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Wherever you go, I will go, too

The story of Ruth and Naomi, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, who become sisters

«Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in the same house are like two wild mules in the same stall," the Italian writer Giovanni Verga once claimed, expressing a tried and tested consensus. For with all the implications and nuances of this situation, the difficulties of the relationship between the mother of a son and her son's wife, are, without doubt, evident for all to see. The exceptions are a breath of fresh air. Invaluable in their rarity.

I personally only know of two wonderful examples. In one, the mother-in-law vigorously took her daughter-in-law’s side when, around twenty years ago, her son left his wife with a young child  for another woman. The daughter-in-law, moreover, was foreign. But the mother-in-law had no doubts: her son was just a child who had grown up only in height and with the onset of wrinkles; to be a man, however, was a completely different matter (and the daughter-in law reminded her to continue to love him: he was after all still her son). The mother who defends her cubs even though it was not she who gave birth to them.

Or the cub defending the mother, even if it was not she who gave birth to him: we also know the story of a woman - the mother of a disabled child whose husband had abandoned them. When the mother-in-law was widowed and unable to live alone, she was taken into her son-in-law’s home. And there she lived until her final day

These four women all real and of great value, have integrated in their personal histories one of the most beautiful and incredible biblical narratives, the one which tells the mystery of unconditional love, the friendship that gives, without asking anything in return, capable of bearing fruit even where this is not humanly "necessary".

During the days of the Judges, a great famine forces a man from Bethlehem called Elimelech, to emigrate to the land of Moab with his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. There they settle, but soon after Elimelech dies. The sons marry two local women, Orpah and Ruth, but after about ten years they die, too. Naomi, evidently has lost everything and she tells her still young daughters- in-law: " Go, return each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband "

The young women are opposed to this, However Naomi insists: Orpah, kissing her, reluctantly leaves, but Ruth is adamant: " Do not press me to go back and abandon you!

Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die, and there be buried.

May the Lord do thus to me, and more, if even death separates me from you!

Seeing her so determined, Naomi accepts, and the two women make the return journey towards Israel together. This is the only biblical account which has at its centre a mother-in-law and a daughter in law.

Reflecting on this story, the choice of Ruth has something amazing about it. An example of heroic faithfulness and compassion, her decision entails abandoning her own people and joining one that is foreign, where to be different (in the past as in the present) is usually synonymous with hostility.

A courageous heroine of perseverance, Ruth - whose name means "friend" – turns back to face a journey which is not her own with Naomi ("my pretty, my sweetness”). She leaves her parents and all that she possesses in Moab, taking a vow of love and faith: she is not moved by prophetic voices, nor (like other "itinerant" biblical figures) was she invited by a messenger of God, she simply feels that she has a mission.

It is as if the bond between these two women was embodied by the reciprocal events in their lives: both were widowed, both were driven by the desire to survive adversities  and the dream of motherhood. The unity between them is spontaneous, signed with the famous words of Ruth: "Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.” The Book of Ruth has been seen for centuries as the shining example of a book which represents hospitality and generosity. The book of the family founded on fidelity.

It’s humanity and simplicity has generated great interest . In 1829, for example, Nicholas Tommaseo dedicated a poem in rhyme to it, followed by two novels, La nuora buona “the good daughter-in-law” (centred  on Ruth and Naomi) and La carità rispettosa “charity which is respectful” (Ruth and Boaz), which were first published in 1867. More recently, the writer Dacia Maraini (in the introduction to the book Ruth and Esther , 2001) points out the uniqueness of such a close link between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, especially in a "hierarchically predetermined” society in which jealousy regarding one’s children was brought about by the fact that, for women maternity represented the only way to play a key role in the family. Here, however, the two women, deprived of their husbands, support each other. In their "strange conversation" the friendship between Ruth and Naomi moves into the centre of the scene, and thus - according to Dacia Maraini – Ruth’s choice to follow Naomi into the land of Israel seems to be the only possible response to a patriarchal world.

Besides this, Ruth is a progenitor:  she is cited by Matthew in the opening to his Gospel as the foreigner who gave origins to the seed of David and thus to Christ (Matthew 1, 5). To such an extent that Erri De Luca (1999) has emphasized in it the "strength  of clinging to the vine which covers the base of the New Testament" (Ruth is also linked to the advent of Christ, a geographic tie, the city of Bethlehem, in Hebrew Bet Lehen, "house of bread", where Ruth follows her mother-in-law Naomi and where she will give birth to Obed).

Future generations of Jews and Christians, will come from Ruth, the foreigner.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 10, 2019