Faithfulness and redemption/4 – What if this "great night of God" was a long battle with the angel?
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 18/04/2021
"Attachment is ruinous, and it is your enemy. Anyone who forms a bond is lost".
Philip Roth, The Dying Animal
Naomi arrives in Bethlehem, together with Ruth, Once there, her dialogue with other women continues and, feeling condemned by God, she asks in vain not to be called "the sweet one" but "the bitter one".
«When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her» (The Book of Ruth 1,18). Ruth had just pronounced her declaration of unconditional loyalty to Naomi, who did not react; on the contrary, she seemed almost annoyed by her obstinacy ("she stopped urging her"). The one with the calling is Ruth called upon to follow Naomi, it is not Naomi hearing a calling to be with Ruth. Ruth is the one who sees her place in the world though that faithful relationship, not Naomi.
It is not uncommon to find these asymmetrical arrangements, this imperfect reciprocity in human vocations. Someone, clearly feels a calling, and interprets his or her name as part of following a person, a community, a charism. He or she leaves everything, takes off, cries, arrives. And once there, having arrived in the promised land, the person finds herself like Abraham in a foreign land, a non-resident guest, unwelcome by the inhabitants. Furthermore, sometimes the person we felt called towards seems almost annoyed to see us - or so it would seems to us, at least. These things happen (and can even last many months and years) because, quite simply, the voices calling us are greater than the people who embody them. No charismatic person is the actual charism: he or she lends it his or her voice, face and body, but the person is different and much smaller. People have limits, they make mistakes and commit sins; our ideals are not, they are pure and perfect. We start out in pursuit of an ideal and we inevitably find ourselves following people, and therefore also their limitations and their sins. Vocations cannot go bad if, and as long as, they manage to walk without being hindered by the limits and sins that only the path will reveal to us (not the first calling).
The decisive moment in Ruth's calling was facing the silence of the road, elaborating Naomi's non-words, accepting the sense that she is in the way, something that will continue even when she arrives in Bethlehem, when Ruth seems invisible in the dialogues that Naomi has with other women, unable to bring consolation or joy to Naomi. «So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”» (The Book of Ruth 1,19). Naomi returns to her city, ten years after she left with her husband and her two sons. Rabbinic traditions have interpreted this "turmoil" of the city in many different ways (the Bible is still very much alive thanks to its many interpretations of written and unwritten words). The Midrash Rabbah adds that on the day of Naomi's return the funeral of the wife of Boaz, Ruth's future "redeemer" was taking place, and «all of Israel gathered to pay homage to her».
The text still shows us an all-female environment: only women speak - "Can this be Naomi?!". The capacity of great literature to take us to the places of yesterday, is immense, transporting us to a square in Bethlehem, enabling us to smell the dust, seeing the women outside the tents and doors whispering that hushed word of mouth to each other, so typical of women of all times and cultures: "But is that woman Noemi?!". And then maybe adding: "My God, how she has aged!", "She was so beautiful when she left!", "I would not have recognized her". Words that are always painful to hear for anyone, especially for a woman, even more so when old age approaches and youth slips away: «In the past she used to travel in her sedan chair, now she walks barefoot, and you find yourself saying: "But can this be Naomi"? In the past, she wore clothes of the fines wool, now she is dressed in rags, and you find yourself saying: "But can this Naomi?"» (Midrash Rabbah, Parashah Gimel). Ancient, eternal scenes and scenes that can still be found today. You start out following a voice, almost always a real voice. Then comes misfortune, and you have to go back to those same whispers: "She looks so worn out", "Yet, she was so beautiful as a girl", "Poor woman"... You follow a husband, a wife. Then comes misfortune, outside or within the realms of your heart, and you go home: "But can this be Naomi?". It is not always bad; it is simply life with its ruthless discipline, something you only learn at the very end when perhaps it is no longer needed.
«“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter!"» (The Book of Ruth 1,20). Do not call me "the sweet one" (the meaning of the name Naomi), but Mara, "the bitter one". She wants to change her name. The Bible is familiar with name changes. It has told us about some memorable ones that marked highly decisive moments, starting from Abram-Abraham to Saul-Paul, continuing with the great battle at the Jabbok when Jacob became Israel, wounded and blessed by the angel (Genesis 32). This new name, however, is different, because Naomi only comes out of her struggle with God wounded, without any kind of blessing. Like Job (chap. 27). It is a name change, which is similar to that linked to another mother of Israel, along the same road to Bethlehem: «And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, “Don’t despair, for you have another son.” As she breathed her last - for she was dying -she named her son Ben-Oni. But his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)» (Genesis 35,17-19).
