own. It is a finely constructed story, and has a higher dialogue-to-descriptive-action ratio than any other historical book in the Old Testament. All this helps to give us a sense of human realism and a more developed sense of the main characters (Naomi, Ruth and Boaz) than in many other texts. Lots of theological issues are thrown up in the narrative, showing it to be rich and subtly suggestive religious text, not just a romantic novella. The developments in Naomi’s life are inextricably bound up with the actions of Ruth (see next blog post) and Boaz, so it is artificial to look at her in isolation, but I will attempt some comments.

Naomi moves from a perceived situation of being judged negatively by God to being seen as blessed. She sees herself as judged negatively, ie punished, by God: she left for Moab due to a famine with a husband and two sons and came back with none of them (1:20-21). Such a view expresses a conventional Old Testament interpretation of suffering, but not the only one. We are not told the cause of her guilt unless it perhaps consists in going to Moab and marrying her children to Moabite (not Jewish) women (See Dt 23:3). She had proposed a change in name: she should now be called ‘Mara’ meaning ‘bitterness’ rather than Naomi which means ‘my sweetness’. When Ruth and Boaz, blessed by God (4:13), have a child (Obed), and Naomi cares for him, the village women see her as blessed by God (4:15). In a way she can now be renamed Naomi.

However, it is not really her own religious uprightness or moral standing that is instrumental in bringing about this transformation, but rather that first of Ruth (in choosing YHWH as her God out of loyalty to Naomi) and then of Boaz. Naomi has a part of play but she acts at a rather more practical and pragmatic level – and on occasion in what could be called a worldly manner in its negative sense. Certainly she shows concern for Ruth but this is at a human level, and not seemingly motivated by spiritual aspirations, let alone by consistent religious and moral orthodoxy. This can be illustrated from aspects of the story.

Naomi tries to persuade her widowed daughters-in-law to go back to their own people and by implication their gods – if she hopes that YHWH will bless them - in order to find new husbands (1:9-17). Naomi, then, has not despaired of God blessing others, but she does not think God will bless her. She feels a certain hopelessness and helplessness that Ruth seeks to put aside. It is Ruth, not Naomi, who suggests working in the fields of Boaz (2:2) to provide for them both. Naomi does care about Ruth but at a practical level – and arguably at risk to her religious integrity. She know how insecure life can be for a woman especially an unmarried one. She is happy to make use of religious laws to help Ruth in this regard (The situation as it plays out seems to combine aspects of Levirate Law and the role of a family redeemer of property but not in the detailed forms codified in Old Testament texts (Dt 25:5-10 and Lev 25:23-25 respectively). But she combines this with an exploitation of sexual arousal that goes beyond the religious moral convention of the day. She is clearly not convinced that Boaz has yet shown sufficient interest or action towards Ruth. Her instruction is that Ruth makes herself sexually available to him. Naomi tells Ruth to wash and perfume herself but hide her identity, to then wait for Boaz to have had a good deal to drink and then, in effect, to get into his bed, if at the bottom of it (3:3-4). This is highly sexually provocative – even if it may suggest other contractual possibilities about redemption. One may seek to avoid this interpretation but that is to be prudish. (It also has similarities with the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38) to some extent.) Ruth goes along with this, raising a question about her own integrity. Boaz is explicit about acting with due moral decorum. The fact that she leaves early in the morning (3:14), only highlights that all know that the action is liable to start rumours, or worse. Nonetheless this night encounter does stir Boaz to take the legal action that leads to his marriage to Ruth. It is quite possible that it is a conviction about the strength of sexual desire, which Naomi now presumably thinks is aroused in Boaz, that leads Naomi to assure Ruth, when she comes home, that Boaz will speedily resolve the matter and marry her (3:18). In fact, Boaz, seems, to show restraint and act with high levels of integrity if also legal cunning.

Naomi then is an ambiguous character. She has a certain warmth and evokes good reactions from those around her. She lives in a religious world, and makes use of its provisions for securing marriage and property. But she lacks a certain religious zeal. At the same time she engages in a very sexually provocative, and religiously and morally questionable, form of match-making. In this way she tries to take religious matters into her own hands. But at the same time she has accepted God’s judgement on her. Her religious attitudes and piety are far from unambiguous. How much does that matter? Perhaps there was sufficient sincerity in this that God was able to ‘redeem her’, working amidst the rather more dubious aspects of her conduct, to bring out a good outcome, one in which she herself is blessed as well. Or did God bless her for other reasons? How do we interpret the many mixed religious and profane motives we find around us, and even in our own hearts and lives?

Andrew Brookes OP


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