King of Hopelessness, pt 4 (1:19-22)

וַתֵּלַכְנָה שְׁתֵּיהֶם עַד־בֹּאָנָה בֵּית לָחֶם וַיְהִי כְּ‍בֹאָנָה בֵּית לֶחֶם וַתֵּהֹם כָּל־הָעִיר עֲלֵיהֶן וַתֹּאמַרְנָה הֲזֹאת נָעֳמִי׃
וַתֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶן אַל־תִּקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי קְרֶאןָ לִי מָרָא כִּי־הֵמַר שַׁדַּי לִי מְאֹד׃
אֲנִי מְלֵאָה הָלַכְתִּי וְרֵיקָם הֱשִׁיבַנִי יְהוָה לָמָּה תִקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי וַיהוָה עָנָה בִי וְשַׁדַּי הֵרַע לִי׃
וַתָּשָׁב נָעֳמִי וְרוּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּה כַלָּתָהּ עִמָּהּ הַשָּׁבָה מִ‍שְּׂדֵי מוֹאָב וְהֵמָּה בָּאוּ בֵּית לֶחֶם בִּתְחִלַּת קְצִיר שְׂעֹרִים׃

So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?”

She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest. (ESV)

Name change. Here Naomi chooses to adopt a new name. Where Naomi means “celebration”, Mara means “bitterness.” She accepts that she has been handed a bad hand in life and wants to wallow in it. Of course at her side is a Moabite woman named Ruth, which means “friend.”

The Almighty. If you remember, earlier I mentioned that Naomi seems to believe that YHWH has a female consort. Here is where I first suspected it. Every time that Ruth speaks about her suffering, she does so in a couplet. She speaks of the LORD (יהוה, YHWH) and the Almighty (שַׁדַּי, SHDY). Most Christians have been taught that “The Almighty” is just another name for God, but Naomi does not seem to agree. The actions she speaks of are reciprocal, as in a partnership. SHDY does something, and then YHWH completes the action.

  • SHDY has dealt very bitterly with me…YHWH has brought me back empty.
  • YHWH testified against me and SHDY has brought calamity upon me.

Of course, there is nothing definitive about this, but archaeology has demonstrated quite plainly that the inhabitants of the Judean highlands believed that YHWH had a female consort, whether Torah allowed for it or not. This does not make their belief correct or normative, but it would not be out of keeping with what we now know. There is no reason why Naomi would not have believed this.

At this point, I need to take a bit of a rabbit trail. I have written elsewhere that David is the keystone of the Hebrew Scriptures, and I need to emphasize the point again. While the Genesis narratives, most of Torah and the Joshua/Judges stories existed in some form before David, the Hebrew language as a literary language did not. David’s reign is vital not just because of his rule but also because he unifies a Hebrew ideology. If you read David and the Monarchy first (1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings) and then go back and read Genesis-Numbers, Joshua and Judges, you will realize that those narratives took form during the Monarchy period. They contain in them the seeds of the Monarchy, of the claims of the House of David and the reasons why Ephraim rebels against them. (Sorry, spoilers.)

Therefore, it is not surprising in the least that early Israelites did not worship YHWH according to Torah. While Torah existed and many of its laws and customs are representative of cultural behavior, there is no reason to assume that they were monotheistic. This is especially true if we consider Deuteronomy to date from the time of Josiah (7th century BCE) instead of pre-dating the Monarchy. (It is called Deuteronomy, after all, which is Greek for “second law”.) But I digress, back to Ruth.

Barley Harvest. It might shock many readers to realize that barley in all its forms was a key component of the Judahite diet. Barley is not a fun grain to eat, and it does not make very good bread. Emmer wheat is far better for that. Barley is, however, good for feeding livestock and for making beer.

We possess cuneiform tablets dating to before 2500 BCE detailing the process of turning barley into beer. The Egyptians did it. The Sumerians did it. Everyone did it.

But why?

Beer is a great way to store carbohydrates for winter. The fermentation process produces alcohol which keeps the brew from going bad. Whereas grain can rot relatively quickly during the rainy season (which is all winter is in Judah), beer can last for months if stored underground or in caves where it is cool.

Beer actually features prominently in the story of Ruth. We know from archaeological research that the first beers were made from the spring harvest of the winter barley, which is when Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem.

Emmer wheat, which was the domesticated wheat available in Late Bronze Age Palestine, does not grow in the winter. It requires relatively dry conditions. Barley on the other hand sprouts quickly and grows well under wet conditions. Therefore, it was planted in the winter and harvested in the spring.

Not everyone finds the idea of the Hebrews drinking beer to be something they approve of. The simple question is, “What did the Hebrews offer to YHWH in their drink offerings? Kool-Aid?” A drink offering, or more appropriately a “poured offering” (נָסַךְ, nasak) was given in connection with the wave offering or sheaf offering (תְּנוּפָה, tanuwphah). When taken with the grain/bread offering (מִנְחָהminchah), it is pretty clear that there is a lot of emphasis on the derivatives of grains. While the drink offerings could be of wine, they were often of beer as well.

Hebrew Feast Days. In fact, the Hebrew religious calendar revolves around three important harvests: the lambing, the barley harvest and the wheat harvest.

The Pesach or Passover is celebrate in the early spring. This was when the lambs are born, and this is why the passover meal revolved around a lamb.

After Pesach, the Israelites were commanded to go home, harvest their barley, lay down their beer and then plant their emmer wheat. Then they were commanded to return and observe a festival of first fruits called Shavuot. This was the celebration of the barley harvest, and it figures prominently in Ruth.  

The first in-gathering of barley was threshed then malted in the wetness of the early spring. Then, the malt was turned into loaves which were crumbled into water, boiled and then allowed to ferment. At the end of the harvest, the fermented beer was drunk as a celebration.

Pesach and Shavuot were the important spring festivals of the calendar. They were the first two of the Shalosh Regalim, the holiest days of the year that required the entire nation to gather. The last is Sukkot or Tabernacles, which is observed at the end of the wheat harvest.

It isn’t hard to see the natural rhythms that dictated both spiritual and physical cycles in this agrarian world.

Don’t think, however, that the Hebrews were drunken slobs. Beer was a necessary item for them. Without it, they could not survive from harvest to harvest. The celebrations held at the festivals were not drunken orgies. The mood was not artificially created by alcohol and loss of inhibitions as many modern partiers seem to think is necessary. The harvest was cause for celebration, but the drunkard was still considered a fool.

Back to the Barley. So it is that we find Naomi and Ruth arriving in Bethlehem during the barley harvest. This meant they arrived at the perfect time for eligible bachelors to be looking for a wife. It also meant they arrived too late to plant Elimelech’s fields which had lain fallow for at least ten years.

We cannot be certain that Naomi was leveraging for a new husband for Ruth, but certainly she must have been aware of the presence of kinsman who could marry Ruth and continue the line. This particular arrangement is known as levirate marriage, and it was very common in the region. A man’s close male relation could marry his widow and their first child would inherit the dead man’s property. If they had only one child, then that child would inherit both men’s property. This fact is significant when we get to the end of the book. (No looking ahead!)

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