Deuteronomy 23:3 declares: “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the con­gregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congrega­tion of the LORD for ever.” Despite this seemingly clear statement, Ruth returned from Moab with Naomi and was evidently received wholeheartedly into that congregation. She married Boaz, became a forbear of David, and is notably included in the line of Messiah in Matthew 1:5. On what basis could this apparent defiance of the injunction of Deuteronomy 23 stand?

Moab and Ammon were sons of Lot. They had their origins in the sordid episode related in Genesis 19:30-38. Abraham had shown generos­ity to his nephew, Lot (Gen 13:8). “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we be brethren” was Abraham’s attitude as he pro­ceeded to give Lot free choice of pasturage. And though described by Peter as “that righteous man” (2 Pet 2:8), on this occasion Lot revealed a selfish spirit, choosing the best land for himself, whilst unknowingly commencing a course that would lead to utter ruin. The seemingly simple and in­nocent decision of Lot in Genesis 13:10-11 led finally to the appalling exchange in a barren cave in the mountains beyond Zoar.

The record of Deuteronomy 23 gives two reasons for the exclusion of Ammonites and Moabites from the congregation of Yahweh. The first (v4a): “Because they met you not with bread and water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt”. Generations had passed, yet the descendants of Lot had a similar selfishness. They displayed not brotherly charity but rather hostility. The second reason took them from a passive lack of charity to active opposition (v4b): “because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee”. We know that Yahweh turned the sought-for curse into a blessing. But Balaam’s embittered counsel to Moab was to send out the comely daughters of Moab to seduce the men of Israel. Not only did they indulge the flesh, but “they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods” (Num 25:2). And so the stricture on access to the congregation of Yahweh was placed on Ammonite and Moabite.

How then could Ruth the Moabitess bypass this commandment? For some commentators this is easy. Observing that in Deuteronomy 23:3 the terms are in the masculine, they conclude that only the males are excluded and there is no prohibition on female Ammonites or Moabites. This strikes me as being altogether too slick and inventive. I do not believe it for a minute.

Surely the answer lies in two things, closely related. Firstly, the character and commitment of our wonderful sister, Ruth, and secondly, the character of the God of Israel whom she came to love and serve. Naomi’s two sons “took them wives of the women of Moab” (Ruth 1:4) – not a promising phrase when we remember “the daughters of Moab” from Numbers 25:1. But the circumstances were different “and they dwelled there about ten years”. And it seems evident that through that period Naomi became a teacher of the things of Israel and its God to Ruth in par­ticular, who came to dearly love her mother-in-law and to believe implicitly in Yahweh, the God of Israel. Mahlon and Chilion died and Naomi determined to “return” (v6). She had heard that “the LORD had visited his people in giving them bread”. The people of Bethlehem-Judah did not yet know it, but Yahweh was going to visit them again and multiply their blessing in giving them Ruth.

Consider Ruth’s statement of faith, which goes far beyond a deep personal love to Naomi, though that was evident (v16): “thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God”. Orpah, Naomi had said, had “gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law” (v15). Ruth rejects that course emphatically; she has no people but the people of Israel, no God but the God of Israel. Moreover, Ruth now com­mits to burial in Israel’s soil, just as Joseph “gave commandment concerning his bones” after the pattern of Jacob, his father (Ruth 1:17, Heb 11:22, Gen 47:29-31). When Ruth gleans in the fields of Boaz and Boaz asks his foreman about her, the reply comes: “It is the Moabitish damsel that came back with Naomi out of the country of Moab” (Ruth 2:6). Yes, she might be of Moabite origin, but everything about her declares that this is her real place, and she has “come back”. Then when Ruth enquires of Boaz why he would take such special care of her, “even though I am a foreigner” (2:10 NET), his reply indicates that he does not see her that way: “It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The LORD recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust” (2:11-12).

Ruth had changed her allegiance and was now one with her new people, dwelling under the care of Yahweh, God of Israel and now her God too. The blessings which follow culminate in Ruth 4:13: “So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bare a son”. It seems Ruth was one of those faithful barren sisters, beginning with Sarah, to whom Yahweh gave conception, endorsing Ruth, His daughter.

This blessing and Ruth’s acceptance into the congregation of Yahweh was wholly in accordance with God’s declaration of Himself as “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in good­ness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands…” (Ex 34:6-7). Her calling was of a piece with ours, “not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor 3:6). The same principle was at work when Israel, under Joshua, went into the land to seize the promised inheritance. Their instruction had been to “save alive nothing that breatheth” (Deut 20:16), but one of their first commitments was to save Rahab, the harlot of Jericho and all her family. This was so since her belief was that “the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath” (Josh 2:11). There was no contradiction, because the Divine character declared in Exodus 34 must be placed like an overlay across every word of Scripture, which we must read subject to that overriding understanding.

God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Ruth came to repentance; she “came back” to her real home. She committed her life to her people and her God, and both she and the Bethlehemites were wonderfully blessed by Yahweh the God of Israel as a result. What a story! We love it because it’s our story too, though few would dare claim they measure up to this gem, Ruth the Moabitess.