Some Uncommon Thoughts About the Book of Ruth
The scriptural narrative of the promised land that Israel would come to inhabit included two different streams of thought: one of total separation from the surrounding nations, and another that recognized a possibility for inclusion. Deuteronomy and Joshua include commands of a fierce and unyielding separation from the nations that Israel would come to inhabit. However you interpret the book of Joshua—see some of my thoughts here and here—what is abundantly clear is a radical separation from the nations Israel would be inhabiting in practices and relationships, which also meant intermarriage was forbidden.
From this stream, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah emerge when the Israelites began to intermarry with the surrounding nations. The Israelites’ sin of intermarriage in these books is considered apostasy and a violation of God’s law with no exceptions mentioned. The rationale is that these nations would certainly lead Israel to apostasy so there needed to be distance in relationships and protection of the identity of God’s holy people. Consider this section of Ezra:
“When these matters had been concluded, the leaders approached me with this report: ‘Neither the Israelite laymen nor the priests nor the levites have kept themselves aloof from the peoples of the land and their abominations [Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites]; for they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and thus have desecrated the holy race with the peoples of the land. Furthermore, the leaders and rulers have taken a leading part in this apostasy!” (Ezra 9:1-2)
In chapter 10, the Israelites decide the solution to this apostasy is to divorce their wives, sending them away with their children (10:3, 44, see also Neh. 13:23). The Bible is silent on whether this was the only viable option for dealing with Israel’s sin of intermarriage.
However, there is a second stream of Old Testament thought that both gives caveats and, arguably, throws a big log in this first stream, channeling the waters in a different direction.
For one, in Deuteronomy there are multiple admonitions to care for the foreigner and alien among you, and not mistreat them. For example, Deuteronomy 24:17-18 (NAB) says:
“You shall not violate the rights of the alien or of the orphan, nor take the clothing of a widow as a pledge. For remember, you were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, ransomed you from there; that is why I command you to observe this rule.”
Even the Egyptian, Israel’s original “enemy,” is given special precedent to be treated kindly and ultimately accepted into the Israelite community (see Deut. 23:7-8). In the Genesis narrative, we see positive depictions of Egyptians (like Hagar) and other races (even Canaanites who are initially allies of Abraham). In fact, Abraham himself is depicted as coming from the ancestors of the Babylonians.
Even when we get to the conquest narrative of Joshua, we find breaks in the narrative to show positive examples of foreign people in the nations Israel would inhabit. At the very beginning (Josh. 2), we see Rahab the prostitute who gives her allegiance to the God of Israel and so is accepted into the Israelite community.
A little later in the narrative, we see the cunning of the Gibeonites who trick the Israelites into a treaty because of their fear of the God of Israel (Josh. 9). Hundreds of years later in the biblical narrative, we see David come to the aid of the Gibeonites because of the decision they made during the time of Joshua (1 Sam. 21:1-14).
From this second stream in the Old Testament, the book of Ruth emerges.
The book of Ruth is about the marriage of a Moabite woman (Ruth) to an Israelite man (Boaz). Ruth is called an eshet chayil, a “worthy woman” or a “woman of valor,” and some scholars believe that Boaz is given the imagery of God Himself as a refuge who spreads his “wings” over Ruth in protection. There may be word play in Ruth 3:9 since the word for robe used here can also be translated as “wing.”
Some scholars consider Ruth a polemic against the strong prohibitions of Nehemiah and Ezra (Note: since throughout much of their history these books have often been combined into one, I’ll refer to them from now on as Ezra-Nehemiah). One purpose of this article will be to show that calling Ruth a polemic against Ezra-Nehemiah is going too far. It is true that the book of Ruth itself supposes it was written long after the events it records (see Ruth 1:1; 4:7). Yet, while I am unsure of how these scholars come to the conclusion that Ruth was written after Ezra-Nehemiah or that it is written in response to Ezra-Nehemiah, these scholars do have a point given that there is clearly tension between the messages of Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah.
Let’s assume for a moment that these scholars’ conclusions are accurate in these two assertions. If Ruth were written after Ezra-Nehemiah, the writer of Ruth likely thought that, in zeal for holiness and separation from the surrounding nations, many Jews had forgotten this other stream of thought which upheld the foreigner, stranger, and widow no matter where they were from. The author of Ruth seems to be saying, “Yes, the nations surrounding us are corrupt and we need to keep our distance, but there are people among them who would be willing to give their allegiance to the God of Israel just as Rahab and the Gibeonites did. There are foreigners who can be included.”
Ruth can be seen as a counter-balance to the fierce admonitions of Ezra and Nehemiah. I would not call it a polemic, but a gentle reminder that there is not just one side to this story, and both sides need to be taken into account.
