This scroll contains neither things clean or unclean, things permitted or prohibited. But why was it written? To tell us how much reward is reserved for those who show mercy. (Ruth Rabbah 2:15)
During the Festival of Shavu’ot we read the book of Ruth. Two reasons are typically cited for this megillah to be read: 1) Shavu’ot is a harvest festival and the book of Ruth is all about the harvest, and 2) it is the anniversary of King David’s death, and Ruth was his great-grandmother.
Can a Moabitess Enter?
Ruth is a fascinating story that leaves some puzzling questions to be answered. The fact that Ruth was a Moabitess proves very problematic to the narrative. For it says (Deuteronomy 23:3), “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever.” This was always in effect since before Ruth, and even after Ruth, for in Nehemiah we are told that the Israelites, upon their return from exile, realized from reading the Book of Moses that “it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God (Nehemiah 13:1).
There are a few ways that expositors have tried to reconcile this problem. The first of which was to count the generations from the time the decree was made in Deuteronomy until the time of Ruth. Some have been able to count ten or eleven generations, and thus the ban would be lifted, right? Well, according to the passage, no Moabite may enter at all, even up until the tenth generation. This means that someone of the tenth or eleventh generation would still be unable to enter.
Another explanation is that the decree does not pertain to her because she is a woman; it only pertains to men. Since names of fathers’ households were important in ancient Judea, it was important that a Moabite or Ammonite name not be among the children of Israel, “because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you” (Deuteronomy 23:4). Deuteronomy 23:2-3 makes it clear that the union of an Israelite and a Moabite is a forbidden union, the offspring of which may not enter the assembly of HaShem.
Perhaps the latter explanation might be the most plausible, although any explanation cannot do justice to the great compassion of God that is exemplified in this story. For through Ruth’s righteousness, her faith, and her devotion to the Jewish people (to her dead husband and her mother-in-law Naomi), she is in a sense brought near through the Messiah, for through her body she actually contributes to physically bringing forth the Messiah.
Link between Jew and Gentile
Ruth is the hero of both the Jew and the Gentile. She redeems both Jew and Gentile as she herself is simultaneously redeemed. She redeems the curse of her nation, for her nation was deemed forbidden by virtue of their refusal to aid Israel upon departure from Egypt and their intention to curse them. Ruth now seeks to bless Israel, to preserve the royal line of Elimelech through levirate marriage to Boaz, the kinsman redeemer. She wants to accompany her mother-in-law and never leave her side. She proves to be even better than a daughter, caring for a widow of the house of Israel, and she becomes the great-grandmother of a king and the ancestor of the ultimate King Messiah.
In the book Raisins and Almonds, edited by Messianic Jew Dr. Henry Einspruch, a Jewish believer named Moses Schapiro lends some insight into the glorious figure of Ruth, saying:
The compelling interest in Ruth, the Moabite heroine, centers in the fact that she, a pagan woman, became a connecting link between Jew and Gentile as the ancestress of King David, and thus of Jesus, the Saviour of the world.
In Ruth’s tale we see how the union of Jew and Gentile brings forth the anticipated redemption. The burden does not lay on the shoulders of the Jews alone, but true tikkun olam occurs only when the two are united in love and humility. Schapiro summarizes it beautifully when he says,
The book of Ruth is by no means a purely Jewish one, and it teaches lessons that are more needed now than ever… As a matter of fact, the book of Ruth contains no legislation, no statutes of prohibition or dealing with forbidden things. It has nothing to do with prophecy, ordinances, state polity or any other subject than love.
No Longer Far Off
Ruth the Moabitess remains one of the clearest pictures of Jew and Gentile joining in redemption that we see in all of Scripture. Rabbinic tradition considers her a great proselyte, abandoning paganism for the One God of Israel and joining herself to the nation of Israel. We hear of her allegiance to the God of Israel and the Jewish people, the family she married into, but in the narrative she ever remains the Moabitess, a reminder of her Gentile identity.
Paul may have drawn from Ruth’s example when speaking to the Gentile Ephesians when he said, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19), or when he said,
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:12-13)
Ruth indeed is the connecting link between Jews and Gentiles, and the “dividing wall of hostility” is broken down in her flesh and that of Boaz in the birth of the future Redeemer so many generations later. Her mercy to her mother-in-law was rewarded with mercy from God through Boaz, and through this union came God’s greatest mercy, the Messiah of Israel: the Savior of the world. We may learn from the story of Ruth as we continue in the prophetic realization that is Messianic Judaism, which consists of Jew and Gentile uniting in the holy work ahead of us, together preparing the world and heralding in our flesh and in our lives the return of the Messiah.