Love, Justice and the Law
Ruth is one of the more popular books in the Old Testament. If you’ve never read it, I would encourage you to do so. The whole book is only eighty-five verses long. It will probably take you just twenty minutes to read, and it contains a wonderful love story.
Ruth seems to be related to the book of Judges, which immediately precedes it. Many OT scholars see Ruth as a kind of “happy ending” to the depressing cycle of stories of Judges. In Judges, the structures of the society were falling apart. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” the oft-repeated key phrase in the book. Everything, from the government, to the family to the priesthood had become corrupt. Yet, in Ruth, this all reversed and almost everyone was acting honorably. Even in the midst of terrible suffering which was largely self-inflicted, God visited Israel with kindness and redemption.
But, the path to this redemptive ending was troubling. The central problem was that Ruth was from Moab and the law couldn’t be clearer – Israel was never to allow someone from Moab to live and worship in their midst. Moab was founded when Lot’s daughter got her father (the nephew of Abraham) drunk and raped him. The ensuing child became the founder of the nation of Moab. To an Israelite, it was the worst place on earth, a place of sin, corruption, uncleanness and shame.
Thus, when famine came, forcing Naomi, Elimelech and their clan to flee from Bethlehem in search of food, the original readers would have been shocked to find that they sojourned to Moab.
The story gets even worse when Naomi’s sons took wives in Moab. This was a definite no-no in the law. Israel was supposed to keep itself ethnically pure. So, when Elimelech died, followed by the death of his two sons, it certainly looked like God’s judgement had come down hard on them. All the remaining women – Orpah, Naomi and Ruth – were very vulnerable at this point.
Naomi counseled the sensible thing – the women, Ruth and Orpah, should rejoin their families who could care for them. But, Ruth refused to leave Naomi’s side. On the surface, this makes little sense. Naomi had no sons who could be a marriage partner for Ruth (which would be central for her safety and ability to feed herself). Moreover, her strong statement that “your people will be my people and your God my God,” is remarkable because the God of Naomi hadn’t been providing for them! After all, Naomi was in Moab because of a famine and both Ruth and Naomi had just lost their husbands. Thus, Ruth agreed to return with Naomi to Israel with little in the way of certainty. Hence, many have seen this scene as one of the most poignant descriptions of conversion that we have in the Bible.
But, this sets up the central tension in the book. What do we do when a literal statement in scripture seems to hinder love and justice? The law was clear:
No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD, even to the tenth generation; no one belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever because they did not meet you with bread and water on the way when you came forth from Egypt (Deut 23.3-4).
Yet, the law also mandated kindness to foreigners:
The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Lev 19.34).
Here’s the great thing about the book of Ruth. In order to welcome Ruth into their midst and show her the hospitality and love the law demanded, the Israelites had to emphasize one provision of the law in favor of another.
This is exactly what happened: Boaz, a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s dead husband, played the role of a kinsman-redeemer for Ruth, even though he was under no obligation to do so. He did it because he saw such courage and honor in Ruth that he realized that to ignore this in favor of a literalist interpretation of the law would be to miscarry love and justice.
Boaz married Ruth, negotiated for some land belonging to Elimelech, and brought love to where there had only been loss and deprivation. Not only did Boaz act honorably, but he fulfilled what Israel was supposed to be doing all along.
Last week, when we studied the giving of the law, God told the nation of Israel that by being in a special covenant relationship with him, they would become “a kingdom of priests.” Through the covenant God made with Israel, he was also calling them to be a “light to the nations” (Isa 42.6). Thus the hope was that all the surrounding nations, seeing how Israel prospered by their intimate relationship with God, would also be drawn to Yahweh. In stark contrast to Judges, where this plan had gone disastrously wrong, Boaz was acting like Israel was supposed to act all along. He was drawing the surrounding nations, represented by Ruth, to God.
It’s no stretch to say that this is what Jesus has done for us. As sinners, we are the untouchables. We’re the stranger and the sojourner, searching for a better life. Boaz showed great kindness and loyalty to Ruth even though he was under little obligation to do so. Jesus has done the same for us.
Right at the end of the book, there’s an oblique reference to the importance of all this when the text says that Obed, the son born to Ruth and Boaz, “was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” What seemed to be illegitimate turns out to be royal. Ruth, the untouchable from Moab, became the Great-grandmother of King David and thus was in the line of Jesus himself.
God desires “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2.4). There is no one outside the reach of God’s covenant love, not even one deemed “untouchable” by the law.
Kevin Dodge is the author of several books on the spiritual life, including Confessions of a Bishop: A Guide to Augustine’s Confessions and Reading Dante: A Theological Paraphrase of the Inferno. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a ThM with Highest Honors from Dallas Theological Seminary.