But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Ruth 1:8 JPS
Mother’s house – There are only two other places where the mother’s house appears in Scripture. One is in Genesis 24:28, the other in Song of Songs 3:4 and 8:2. “Turn back to your mother’s house” isn’t the kind of advice we would expect. If these widowed women are to find new husbands, they would be expected to return to their family homes, the homes of their fathers. So why does Naomi make such an unusual suggestion?
As we discover from the ensuing blessing, Naomi wants what she perceives is the best for her two daughters-in-law. In other words, she wants them to remarry. She wants them to find security, to have children, to become integrated in community. And, from her perspective, this means returning to the oversight of their mothers who will prepare them once again for suitable husbands. This unusual statement is nothing more than Naomi’s heartfelt desire that these women will find comfort and fulfillment through their original families.
But maybe there’s just a bit more. Maybe we need to look harder at the connections to the only other places where beit ‘immah (house of mother) is used. The Genesis account is about Rebekah who runs to the beit ‘immah to report the arrival of Abraham’s servant. It has often been noted that the father doesn’t appear in this story. The mother and the brother of Rebekah are the other players in the drama. Most suggest that Rebekah’s father was dead. Some suggest that the family units of that culture were matriarchal. Regardless of the actual history, what is certainly true is the close connection between daughter and mother, but a connection that is not so tight it prevents Rebekah from deciding to follow the direction of the Lord and accompany Eliezer. Rebekah’s story is also a story of going out and “returning” to a foreign land. Perhaps there are more parallels here than we initially thought.
That leaves us with the “mother’s house” references in Song of Songs. Of course, these verses were written after the story of Ruth, so in one sense the use of the term in Song of Songs doesn’t offer proper exegetical background. But it does tell us about the framework of the “mother’s house” in later Scriptural context. What we find is that “mother’s house” is a place of sexual intimacy; in fact, in verse 4, it is the place of conception. What Naomi is missing is posterity. What she anticipates is the end of her line. Perhaps the reference to “mother’s house” is a disguised hope for children and the continuation of the lines of her daughters-in-law, even if she is at the end of her own name.
The story of Ruth culminates in a new line, a line that includes foreigners and the healing of generational factions. Naomi foreshadows this grand conclusion in the first words she utters. “Turn back” so that you might live again through those to come. Little does she know what God has in mind for her perceived barrenness. Only in this context does the proclamation of the women of Bethlehem make sense, for they do not rejoice over the child of Ruth but over the “child” of Naomi.
Topical Index: mother’s house, beit ‘immah, Genesis 24:28, Rebekah, Song of Songs 3:4, Ruth 1:8