Naomi is the second most important woman in this story. Or is she actually the most important one? After all, the story starts and ends with her. Maybe this whole thing has been misnamed. The Book of Naomi, anyone?
Right off the bat, Naomi gets dealt a couple pretty tough blows. First she has to leave her homeland to survive a famine (1:1). Then her husband dies (1:3). Then her two sons follow him to the grave (1:5). Whoa. Naomi cannot catch a break. Is it any wonder that she believes, "the Almighty has dealt bitterly with [her]" (1:20)?
She is left only with her daughters-in-law who insist on following her to the ends of the Earth. Though she loves the girls, she tries to convince them to let her go. Since they won't listen to reason the first time, Naomi has to resort to exaggeration:
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? 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, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me." (1:11-13)
Yeah, all that is kind of hyperbolic, but it's true. Naomi can't provide anything for them. All they'll have with her is hardship. Naomi lays it on thick, but only manages to convince Orpah that she's right. Little does she know this is a good thing. A very good thing.
Naomi is rightfully depressed when she returns home to Bethlehem. Since her name means "pleasantness," Naomi doesn't think this fits much anymore. She tells the townspeople to call her Mara, which means "bitter" (1:20). We're guessing she wasn't much fun at parties.
The weird thing is, no one ever calls her this. The narrator ignores this whole switch and keeps right on referring to her as Naomi. Boaz and the other women in town do the same thing. Naomi. Naomi. Naomi. She can't escape it. That would be like everyone refusing to call Jacob by his new name Israel. Or insisting that Paul go by his original name, Saul.
Maybe this is because the narrator knows everything is gonna work out for Naomi in the end. She's gonna go back to pleasantness and let go of the bitterness that has taken hold of her. Fingers crossed, anyway.
Naomi is the author of the plan to get Ruth and Boaz together. Though Boaz clearly has taken a shine to Ruth, Naomi decides at the end of the harvest season that it's time to kick things into high gear. She hatches a plan that is both unconventional and somewhat dangerous for Ruth:
"Wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to [Boaz] 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." (3:3-4)
Part of us admires the sheer chutzpah of all this. Throw caution to the wind and get that husband. And part of us, is thinking, Naomi! Are you trying to get Ruth stoned to death? Which brings us to our next point…
So, there's two ways of looking at Naomi's character. One is that she's a sweet old lady who loves and appreciates Ruth and wants the best for her. The other is that she's a bitter old meanie who doesn't give a crud what happens to anyone but herself.
If you're skeptical of that latter option, we submit the following questionable moments in Naomi's history as evidence:
So where does that leave us with Naomi? Is she so caught up in her own grief that she can't recognize how others are also suffering? Does she care for Ruth at all, or is she just using her? Does she understand how much her daughter-in-law loves her? And, seriously, why can't she keep her hands off Ruth's baby? (Source, p. 193-195.)
Naomi's emotional journey through the story mirrors one of the main themes—the move from fullness to emptiness. Naomi starts out pretty full (a lovely husband and two strapping sons) and winds up empty (dead husband and two dead sons). Major downer.
Naomi pretty much sums this whole thing up when she returns home to Bethlehem:
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?" (1:21)
There may be a tiny touch of irony in the next sentence when the narrator tells us, "Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab" (1:22). It isn't until the end, when Naomi has a sweet little grandson in her arms that she starts to feel less empty. Never mind the fact that Ruth has been around this whole time, filling her life with devotion and love.
Give Naomi a couple men in her life and she'll be happy as a clam. Poor little, devoted Ruth.