Ruth and Naomi – A Mother-Daughter Love Story

Stories of mothers and daughters abound in literature and legends but there is only one story of a mother-daughter  relationship in Tanakh – the tale of Ruth and Naomi.  Though Ruth is not Naomi’s daughter by birth, she is by spirit; the older woman addresses her as “my daughter” (biti) again and again.  Precisely because Ruth is not flesh-of-her-flesh, bone-of-her-bone, this story becomes the paragon tale of loving-kindness (hesed).  Naomi tries to discourage her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, from following her to Beit Lehem, three times adjuring them to turn back to the Land of Moab.  Orpah then takes her advice, returning to her homeland.  But Ruth, named for loyal friendship, reut, swears on oath that she will never leave Naomi in one of the most beautiful ‘love’ poems of the Tanakh:

For wherever you go, I will go;

Wherever you lie, I will lie;

Your people shall be my people,

And your God my God.

Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.

Thus and more may God do to me

If anything but death parts me from you. (Ruth 4:16-17)

Her love for her mother-in-law surpasses filial devotion (as there is no biological bond); rather, Ruth offers a love based on the commitment to abide by Naomi’s side until death parts them.

Yet Naomi does not initially understand the blessing that Ruth offers her, for she answers these words of love with her own poem of rankled bitterness.  Upon returning to Beit Lehem, widowed, bereft, and penniless, all her land sold, the women all greet her, as a Greek chorus: “Is this Naomi?” And she answers them in a Job-like lament:

Call me not Naomi, Call me Mara [bitter]

For Shaddai has sorely embittered me.

I went away full, and God has brought me back empty [reikam].

How can you call me Naomi?

When God has humiliated me,

When Shaddai has brought evil upon me! (Ruth 1:20-21)

Naomi disowns her name, meaning sweetness or pleasure pleasantness’ (na’im), and calls herself, instead, Mara.  In dire pessimism, she is prepared to contract into a bitter lot.   Indeed, she would be the female counterpart to Job if Ruth was not by her side — this young woman would prove to be better than seven sons to her (4:15), enabling the redemption of her lands and giving birth to a grand-child, whom Naomi herself would nurse and mother (vv. 16-17).  Ruth will sweeten those bitter waters.

The season bodes hope, for they return to the Land of Judah around the time of the barley harvest. Naomi only becomes fully aware of the true gift Ruth promises her when she returns from the night spent with Boaz at the threshing floor.  Before leaving at dawn, Boaz asks Ruth to hold out her shawl, “and he measured out six [measures] of barley” (3:15).  The commentators in the Talmud query:  was it six grains or six bushels of barley? Would it have been the custom of Boaz to give only six grains?  Yet six bushels would have been too much for one woman to carry! Instead, in these six grains he intimated to her that six descendants were to come from her, each blessed with six blessings: David, the Messiah, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah…” (b. Sanhedrin 93b).

From the threshing floor, she carries away not only the hope of redemption for her mother-in-law, but the portent of salvation for the nation, the Cosmos, even history.  What an auspicious gift! Yet when Ruth returns with the six grains of barley, Naomi asks an odd question, “Who are you my daughter (Mi at biti)?” (3:16). Just as Naomi was not recognized by the women of the town upon her return to Beit Lehem, Ruth now seems unrecognizable.  Yet Naomi’s surprise stands in contrast with their alarm upon her return; perhaps she does not recognize the hope radiant in Ruth’s face.  Yet one can read the question with an alternative intonation: “Have you really become my daughter? (Mi? At biti?)” Ruth answers her, supposedly quoting Boaz (though he never said these words):   “He gave me these six [measures of] barley, saying to me, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty [reikam]‘” (3:17).  She is echoing Naomi’s original lament, “I went away full, and God has brought me back empty [reikam]” (1:21).  How little it takes to turn from despair to hope: six grains of barley wrapped in a shawl!

We look at our daughters and often do not see the blessing they bring us.  For Naomi, it took time for her to recognize this in her daughter-in-law.  And then there were moments of surprise, even pleasure.  Ruth enabled Naomi, who called herself Mara (bitter), to reclaim her namesake, na’im (sweetness, pleasure).  She healed those bitter waters.  I would like to bless you this Shavuot with the loving-kindness of Ruth and the ability to see the sweetness in your daughters, to see what a mere six grains of barley can carry.

*Originally published as an article for J-Post, “Kol Isha” Column May 2009

One Response to “Ruth and Naomi – A Mother-Daughter Love Story”

  1. Joyce Hunter says:

    Thank you for this lovely discussion. I am preparing a Mother’s Day program for my church and have decided to use this theme – and you have said it so well. I hope you will approve my use of this material in my programming.

    May you be blessed!

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