How was Naomi able to nurse Obed if she had not been pregnant for what we can assume to be many years? Is it possible that this is just a figure of speech and that she did not actually nurse the baby from her own breast?

I love your question, and I’m not sure biologically whether a woman can nurse past the age of childbearing. (Since I posted this answer on the discussion board I looked it up. The answer was surprising: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/WomensHealth/story?id=6257976&page=1), It’s quite possible, too, that Naomi was not all that old. The typical age of marriage was probably puberty, at least for a woman, so Naomi could have been bewailing her old age at age 25. In Ezekiel, God compares Jerusalem to a female infant that he rescued and raised, then married when she went into puberty:

“You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil.” (Despite God’s generous treatment of his “wife” Jerusalem, she cheats on him and then sacrifices his children on altars to foreign Gods. She is not the least bit grateful.)

While the above analogy is creepy, in my opinion, it does tell us when and how women became wives.

Yet another possibility is that the translation itself is misleading. I looked up the Hebrew word for nurse, ‘aman. It has a wide variety of translations. One word is foster parent, and that would make sense in this story, given the elaborate web of substitutions in this story, substitutions that go far beyond the typical “Levirate marriage” arrangement. For example, Boaz stands in for Elimelech, Ruth stands in for Naomi, the child is born to replace Mahlon and Chilion. In many cultures, a child had a biological parent and a foster parent. This happened in ancient Scotland, for example. Moses seems to have have had a biological mother and a foster mother but no father, and it’s interesting when the biological mother becomes the wet nurse (also translated “foster mother”) for him. So perhaps this story is telling us that Naomi becomes the child’s mother and Ruth becomes his “nurse.” Definitely confusing.

If you’re looking for a goddess connection, remember that Ruth was written at a time when the goddess Asherah had recently been forceably removed from the canon and from temple worship, so some second-temple bible stories tried to relocate Asherah’s function in metaphor and story. Asherah was a mother goddess. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish women:

On occasion in Ugaritic myth, Asherah performs the maternal role of wet nurse. Ugaritic and other Canaanite materials further associate Asherah with lions (indicating power), serpents (representing immortality or healing), and sacred trees (signifying fertility). Thus Asherah’s children at Ugarit can be called her “pride of lions”; the goddess is called “lady of the serpent” in second-millennium B.C.E. inscriptions from the Sinai; the late-thirteenth-century B.C.E. Lachish ewer dedicated to Asherah is decorated with images of sacred trees.

‘Aman also means “trust” or “trusted one.” In that sense, then, Naomi might have been a godmother or a guardian. In Esther, Esther’s uncle Mordecai takes her under his wing or adopts her because she is an orphan. He becomes her ‘aman. But their mortal enemy is Haman, which is the same exact word, here used as “faithful servant” to the king. So the story plays on the symmetry where two words are pronounced the same but used in opposite ways. In short, it’s like a pun. By the end, the ‘aman and Haman are fighting it out to either save or destroy the Hebrew people. Haman creates a gallows to hang ‘aman, but Haman ends up hanging on it. Twist!

In Deuteronomy, ‘aman means to be faithful. It is usually used in the negative there, as when Moses chides the descendants of the Israelites for being “unfaithful” to God.

Another translation of the word ‘aman is “pillar.” In that sense it is related to “stand firm” or “be truthful.” (It is an ancestor to our word “amen.” ) There is a line in Revelation where the original Hebrew word is invoked (despite the fact that Revelation was written in Greek): “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation.” Generally–because they are Christian, not Jewish–translators associate the “Amen” with Jesus, which allows us to think what is implied in John–that Jesus was an aspect of God from the beginning but was “born from above” and then returned there. But when I read “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation,” I always think of the female Wisdom (Chokmah), who is described in Proverbs as helping God create the world. So the goddess Wisdom was the ‘aman or foster mother to the human race. 

At any rate, the word ‘aman has a wide web of associations, and those can vary by gender. It generally means “the one who is truthful [or who stands firm, or who believes, or who is a pillar, or who fosters.”] Here is an article that goes into more detail: https://www.abarim-publications.com/Dictionary/a/a-m-nfin.html

What makes Hebrew fun is that one word can mean so many things. Remember that Hebrew had many fewer words than English does.  I always wonder how translators make the decisions they do. One thing is certain, though; any  English translation greatly oversimplifies a word that had complex associations for the authors who used them. When we translate, we have to pick one English equivalent, but the truth is that translators understood ‘aman to mean all those things.

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