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Overshadowed by the story of her famous daughter-in-law Ruth, Naomi’s story is both poignant and important. She is introduced into the Biblical narrative as the wife of Elimelech, a man of great wealth in the city of Bethlehem (in the territory of Judah). They have two sons. When famine strikes, rather than see his wealth depleted in local relief efforts, Elimelech decides to close up his house in Judea and leave. Elimelech, family in tow, heads to a more prosperous locale: Moab, was a nation with a history of less-than-friendly relations with the Israelites and had recently been at war with the inhabitants of the Judean territory.

Their self-imposed exile lasted many years. Long enough, that both of Naomi’s sons took wives from among the Moabites. Long enough, that Elimelech died in exile, as did her two sons. Left a widow, with two widowed daughter-in-laws, Naomi decided to return home to Judea and, at this point in the story, one learns the significance of Naomi’s name.

When she decides to return home, Naomi cannot bear to be called by her own name, which comes from the word na’im, meaning “pleasant” or “agreeable.” When she and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, arrive in Bethlehem “all the city was astir concerning them, and the women said: 'Is this Naomi?' And she said to them: 'Call me not Naomi, call me Marah; for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and God has brought me back home empty; why call me Naomi, seeing that God has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?'” (Ruth 1:19-21).

Neither history nor the people of Bethlehem at that time accepted Naomi’s declared name change, but it was included in the biblical narrative because of what it showed about Naomi as a person.

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