Perhaps, there is something feminine in these different kind of name changes. The names of the great characters in the Bible are changed by God, after a meeting, a theophany, a new mission, and they are generally male. With Naomi and Rachel the name is not changed by God, they change it themselves, or at least they try. In the Bible, a name indicates one’s destiny and vocation. There is a special spiritual harmony between women and the divine, and their unique relationship with life also earns them a kind of (almost) parity with the God of life - Eve is not only Adam's partner, she is also God's partner, in a different and more radical way than with her husband. Women are the creatures who most resemble God in giving life; this is why they are his great allies in an intimate relationship almost entirely unknown to us males. This partnership with God, however, also makes them his antagonists. Their fight is not the hand-to-hand combat of Jacob-Israel, nor that of Job; they do not like fighting in competitions, nor discussing God with "friends". The greatest meekness coexists with the greatest tenacity in women when their name and the name of a child are at stake.
Their different kind of fights have hardly ever been narrated in sacred books, sometimes we encounter them in literature or poetry, but they are well known to the hearts of women and to those who love and know them. They are the fights of mothers struggling to stop a child from dying: even when they know that it is not theirs, they fight until the very last second, until their last ounce of energy. And faced with the choice between saving God and saving a child, they would save the child (and this way, in their own way, the even save God, because they know that the true God does not want the death of children, and by saving a child they also save God from becoming worse). More than the God of theologians, women believe in the God of life, and ask him for reasons when life no longer responds when calling it by name. It is very difficult to deceive a woman in matters of life, not even God can. Therefore, they want to change their own names, when they feel that they are no longer true. Many men manage to live with fake names for a long time, but very few women succeed at all, hardly any woman succeeds for a long time, sooner or later she will ask to change it, and if she does not succeed she might even keep the fake name, but she will know full well what her real name is. «I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me» (The Book of Ruth 1,21). Full I have left, empty I have returned.
Here we have a perfect image not only of Naomi's cycle. It is in fact a wonderful description of the cycle of life, of the profession of becoming an adult. We leave full - with companion, possessions, youth, and hopes of happiness -, we return empty: alone, poor, with a shortened and lower horizon, unhappy. When this cycle of youth-adulthood is lived in faith, God can become responsible for this emptying. The Almighty has made me unhappy. El Shaddai, the Almighty, which the Greek translation of the Seventy translates as Pantokrator. One of God’s names which is very dear to us, but to understand it in Naomi’s context, we should not think of the splendid mosaic of Monreale, but rather of the God who smashed Job, (the name El Shaddai is not used much in the Bible, but almost exclusively in the book of Job).
It is typical of the beginning of adult faith to attribute our new unhappiness to God. We remember happy days, great hopes, endless dreams, especially friends and children; then, we look within and feel an infinite loneliness, a desolation inside and outside our heart. This is when the desire for a new name arises: Mara, because we see the first name as a sign of deception and illusion. It is time for the fight with the angel, for the fight with God, each in its own way, all of it necessary. Many atheisms arise from disappointments that have failed to become fights, or from fights from which we emerge exhausted or defeated. You do not always win in a fight with God: I have known honest "atheists" who had simply lost that fight, and fled the face that had crushed them - the biblical God is much more complex and ambivalent than we, too often, are told. What if this great "night of God" that has enveloped us for some time now, was merely a long nocturnal fight with an angel from El Shaddai who will bless us?
The Bible did not want Naomi's new name. For the rest of the book her name would not be Mara, but simply, still, Naomi, "the sweet one". The author, however, chose to keep that fight between Naomi and Mara in the book for us, perhaps to tell us that we are not the masters of our names and that we must continue to believe in it, even when it appears fake and no longer answers to us. Men and women together, even if women remind us of the infinite value of the truth of a name, that a real bitter name is better than a sweet but fake one, that a real cross is preferable to an invented resurrection.
«So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning» (The Book of Ruth 1,22).