Ruth: Intimations of Inclusivity

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?  Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—  would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

The lovely little story of Ruth comes as a breath of fresh air, placed as it is in the Christian Bible following the bloody holy wars of Joshua and the cyclical anarchy of Judges. In the Hebrew Bible, it is placed in the Ketuvim, or Writings, a very varied collection which also includes Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

Set “in the time of the judges”, the story tells of a famine which causes an Israelite family living near Bethlehem to cross the border into Moab and live there “for a while”, which turns out to be about ten years. During that time, the two sons grow up, marry Moabite women, and die, along with their father. The three widowed women must now decide what to do to survive. Naomi, the Israelite mother in the story, advises her daughters-in-law to return to their own people and start a new life. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi and insists on returning to Bethlehem with her. When they arrive, she supports Naomi by gleaning, which was a physically demanding and possibly dangerous job for a single, young, female foreigner. After a few plot twists and turns worthy of a Jane Austen novel or BBC drama series, there is a happy ending. Ruth marries a good man; they live happily ever after; and she winds up being the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, David.

What’s most interesting to me about this story is that the heroine in this story, Ruth, is an outsider, a Moabite. To say that Moabites were not well-tolerated by observantly religious Israelites would be an understatement. They were thought to be the descendants of the incestuous liaison between a drunken Lot and his older daughter. They were not helpful or hospitable to the Israelites in the time of their wilderness wanderings, and their religious practices included child sacrifice, among other bad things. There are a number of places in the Bible which explicitly command Israelites to avoid interaction and relationship with Moabites. For example. Deuteronomy states that “no Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation.” Nehemiah relates proudly that  “Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.” In the book of Ezra, Israelites vow to divorce their foreign-born wives and send them away, along with their children as a sign of their faithfulness to God. “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. 3 Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.” 

And then we have this story of Ruth, which seems to run completely counter to that kind of thinking. Ruth’s marriage to Boaz is not only okay; but seems to be given a stamp of approval from God himself. She becomes the ancestress of the entire Davidic line of kings, and eventually of Jesus, the Son of God. Perhaps God is more inclusive than we think.  And that’s good news to me.