Should Ruth's being a Moabite have excluded David from being king?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Deuteronomy 23:3 says that no Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord, but Ruth was a Moabite (who begot Obed, who begot Jesse, who begot David the king, etc.). So, shall none of the genealogy of Jesus enter the assembly of the Lord?

“No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.” (Deuteronomy 23:3, NIV)

Answer: There are several plausible solutions to the “problem” of Ruth being a Moabite… and I’ll give you the simplest one first. No matter what Ruth’s heritage was, Boaz’s would have trumped it genealogically. Her pagan roots would mean nothing to her progeny in the shadow of Boaz’s paternal Jewishness, let alone redeeming her and marrying their mother/matriarch. The children would have been ritually clean through the father’s seed, the family’s intentions… and their activities would have been policed by the watchful eyes of the community.

So, if there was anything wrong with Ruth or Obed entering the assembly of the Lord, someone in the community would have protested. Besides, we have a precedent here. The nation Israel itself had several pagan “mothers.” Remember when, unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel stole her father Laban’s household gods on the way out the door — on her way to start a new life as a Jewish matriarch (Genesis 31:19, 34) — and she hid them, lied about it to her father, did not return them… and kept them only inches from the birth canal that would produce Joseph and Benjamin, who would account for three of the named tribes of Israel… and her sister Leah another six! Now, Rachel and Leah were not Ammonites or Moabites specifically, but my point is that the male identity and community/covenant acceptance trumps even egregious paganism.

Note also that Moses married a Midianite woman (Zipporah), and that Joseph — Israel’s “savior” at some level — contributed two tribes to Israel through an Egyptian wife. As such, I don’t see where the winsome Ruth would have had any trouble being accepted as a Jewish woman… especially in Boaz’s shadow… although I do agree that Deuteronomy 23:3 was written after all that, so it could still be said that this prohibition took effect after these early exceptions. But I think the overall rule still stood: ritual purity is not all about genetics. It’s about identifying with the true God.

The second solution is just as plausible. God set up these rules as a guide for his people, but he reserves the right to make exceptions. A holy God will not allow his people to get in any trouble by integrating the occasional Ruth or Rahab into the messianic line… but this is not true of his people. They will start worshipping idols if left on there own to mix with the nations (Deuteronomy 7:2-5). So, the term “No Moabite or Ammonite” doesn’t apply to God. It’s the people who are not allowed to start such relationships. But when God hands one to them, they have to accept that person… even if she’s not a nice Jewish girl.

Remember, God struck Moses’ sister Miriam with leprously for speaking evil against Zipporah, Moses’ foreign wife (Numbers 12:10) — and Miriam was a highly placed and pedigreed Jewish woman! So, here is a principle of transcendence: the One who draws the lines does not have to stay within the lines because he transcends them. Our job is to support the work that God is doing, not accuse him of breaking his own rules.

A third solution is that Ruth was not a Moabite genetically, but was really already a Jew. There are many passages showing that Moab was conquered and that its people were driven out (Numbers 21:26-29; Deuteronomy 2:32-34; Deuteronomy 3:12-16, etc.)… and there were no Moabites left to be. So, when the Bible calls Ruth a Moabite, it is saying that she is from the geography we know as Moab… not that she was a Moabite by blood.

This is plausible on some level… but it feels ad hoc. I’ll agree that the Jews routinely lived in other countries. That defined them during the diaspora! But this interpretation makes me nervous because, although the Bible doesn’t tell us what type of Moabite Ruth was — and that’s the main argument here — I see where it implies it.

In Ruth 1:15, Naomi tells Ruth that her sister-in-law went back to her people and her gods… and to me, this shows that both women at least had a covenant relationship with those pagan people… and that’s more important than blood. Ruth disavows her pagan proclivities by forming a new covenant with Naomi and her God. That’s how conversion works! We were all pagans on some level before we were believers.

“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.” (Ruth 1:16, NIV, emphasis mine)

Besides, I’m always a little nervous when we push the common understanding of how language works like this… and this interpretation stretches what would be commonly understood when we read that Ruth was a Moabite. God is looking more to reveal than conceal, so why would he bury such an important truth if Ruth were actually a Jew?

One commentator went as far as to use the fact that David did indeed go into the assembly as “evidence” that Ruth was Jewish… figuring that the ten generation block was so rigid that even God could not overcome it… and that, therefore, Ruth had to be Jewish! That presentation of the facts is a good example of the tail wagging the dog. But its biggest problem is that the reasoning is circular. You can’t prove Ruth by David and David by Ruth in the same argument.

A fourth solution (which is my preferred and final solution) uses Isaiah 56:1-8 as a lens for interpreting Deuteronomy 23:3… you know… in that “compare Scripture with Scripture” kind of way. But before we begin that, let’s ask ourselves, what was God doing with this rule about the Moabites?

