The word hung in the air as silence descended on the assembly of people gathered around the haggard looking beautiful woman. Surprise and shock registered on the faces of some; those who were familiar with the now stranger standing in their midst. Some looked amused or curious; why would she say something like that. Others spat in disgust; trust the despicable Moab descendants to try to pollute a devout Jew.
This wouldn’t be the first time they had tried it. Their fore-fathers almost lost out of the promised land of Canaan because of Moab influence. They had incurred the wrath of Yahweh when Balaam, the infamous prophet advised Balak, the Moabite king to let loose the most beautiful Moabite damsels into the Jewish camp.
The Jews predictably fell for the seduction; they engaged in sexual immoralities and turned their backs on their God, who delivered them from the Egyptian bondage, and went a-whoring after Baal-Peor the Moabite god. Twenty-four thousand people died in a single day and more would have died at the wrath of Yahweh but for the intervention of Phinehas, the son of Aaron the high priest.
God then commanded them not to welcome a Moabite into their camp and especially into the Temple; they were forever in dis-favour with God and the Israelites.
What then was a Moabitess doing amongst them? What connection did she have with one of theirs?
Everywhere she turned, Naomi could see the questions written on their faces, just at the tip of their tongues. Others murmured silently to one another. But she was not ready to give them an answer, let them think what they will, she didn’t care. This ‘Moabitess’ was the closest thing she had to a family. The only person she had in the world.
In fact, she counted herself lucky to have her. Why she had chosen to follow her back home was still surprising to her. Despite all her attempts to dissuade the young widow, painting the future in the bleakest colours, she had hung tenaciously to her.
She presumed that it was not so much as her love for Yahweh or her curiosity about her nativity that pushed Ruth to follow her but concern for her well being. She would never stop being amazed at such devotion and dedication, and she wondered what she had done to command such loyalty. Maybe there was still a ray of sunshine after all. Maybe not; Ruth would constantly be a reminder of all that she had lost.
A scurry of activity behind her brought her out of her thoughts. She turned towards the source of the noise. A middle aged woman was making her way forward through the crowd generating angry responses.
She looked familiar, only she couldn’t place the face. The woman was now standing in front of her, a mixture of surprise and shock in her hazel eyes.
‘Naomi.’ Her voice was barely above a whisper. ‘Is that really you?’
Sarah. Recognition dawned on her and with it a new wave of pain.
Sarah was reaching out to touch her cheeks, her fingers tracing the premature wrinkles.
‘I never thought I would see you again’ her voice was choked with emotion and she struggled with tears as she studied her one time best friend. She could see from her features that the last years had been hard on her; she looked ten years older than her age.
She wondered what had happened to her in Moab. Where was her husband and kids? Surely, they wouldn’t be kids anymore; they would have grown to be young men just like hers had and had probably married.
Mahlon and Chilion had grown up with her own boys Michael and Joseph. Her eyes scanned the crowds for signs of them but didn’t see them anywhere. She brought her eyes back to her friend with the question written on her face.
‘Don’t call me Naomi anymore’ Naomi answered, ignoring the question she saw in her friend’s eyes.
Sarah noted that her voice was hoarse unlike the soft rich one she was used to and her eyes were etched with sorrow.
‘The Almighty has dealt me a bitter blow. I left here full of life but God has brought me back with nothing but the clothes on my back’ Naomi continued. ‘Why would you call me Naomi? God doesn’t. The Almighty ruined me’. She said it not with malice or as an accusation but with a sense of despondency and resignation.
‘’Call me Mara’’ she said with a note of finality
Sarah could not hold back the tears anymore as the weight of her friend’s word hit her. Her friend was the image of despair; the light had gone from her eyes. She couldn’t imagine what it felt like to lose all that one holds dear, all that matters. The thought of losing Michael and Joseph sent a shudder down her spine.
Poor Naomi, She was hurting and no one could console her. Maybe if she had not left Israel for Moab, her husband and sons would still be alive till now, she thought.
Who could blame her? The decision to move to Moab hadn’t been hers. It had been Elimelech- her husband’s.
Sarah remembered that night vividly, when Naomi had come to her and confided in her and shared her concerns about the move to Moab. She had been especially concerned about her children. They were still young and it would be difficult to bring them up in the ways of Yahweh when they would be living among people who did not know Him nor fear Him. God had warned them not to mix with these nations; they would turn their hearts from following Him. But Elimelech had not shared any of her concerns, she had lamented that night.
During those days Elimelech rarely listened. The famine that had ravaged the land was severe and he had been hit hard and had lost all. He had withdrawn to himself and had become a shadow of his normal self; all colours had drained from his face and he had looked haggard and lost. Sometimes, he wasn’t aware of the people he passed in the streets.
He had also begun to lose faith in Yahweh. If God loved them like they had been told, he had said to Naomi, why then did He allow such misfortune to befall them? Where was the proof of His love? How come He took delight in the suffering and pain and possible death of His beloved?
Naomi had been shocked by those statements. She had told him that Yahweh’s love was unchanging and the famine was as a result of Israel’s deviation from His laws and commandments. The famine was a means of correction, to draw them back to Himself. Surely, He would not destroy them with it. But he refused to listen to her and said it was woman’s talk. Going to Moab, he had said was their best option-the famine didn’t affect them. They wouldn’t be the only one, he had added, others were also talking of migrating to Moab, and they would have a chance to start over. She had had no option but to succumb.
So they had set out for Moab full of hope and expectations. Sarah recalled the day they left. She had stored those images in her memory; she didn’t think she would ever see them again. Her best friend was leaving.
Naomi had looked so beautiful and radiant, though she knew she was worried and concerned for her two son’s future. Her eyes had been warm and full of life despite the hardships heaped on her by the famine.
She looked at the woman now standing in front of her and could not see a trace of the old Naomi. This Naomi was bitter, bowed with grief and lost.
That was when she noticed the young beautiful woman that was with her. Surely, she must be Naomi’s daughter in law.