Naomi's Bitter Poem
The Two Poetic Statements in Ruth
In the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, our sympathy goes out to Naomi, who loses her husband and then her two sons. But most people’s focus in this chapter is on her daughter-in-law Ruth, and her beautiful declaration of loyalty to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17):
כִּ֠י אֶל אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֵּלְכִ֜י אֵלֵ֗ךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּלִ֙ינִי֙ אָלִ֔ין עַמֵּ֣ךְ עַמִּ֔י וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי: בַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּמ֙וּתִי֙ אָמ֔וּת וְשָׁ֖ם אֶקָּבֵ֑ר כֹּה֩ יַעֲשֶׂ֨ה יְ-הֹוָ֥ה לִי֙ וְכֹ֣ה יֹסִ֔יף כִּ֣י הַמָּ֔וֶת יַפְרִ֖יד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֵֽךְ:
Wherever you go I will go, wherever you stay I will stay; your people, my people; your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may YHWH do to me if anything but death parts me from you.
The attention given to Ruth’s formulation tends to overshadow an equally significant poetic statement by Naomi that addresses her own inner-religious situation in this time of tragedy.
“Naomi’s Husband” Dies
The story of Naomi’s losses begins in Ruth 1:3 with the opening statement:
וַיָּ֥מָת אֱלִימֶ֖לֶךְ אִ֣ישׁ נָעֳמִ֑י
Elimelech died, the husband of Naomi.
Here, Elimelech’s death is recorded from Naomi’s perspective. Nevertheless, the apparent redundancy of the reference to their relationship as husband and wife, already established in the opening verses of the book, allows Rashi to observe:
אין איש מת אלא לאשתו
No man dies except to his wife.
In other words, the one who truly suffers at the death of a man, more than anyone else, is his wife. This brings us directly to a recognition of the pain of Naomi’s loss, a pain that will only be compounded by the death of her two sons.
Naomi Remains Alone
Verse 3 continues,
וַתִּשָּׁאֵ֥ר הִ֖יא וּשְׁנֵ֥י בָנֶֽיהָ:
There remained her (Naomi) and her two sons.
The sons subsequently marry local Moabite women, but about ten years later both sons die (v. 4). The text then repeats the verb in v. 5:
וַתִּשָּׁאֵר֙ הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה מִשְּׁנֵ֥י יְלָדֶ֖יהָ וּמֵאִישָֽׁהּ:
And the woman remained without her two children and without her husband.
Repeating the verb וַתִּשָּׁאֵר֙ draws our attention to the similarity but also the difference between verses 3 and 5. Whereas in verse 3 her sons are referred to as בניה, ‘her sons’, in verse 5 they are ילדיה, ‘her children’, literally, ‘the ones to whom she gave birth’.
This change reflects Naomi’s tragedy, the devastating experience of having outlived her own children, who, however adult they may have become, will always be her ‘babies’. The similarities and differences in phraseology highlight her deep sense of loss, but even more her wish to be alone in her grief, which can only be accomplished if she rids herself of her two daughters-in-law.
Why Naomi Wants to Leave her Daughters-in-law Behind
The Risk to Moabite Women
Practical reasons may motivate Naomi’s wish to leave Ruth and Orpah behind, not the least being the potential difficulties of bringing two Moabite women with her into the land of Israel. The risk of possible aggression against them is indicated by Boaz in his instructions to prevent any of his men molesting Ruth, repeated three times (2:9, 15, 16). The attitude reflected in other biblical texts may also explain the narrator’s concern about their possible treatment. Elsewhere in the Bible, the origin of Moab is from incest (Gen 19:37), and the women of Moab seduced the Israelites into idolatry during the wilderness period (Numbers 25:1-2). Thus sexually available Moabite women would have been viewed as dangerous.
But alongside these considerations for leaving her Moabite daughters-in-law back in their home is the impact their presence would have on Naomi’s bereavement—their presence would only emphasise her awareness of what she had lost.
Here as well, careful attention to language reflects what the narrator is attempting to convey. In her first words to her ‘daughters-in-law’, she says (1:8):
לֵ֣כְנָה שֹׁ֔בְנָה אִשָּׁ֖ה לְבֵ֣ית אִמָּ֑הּ
Go away, return, each woman to her mother’s household…
The sequence, lechna (‘go away’) preceding shovna (‘return’), puts the initial emphasis on their going away from her, only then showing concern for their welfare with the suggestion that they return to their mother’s household. This would not be particularly noteworthy were it not for the fact that the same two key words are repeated later by Naomi, but in a different order. When the women refuse to leave her, Naomi is forced to address them again (1:11-12):
שֹׁ֣בְנָה בְנֹתַ֔י לָ֥מָּה תֵלַ֖כְנָה עִמִּ֑י… שֹׁ֤בְנָה בְנֹתַי֙ לֵ֔כְןָ…
Return, my daughters, why should you go with me….Return, my daughters, go…
In both these sentences, Naomi refers to Ruth and Orpah as her daughters, acknowledging her acceptance of their relationship. But now, thinking of their welfare more than her own situation, she puts the emphasis on returning to their home before asking them to depart, with shovna (return) now preceding lechna (go).
Naomi Responds with Silence
Orpah leaves, but Ruth makes her famous affirmation of loyalty and stays. Naomi’s response is silence. Or rather the narrator says she ceased speaking to her (וַתֶּחְדַּ֖ל לְדַבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶֽיהָ)—a statement that has been variously interpreted as a happy acceptance of her offer, resignation, or even annoyance at this unwelcome persistence (Ruth 1:18).
