Ruth 1:20, She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. “In Hebrew, Naomi means ‘pleasant’ and Mara means ‘bitter’” (de Waard & Nida, 1992, p. 19). Duguid (2005) has a negative view: “Like her ancestors, Naomi’s heart was angry with God for the way her life was turning out” (p. 144). And again, “In response, her heart had grown hard and bitter toward him, both recognizing and at the same time resenting his power in her life (Duguid, 2005, p. 145). Hubbard (1988) agrees, “In effect, Naomi joined Job in questioning God’s mysterious justice: ‘I am bitter—and Shaddai made me so’” (p. 124).
Ferguson (2013) has a more positive view of Naomi: “Although it is impossible to be dogmatic about it, Naomi’s words do not seem to mean, ‘I am very bitter,’ or, ‘The Lord has embittered me,’ but that her pathway has been a bitter one” (p. 27). Further, “[S]he wants to be called Mara rather than Naomi, not because the Lord has made her a twisted, bitter woman, but because bitter experiences have been the hallmark of her life” (Ferguson, 2013, p. 27).
The embedded literary structure seems to affirm the positive stance. “Naomi’s response, vss. 20-21, divides into two sections, closely united in form and content. Each section begins with a wordplay on the meaning of her name” (Bush, 1996, p. 89). Compare W and W’ in the diagram below. “Each wordplay is followed by the grounds for the denial. These two statements are couplets, A-B and B’- A’, that relate to each other chiastically: A and A’ use ‘Shaddai’ and are parallel in structure and content, while B and B’, though quite different in structure and content, are parallel in the use of ‘Yahweh’” (Bush, 1996, p. 89). See the diagram.
[W] Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara,
[A] For the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.
[B] I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.
[W’] Why do you call me Naomi,
[B’] Since the LORD has witnessed against me
[A’] And the Almighty has afflicted me?
[A] For the Almighty [Shaddai] has dealt very bitterly with me, and [A’] the Almighty [Shaddai] has afflicted me form a synonymous parallelism. Therefore, the clauses interpret each other. Their emphasis is upon outward circumstances. [B] I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty, and [B’] Since the LORD has witnessed against me also form a synonymous parallelism. The witness is Naomi’s change in circumstance from fulness to emptiness. Again, the text’s distinct emphasis is upon external and objective conditions rather than inward and subjective feelings.
As indicated, verse 20 adds the reason for the name change: For the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. Again, the Almighty is Shaddai, the God of great power you cannot resist (Morris, 1973, p. 297). Verse 21 begins, I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Naomi was rich “in possession of a husband and two sons; a rich mother, but now deprived of all that makes a mother’s heart rich, bereft of both husband and sons” (Keil & Delitzsch, 1982, p. 476). Slotki (1990) adds that once, she had “an abundance of wealth, [and was] blessed with husband and family” (p. 120). But now, she is “widowed and childless, lonely and poor” (Slotki, 1990, p. 120). “She for her part went out prosperous, but He brought her back indigent” (Morris, 1973, p. 263).
If Ferguson is correct, Naomi confesses, with submissive faith, that her circumstances have come upon her by the hand of the Lord. She appears to follow the counsel of Henry (1985), “It well becomes us to have our hearts humbled under humbling providences. When our condition is brought down, our spirits should be brought down with it. Then our troubles are sanctified to us when we thus comport with them; for it is not an affliction itself, but an affliction rightly born, that does us good” (p. 260). This attitude of heart ought to be ours.
Copyright © 2021
Bush, F. W. (1996). Ruth, Esther, Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
de Waard, J. & Nida, E. A. (1992). The Book of Ruth. New York: United Bible Societies.
Duguid, I. M. (2005). Esther and Ruth. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R.
Ferguson, S. B. (2013). Faithful God. Bridgend, Wales: Bryntition Press.
Henry, M. (1985). Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Vol. 2). Grand Rapids: Fleming.
Hubbard, R. L. (1988). The Book of Ruth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Keil, C. F. & Delitzsch F. (1982). Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Morris, L. (1973). Ruth, An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity.
Slotki, J. J. (1990). Ruth. In A. Cohen (Ed.), The Five Megilloth. New York: The Soncino Press.