Ruth: Conclusion

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Slotted between Judges and 1 Samuel (thought the Jewish scriptures place it in the Kethuvim, or Writings), Ruth is a complete change of pace. The story is longer (for all that happens in it, it would have barely made a verse or two in any other book we’ve read so far), calmer, and it takes time to show the interactions between people. More refreshingly, it takes the time to show the interactions between women – between Naomi and her daughters-in-law, of course, but also between Naomi and the unnamed women of Bethlehem.

While Boaz is a major character and takes a central role in mediating the redeeming of Elimelech’s land, the focus of the narrative is clearly on Naomi and Ruth. The Ruth/Boaz plotline reads more like a business transaction, while the Ruth/Naomi relationship expresses love, loyalty, and friendship. Previously, we’ve only heard of the relationships between women when it’s negative, when the fights between women become so big that they impact the lives of men (such as the relationship between Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 21), but here, it’s the focus of the story.

It was also refreshing to read a “small story,” one that isn’t about clashes between ethnic groups or households, but just a pastoral story of politically insignificant (except insofar as their genealogies are concerned) people finding ways to survive.

Background

There are numerous connections between the story in Ruth and the Patriarchs of Genesis. Perhaps the most obvious is way Ruth’s story mirrors Tamar’s – both women wish to honour their late husbands through a Levirate marriage, but both are denied, though for different reasons. In both cases, the women hide themselves (Ruth does so literally, while Tamar hides her identity by disguising herself as a prostitute) in order to approach the man that they intend to use to fulfil the obligations of Levirate law. In so doing, both are rewarded with the son they sought. The connection between them is made explicit by having Boaz be descended from Tamar’s son.

Ruth and Naomi, at the Saint James Anglican Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Ruth and Naomi, at the Saint James Anglican Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

As Adele Berlin points out, the “Book of Ruth, too, is about exile and return, land and people. Like Abraham, and like the family of Jacob (see the story of Joseph), the family of Elimelech was forced by famine to leave its home in the land of Israel and to preserve itself in a foreign land. When the famine abates, Naomi returns to Bethlehem.”

The dating of the story seems rather unclear. From what I’ve read, it seems that it mostly hinges on the political agenda the scholar is reading into the text. For example, the genealogy linking Ruth to David suggests to some that the text was written to explain why it’s okay for David to have a Moabite grandmother despite passages like Deut. 23:3.

Others see it as a postexilic text. As Collins explains:

On this reading, the story was composed as a polemic against the stringent rejection of marriage to foreign women by Ezra. The placement of the book in the Writings lends some support to the postexilic date, since many of the Writings date from this period. Against this view, however, Ruth does not read like a polemic, and the point of the story is not to affirm mixed marriages. Mixed marriage, in fact, is not acknowledged as a problem at all. It seems entirely natural that the sons of a man from Judah who grow up in Moab should marry Moabite women. When the women accept the God of Israel, as Ruth does, there is no problem whatsoever. The viewpoint of Ruth is entirely different from that of Ezra, but it does not necessarily follow that Ruth was composed as a polemic against Ezra. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.270-271)

I think it’s also important to remember that there are two separate filters – the original writing and the choice to include the book in the canon of scripture. It would be a mistake to assume that the motivations of both are necessarily the same.

I also think that the Book of Ruth contains enough details that would argue for its inclusion without there needing to be any political motive. In the beginning, the text situates itself in the time of Judges (Ruth 1:1). Then, the genealogy of Ruth 4:22 weaves the story into David’s history. These two details provide ample explanation for why a compiler, who may be interested in completeness, would have thought to include it.

Ruth 4: Buy one land, get one wife free!

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As promised, Boaz heads to the city gate – where all business is supposed to be transacted – and takes a seat. When the nearer relative comes by, Boaz accosts him and invites him to have a seat. He then finds ten city elders to sit with them, presumably to act as witnesses.

With everyone gathered together (except, you know, the actual person who currently owns the land – Naomi), Boaz explains that Naomi has returned and seeks to sell her late husband’s land. According to the laws laid out in Leviticus 25 (or, more specifically, Leviticus 25:25), Elimelech’s relatives must be given the opportunity to redeem the land, keeping it in the family. Boaz offers dibs to the nearer kin, since he is the closer relative. If he doesn’t want it, Boaz explains, then Boaz is the next in line as potential redeemer.

