Naomi is a victim. Given the ancient cultural norms, she had no choice but to go with her husband. When he died, she had to depend on her sons to provide for her. When they died, she had no one to care for her. Her only choice was to return to her father’s house.
That basic story is about thousands of women in the time of the Judges. What’s more, it is the story of women all around the western Mediterranean. Disruptions filled the several centuries from about 1400 to 1000 BC. The major powers that provided stability to the region were in decline and numerous smaller groups, like Israel, were flexing their muscles. In addition to constant warfare, earthquakes plagued the region more than usual.
During the chaos, a famine struck Israel. It was so widespread that Elimelech could not go to the tribal neighbors but had to trek all the way east of the Dead Sea to Moab. Anyone who has visited the region will describe it as near desert, so that suggest how bad the famine must have been.
You might remember that God warned His chosen ones not to marry outside the twelve tribes. He even commanded the elimination of outsiders. There is no hint of that in this story.
In this first reading, we get the unpleasant side of the events: Naomi is stranded with two Moabite in-laws. We can be nearly certain other Israelites lived in Moab. There was likely a group who traveled from Bethlehem. But two things happened upon the death of her sons: Naomi found little support in the small Israelite community and word came that the famine had broken.
Even if those two things had not occurred, Naomi’s sense of loyalty pushed her to go home.
That is the message of this part of the story. We are always able to return to God.
The secondary message is that outsiders are welcome.
This message from God is particularly important today, given the debates over immigration into the US as well as that into Europe. Many people are opposed to the influx for questionable reasons. They are ignorant; they are criminals; they steal; they take our jobs; they are not white. None of those are acceptable reasons to prevent people from entering the country. Let me alter that, criminals should not be accepted, but we cannot simply say that all Mexicans are criminals.
In the Nineteenth Century, the US passed hundreds of laws forcing groups of immigrants to live in designated areas like the ghettos of Europe. We called ours by other names: Indian reservations, Chinese labor camps, Japanese farms, Mexican camps, the other side to the tracks, Black apartheid laws.
Today, we are trying to use stonewalling as a technique to turn away people we don’t want. People from Mexico and Central American are simply told to wait at the border. Many wait so long they are forced to either try to sneak in or return home to be killed by the gangs.
What I am suggesting is that we be sure we are turning people away for the right reasons—God’s reasons.
Be righteous and do good.