Whether in agreement or uneasy companionship, the author allows the two women to share the verb for ‘going’, וַתֵּלַכְנָה, as they depart together for Bethlehem (1:19), implying their common shared fate.
Naomi’s Theological Poem
It is only with the arrival in Bethlehem, in response to the question of the women: ‘Is this Naomi?’, that Naomi breaks her silence with her own carefully composed statement (Ruth 1:20-21), which has the following structure, as I will explain below:
א. אַל תִּקְרֶ֥אנָה לִ֖י נָעֳמִ֑י
a. Do not call me Naomi
ב. קְרֶ֤אןָ לִי֙ מָרָ֔א
b. Call me Mara (bitter)
ג. כִּי הֵמַ֥ר שַׁדַּ֛י לִ֖י מְאֹֽד.
c. For Shaddai has embittered me.
ד. אֲנִי֙ מְלֵאָ֣ה הָלַ֔כְתִּי
d. I full went away
ד’. וְרֵיקָ֖ם הֱשִׁיבַ֣נִי יְ-הֹוָ֑ה
d’. But empty YHWH brought me back.
א’. לָ֣מָּה תִקְרֶ֤אנָה לִי֙ נָעֳמִ֔י
a’. Why do you call me Naomi?
ב’. וַֽי-הֹוָה֙ עָ֣נָה בִ֔י
b’. For YHWH has witnessed against me
ג’. וְשַׁדַּ֖י הֵ֥רַֽע לִֽי:
c’. And Shaddai has wronged. me
In the outer ring of this double concentric composition are the tricola, each beginning with the play on her name: “Do not call me Naomi (pleasant),” “Why do you call me Naomi?” and each ending with what God, under the name Shaddai, has done to her: “has embittered me,” “has wronged me.”
Each of these tricola contains at its center the focus of her distress. In the first, the focus is on herself, on the transformation of her existence dramatised by the change of her name from ‘pleasant’ to ‘bitter’: ‘call me Mara’. But the second goes beyond the first, and focuses instead on the actions of God, using the verb ‘to witness against (ענה ב)’ (Exodus 20:16).
These two tricola surround the central bicolon (lns d and d’) with its own chiastic structure, containing a double contrast.
Fullness vs. Emptiness
Naomi states that she was full when she left, with husband and sons, but now she is returning empty. With this statement, Naomi expresses precisely the sense of loss that has led her to reject her two daughters-in-law, for in her present state she wants her emptiness to be complete. It is tempting to use the term ‘clinical depression’ to describe the way that she feels.
This statement about her emptiness effectively denies the presence of Ruth who is accompanying her. Over time, this will become ironic, for Ruth will actually fill her emptiness, first with the food that she obtains and eventually with the child who will replace Naomi’s lost sons.
I vs. YHWH
The other contrast in this verse is even more powerful. Naomi begins with the emphasis on herself, אני (I), but in the corresponding place at the other end of the chiasm is YHWH. For Naomi as a religiously committed woman, all that happens, however tragic and painful, must ultimately be attributed to the actions of God. Yet how can she express her anger without risking offence to God?
Shaddai vs. YHWH
Her solution is to attribute the active embitterment and the wronging to Shaddai, a name used for Israel’s God, but not YHWH—the special name reserved for Israel’s God in their full covenantal relationship. She can use the tetragramaton later in terms of YHWH ‘witnessing’ against her. Presumably, this implies her ultimate acceptance that whatever has happened to her, it is in some way a divine judgment—but not an accusation. Effectively Naomi has composed a personal theodicy.
Expressing the Anger and Overcoming Depression
This ability to express her anger seems to mark the turning point in her reaction to her losses. In the next chapter Ruth will become actively engaged in seeking food for the household, and Naomi will send her off with the words ‘go, my daughter’, and subsequently set about finding her a husband.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: Five Stages of Dying
Naomi’s response to her loss recalls Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ 1969 book On Death and Dying, where she defines ‘five stages’ that are typically associated with bereavement: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kübler-Ross herself was insistent that not all stages are necessarily present, that the order in which they occur may differ, and that other factors may affect the way any individual faces such a situation.
But Naomi’s desire for isolation, her depression, seeing no future for her daughters if they remained with her, her anger, and finally her acceptance of Ruth as her daughter, fits the Kübler-Ross model, and it is a tribute to the narrator that he or she has sketched so accurately this experience of loss, mourning and gradual recovery.
The Importance of Naomi’s Religious Conviction
The factor that Naomi’s poem accentuates is her religious conviction. For in the midst of her bitterness and anger, she still feels that she lives within the framework of God’s providence, whatever form it may take. Moreover, she manages to create in her brief but subtly constructed poem in 1:20-21 a profound statement of both her anger at her bitter experience and her acceptance that ultimately everything must lie in the hands of God.
In this I am reminded of the words of an elderly Orthodox rabbi who was my teacher many years ago. Himself a refugee, he could have been echoing Naomi’s words when he said that a religious person may not say that what happens in one’s life is bad, presumably because that would amount to an accusation against God. But, he added, one may say that it is bitter.
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June 2, 2016
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Prof. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet is the former Principal of Leo Baeck College and Emeritus Professor of Bible. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg and his ordination from Leo Baeck College. Magonet is the author of A Rabbi Reads the Torah, and is the editor of ‘Seder Ha-Tefillot‘ Forms of Prayer: Daily, Sabbath and Occasional Prayers as well as the journal, European Judaism.
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