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7 unexpected lessons I learned from Ruth and Naomi

Whither Thou Goest, by Sandy Freckleton Gagon

As far as Old Testament stories go, the Book of Ruth is truly unique for a number of reasons. It is one of the few stories in scripture of women interacting with other women, and it teaches us some powerful lessons about grief, friendship, and sisterhood.

And in studying this week’s “Come, Follow Me” chapters and listening to the Sunday on Monday study group podcast for this week’s lesson, I found some new gems that have changed my outlook on my own female friendships.

The Book of Ruth is literally the Book of Friendship

The word root for the name “Ruth”—in Hebrew, “Rooth”—means “friendship” or “friend.” So the Book of Ruth would roughly equate to the Book of Friendship in Hebrew. And when you think of how friendship was all Ruth and Naomi had during a time of serious grief and uncertainty, that name has extra-special meaning.

The introduction to the book of Ruth in the Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual states, “The book of Ruth is one of only two books in the Old Testament named after a woman and presents an example of a woman of faith, strength, and kindness. The book is characterized by hope and optimism, describing Ruth and Naomi’s journey from sadness to happiness, and from emptiness to fulness.”

I can say with certainty that most of my deepest, truest friendships are characterized by journeys through times of hope, optimism, happiness, sadness, emptiness, and fullness, and I love that we get to see that illustrated in the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth uniquely highlights female experience and observations

On an episode of the “Sunday on Monday” podcast, author, scholar, and BYU professor emeritus Camille Fronk Olson said about the Book of Ruth, “We just don’t know who the author is. But because the female voice in this throughout the four chapters is so different from any of the other book of scripture in the Old Testament, that many have suggested this could have been written by a woman. Clearly, whoever wrote this reflected the purity of female experience and female observations, that at least they understood and listened to women to be able to do this. And maybe it was written by a woman.”

In 2004, Relief Society General President Bonnie D. Parkin quoted Sister Marjorie Hinckley, saying, “Oh, how we need each other. Those of us who are old need you who are young. And, hopefully, you who are young need some of us who are old. It is a sociological fact that women need women. We need deep and satisfying and loyal friendships with each other.”

As we look at this unique story of women interacting with other women—something that does not happen often in scripture—we can easily see the importance of love, compassion, and female friendship and learn how to support, comfort, and build deeper friendships with others.

Naomi loved her daughters-in-law enough to let them go

Countless love songs and poems have been written throughout the ages with the sentiment, “If you love someone, let them go.”

Naomi clearly cared about her sons’ widows. In Ruth 1:4, it says that after her husband died, Naomi, her sons, and their wives Ruth and Orpah lived together in Moab for about 10 years. After a decade together, they would understandably grow comfortable with and deeply fond of one another. I can only imagine the friendship and sisterhood that would come from years together in such close quarters, likely traveling, celebrating, conversing, participating in family responsibilities, and sharing memories together.

Then after both her sons died, Naomi calls Ruth and Orpah “my daughters” in verses 11 and 12 but tearfully asks them to go home to their families. Naomi knew Orpah and Ruth were not her daughters by blood, so she couldn’t ask them to stay with her. And since all three women were all now widowed, at least these two might have a better chance of a new life—potentially a new marriage or a life unfettered by the poverty of widowhood—if they returned to their own families. Yet I can’t imagine any caring mother-in-law, especially one who is grieving, easily encouraging two friends—daughters even—to leave her after she‘d spent ten years of her adult life with them.

But Naomi prayed for the Lord to deal kindly with Orpah and Ruth (see Ruth 1:8), and loved them enough to ask them to go.

Friendship can overcome religious and cultural differences

Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion moved to Moab because of a great famine in Bethlehem (see Ruth 1:1). So when Ruth met and married Naomi’s son, Mahlon, Ruth was a Moabitess. The Moabites lived, believed, and worshipped differently from how Naomi and her family did. Ruth’s Moabite family were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot, but they worshipped the god Chemosh and not Jehovah.

After her own husband died, Ruth chose to stay with Naomi. But now they were both widows without any way of providing for themselves. So their plan was to return to Bethlehem, where Naomi had family that they could literally “glean” support from—but it was also a country where Ruth would be seen as a stranger and a foreigner. And yet Ruth still chose to leave the world she was familiar with to stay with and support her mother-in-law, Naomi.

That level of bravery on Ruth’s part—to choose to leave behind her own people and heritage and culture—shows her devotion to Naomi and her faith in their friendship.

Tragedy can lead to deeper friendships

Think about the hardships these three women have been through collectively: Matriarch Naomi first dealt with famine in Bethlehem and the difficult decision to leave the land and culture she was familiar with. Then she lost her husband. While they were in Moab, Naomi’s sons met and married wonderful women, but then all three women suffered loss again as those two men—beloved sons and husbands—died, too. Neither Ruth nor Orpah ever had any children, and that shared battle of infertility or desire to raise a family could have been a shared trial for their families as well.

Both Ruth and Orpah protested (see Ruth 1:8) when Naomi first told them to return home, and the women wept together in verses 9 and 14—certainly in mourning, but also likely as they shared tearful goodbyes. This collective experience of shared loss and recent tragedy certainly must have brought all three women to an extra-special place of love and compassion for one another as they all grieved the loss of these beloved men and looked forward to their very uncertain respective futures.

There is no wrong way to grieve

Everyone experiences grief in their own unique way, and these three women had very different responses to their loss:

Naomi’s given name means “pleasant,“ but in her state of grief in Ruth 1:20, she asks to be called “Mara,” meaning “very bitter or sad.”

As she was grieving, Orpah chose to obey Naomi’s request and return to her own Moabite family. This was almost surely not an easy decision for Orpah, but possibly one she made to ease her own grief and ease the burden on the mourning matriarch Naomi.

In her grief, Ruth chose to stay with Naomi. We don’t know what kind of family support systems Orpah and Ruth had with their respective families in Moab. Maybe Ruth chose to stay because she knew she could find more comfort with Naomi and they could heal together.

Sometimes in our own grief, we turn to our familiar family roots for comfort, as Orpah did. Other times, like Ruth, we bury ourselves in the service of others or find peace in deep connections of friendship. And neither choice is wrong.

Good friends can lead to other unexpected blessings

After Naomi and Ruth moved back to Bethlehem and Ruth began gleaning wheat from Boaz, Boaz only knew about Ruth from her reputation (see Ruth 2:6).

In Ruth 2:11–12, Boaz says, “It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The Lord recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.”

Because Boaz knew how kind Ruth had been to Naomi, his distant relative, he told his reapers not to harm her and asked them to leave extra wheat in the field for her to gather. And Ruth wasn’t used to this level of kindness, especially as a foreigner, a Moabite, in Israel. But Ruth’s compassion and devotion to her mother-in-law kept the both of them from starving and eventually led to Ruth’s marriage to Boaz.

For more insights into this week’s Come, Follow Me lesson and future study discussions, listen to the Sunday on Monday podcast here.

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