Consider what scholar Joshua Berman observes about the book of Ruth in Inconsistency in the Torah. Berman, with other scholarly help, supposes that the author of Ruth is likely using the laws in Deuteronomy 24:16-25:10 in the very structure of the book of Ruth. Consider these parallels:
- Mahlon and Kilion die for their own sins (Elimelek for abandoning his land and people; Mahlon and Kilion for taking Moabite wives), separate from their father (Ruth 1:2) / Fathers die for their own sins; sons for theirs (Deut. 24:16)
- Naomi=widow, Ruth=stranger, widow (maybe even orphan) (Ruth 1:3); residents of Bethlehem fail to provide proper welcome or hospitality as commanded in Deuteronomy / Just treatment of the stranger, widow, and orphan (Deut. 24:17-20)
- Boaz excels at providing for “the stranger, the orphan and the widow” (Ruth 1:22) / Field rights for the underprivileged (Deut. 24:19)
- Boaz instructs that Ruth not be publicly shamed (Ruth 2:9) / Saving a man from public shame (Deut. 25:3)
- Boaz takes Ruth through Levirate marriage (Ruth 4:1, 5, 10, 13) / Levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-7)
What’s so interesting about these parallels is that they seem to follow the laws of Deuteronomy 24 and 25, yet they also seem to subvert some of those same laws.
I don’t have time to talk much about biblical law here, but I’ll suffice it to say that the author of Ruth is certainly not taking a “statutory” approach to the Torah. He (or she) shows clear reverence for Deuteronomy in making these laws the very structure of the book, yet he (or she) subverts some of these laws:
“I would suggest that the author of Ruth did not perceive the laws of Deuteronomy (or of Leviticus for that matter) as statutory law. Indeed, the various biblical law corpora do call upon Israel to ‘observe’ and ‘keep’ these precepts; but the observance of the precepts apparently was something that was given over, from the earliest times, to interpretation and discretionary judgement.”
Consider the first parallel. Interestingly, Ruth and Naomi’s situation resulted from sin and disobedience. This did not seem to play into Boaz’s decision or God’s approval. What situations today might be the result of sin where we ought to still act graciously?
Consider parallels two through four.
How is the author of Ruth challenging the Israelites, and us today, to take seriously the needs of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, no matter where they come from? How can we be like these townspeople who did not care for the needs of Ruth and Naomi, and rather stood at a judgmental distance? Ruth reminds us that in our zeal for holiness and purity we should not forget kindness, love, and hospitality to the stranger.
Berman notes that the townsfolk make no effort to receive Ruth and Naomi as widow-stranger-orphans as Deuteronomy commands. Boaz, on the other hand, does: “The…greeting offered to him by the fieldworkers in verse 2:4… ‘may YHWH bless you,’ is exactly the blessing promised to he who allots fallen sheaths to the poor.”
Lastly, let’s consider the issue of marriage to a non-Israelite. In my context, I have often heard Christians talk about relationships with outsiders by emphasizing the need for spiritual separation. When we use the Old Testament for our theology in this concern, we are careful to refer back to Ezra-Nehemiah to cite why we should have total separation. I understand why this is done and am not saying it is wrong
Yet realizing the message of Ruth in light of the Old Testament narrative has led me to ask more questions.
Is the world starting to lead your church to apostasy and the only possible solution seems to be a radical break from outside influences? Are you a church that needs to look at Ezra and Nehemiah?
On the other hand, does your church need to take a step back and look at the book of Ruth? Has your church in its zeal for holiness, purity, and separation from the world went too far and needs to remember that God is also the God of the alien and the foreigner, the God of Ruth and Naomi?
When considering our outsider relationships, we often only consider Ezra-Nehemiah, and more often than not we have not even realized the message of Ruth. How does the book of Ruth call us to ask more discerning questions or specifics about a situation? Is an individual or church in an Ezra-Nehemiah situation that calls for total separation? Or is it possible that the situation looks closer to what is going on in Ruth? Ruth shows us that sometimes things are more complicated than some of us would like them to be, and thank God for it!
Consider as well how Ruth calls us to greater unity in our various Christian camps.
Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah clearly have placed greater importance on two separate streams of biblical narrative; yet, God has chosen that they both remain biblical canon and we can see their differences of focus today. We don’t have to claim they “contradict” each other to say they clearly see different parts of the Torah as “more important.” If different books of the Bible see things differently while keeping the essentials of the faith, can’t we also be unified through our differences?
In Jesus, the streams of both separation and inclusion come to a head with the inclusion of all people in the family of God and the continued call to holiness and separation from ungodliness. Matthew connects Jesus back to Ruth (Matt. 1:5), so we ought not forget her and the message she brings to God’s people today.
In our zeal for holiness and purity we should not forget kindness, love, and hospitality to the stranger.
 All of these are taken from Joshua Berman, Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 142.
 Joshua Berman, Inconsistency in the Torah, 147.
 Joshua Berman, Inconsistency in the Torah, 143.