God set up the restrictions in Deuteronomy 23 to punish the people who impeded his people when they were fleeing Egypt. These people insulted the Jews collectively… so, God, in turn, dishonored them collectively… and this is where we get the phrase “No Ammonite or Moabite…” (Emphasis mine.)

But since people like Ruth and Rahab found grace in God’s sight (as well as a place in the Messiah’s lineage), the term “No” cannot mean “No… absolutely not… and under no circumstances!” These are the people’s restrictions concerning the Amorites, not God’s. God was saying to the Jews, this is how you will conduct normal business. But Ruth was not normal business. God can make the exception for anyone he wants… and the fact that he brings foreigners into his family should start to sound like redemption to the trained ear.

You see, there were rules regarding us, too. We have all sinned (Romans 3:23) and we were all therefore condemned (Romans 6:23a). This is why God said to us, not one you Moabites (sinners) can enter my presence! But he sent the kinsman-redeemer to die for us (Jesus is like Boaz in this way), and we, like Ruth may “marry” him… and God sees us then as one of his people, not as one of that despised race.

I’ve found this solution well articulated at ad Dei Gloriam Ministries, and since I can’t improve on their presentation, I’ll paste in the critical section below. But I recommend that you follow the link at the end of this citation to read the entire article. It’s very well considered.

So, in light all the previously mentioned Scripture, how can we argue that the marriage of Ruth and Boaz was not prohibited by the OT Scriptures?  Fortunately, we interpret this particular marriage in the full context of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we have yet to exhaust.  Isaiah 56:1-8 is a wonderful section of Scripture which pertains not only to Ruth, but addresses the salvation of all foreigners and blessings for all nations.  It is one of my favorites, so we present it with emphasis:

This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.  Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”  And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”  For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant - to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.

And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant - these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.  Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”  The Sovereign LORD declares — he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”

Therefore, to those individuals of any foreign nation who have bound themselves to the Lord, serving, loving and worshiping Him, and holding fast to His covenant, the curse is lifted.  Just as it is with us today, when we commit ourselves to the Lordship of Christ, the curse is no longer valid.  It is gone and forgotten.

In Ruth’s case, she commits herself wholly to the God of Israel, swearing an oath to Naomi that “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ru 1:16).  So, Ruth becomes a Jew by covenantal confession.  In addition, Ruth’s bold proposal to Boaz as her kinsman redeemer (Ruth 3) indicates that she no longer saw herself as a foreigner, but as one subject to the Jewish laws and traditions.  Likewise, Boaz’s response signifies that his thoughts were consistent with hers.  So, Boaz did not marry Ruth the pagan worshiper of Chemosh, but Ruth the dedicated follower of God.

Some might ask, does Isaiah 56:1-8 then contradict with Ex 34:10-16, Dt 7:1-6 and Dt 23:3-6?  Not at all.  We’ve seen from the cases of Rahab, Ruth and the nations involved in the conquest, that the basis for the judgments and pronouncements were on religious and spiritual grounds, rather than ethnical.  Thus, when we evaluate each in this context, along with the whole of Scripture, we find the texts to be complimentary.  We can even view the Isaiah text as an “exception” or “qualification” to the other texts, a practice that is quite common in the Bible.

For example, this built-in “exception clause” was delivered by God to the prophet Jeremiah: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it” (Jer 18:7-10).  Therefore, judgment clauses are often dependent upon the response or spiritual state of the recipient.  Even in Ezra, who extended the prohibitions of intermarriage from the seven Canaanite nations to all foreigners, we see that those who separated themselves from pagan practices were allowed to participate in the Jewish Passover (Ezra 6:21).

In addition, qualifications are not limited to the OT only.  For example, when Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name” (Jn 14:13, see also Mt 7:7, Jn 15:16 and 16:23), a cursory reading could give us the impression that this is an unconditional or universal guarantee.  Examining the remainder of Scripture however, we see many qualifications or hindrances to answered prayer, such as having sin in our lives (Ps 66:18, 1Pe 3:7), asking with a lack of faith (Mk 11:24, Ja 1:6-7) or with wrong motives (Ja 4:3), exhibiting a lack of persistence (Lk 11:5-8, 18:1) and finally, failing to ask according to God’s will (1Jn 4:14-15).  Another good example involves Jesus’ teaching on divorce, where Mt 19:9 qualifies Mk 10:11.

ad Dei Gloriam Ministries

I’ve given you only four solutions to the Ruth “problem” … but remember how this works: even if only one is plausible, then there is no actual contradiction. What we have instead is a discussion… and thank you for getting it going.

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