The nearer kin announces that he wants the land, but pulls back when Boaz adds the stipulation that buying the land also means “buying Ruth the Moabitess” (Ruth 4:5). Gross language, but the purpose, says Boaz, is to “restore the name of the dead to his inheritance.” In other words, he is attaching the rules of the Levirate marriage to the sale of the land rather than to the sibling relationship. It’s not clear what gives him the authority to do this.

Ruth, Naomi, and Obed (detail), by Simeon Solomon

Ruth, Naomi, and Obed (detail), by Simeon Solomon

The nearer kin backs down, saying that he can’t take the land if it comes with Ruth “lest I impair my own inheritance” (Ruth 4:6). It’s a little confusing, but I think the point he is making is that if Ruth has a child, then it will be officially her husband’s, but it will also be the kinsman’s son. Therefore, his own inheritance will pass into the hands of someone who is legally another man’s son. Which is all a little weird – if Ruth’s first born is considered her late husband’s, wouldn’t only subsequent children count as her new husband’s?

It may just be a “plot critical” issue, so, moving on.

The text then gives us an interesting historical lesson: “Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel” (Ruth 4:7).

This is a really weird twist on Deut. 25:9-10, which specifies that if a man refuses to impregnate his brother’s wife, in the situations where a Levirate marriage applies, she is to remove one of his sandals and spit in his face.

Here, rather than Ruth removing his sandal and spitting in his face, he removes his own sandal and hands it off to Boaz, and this is played out like it’s some sort of transaction receipt.

The transaction concluded, the elders give their blessings, which includes linking Ruth and Boaz to Tamar and Judah – another situation where a woman managed to secure a Levirate marriage by disguising/hiding herself to sexually approach her intended target.

Interestingly, while the elders heap their blessings on Boaz, they hope for his prosperity, but completely fail to mention the continuance of Elimelech’s household – which is the stated purpose of the marriage in the first place.

After Boaz “went in to” Ruth (Ruth 4:13), she bore a son named Obed. Naomi nurses her grandson (which is a rather impressive feat, by the way), and the women exclaim: “A son has been born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17).

The women also tell Naomi that Ruth “is more to you than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). According to Claude Mariottini, “seven sons” was a sort of generic blessing for a woman, since it falls quite safely within the “heir and a spare” requirement (and, presumably, because seven is a symbolically popular number). For her loyalty, Ruth is even better than the standard great blessing for a woman.

It is the women who gathered around Naomi and welcomed her home in Ruth 1:19-20, and it is the women who celebrate with her here. Once again, this is a woman’s story, and time is actually spent on the relationships between women in the neighbourhood – something that’s been almost entirely lacking up until now.

Genealogy

In the final portion of Ruth, we are told that Perez, the son born of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38, was the father of Hezron, who fathered Ram, who fathered Amminadab, who fathered Nahshon, who fathered Salmon, who fathered Boaz.

Boaz fathered Obed, who fathered Jesse, who fathered David.

So the story of Ruth and Boaz is linked to both Tamar and Judah (as the elders reference in Ruth 4:12, though without indication that they know Boaz’s parentage), and to David (yes, that David, the one who will one day be king).

The significance of the genealogy is apparently quite debated:

Some scholars argue that this genealogy is the starting point for the story of Ruth. On this reading, the purpose of the book is to put a positive spin on the fact that David’s great-grandmother is a Moabite, by showing how she won the Lord’s favour. But Ruth is not a political story. David is only mentioned at the end, in a virtual appendix. It seems much more likely that the genealogies were added secondarily, to justify the inclusion of the story about a Moabite woman in the scriptures of Israel. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.270)

The timeline of the genealogy doesn’t make too much sense within the biblical narrative. Even if we assume that each generation did not have kids until they were 50 years old, and we assume that Perez spent most of his life in Egypt (which I think is being very generous), it would still place Boaz’s birth in Egypt, since we are told that the Israelites spent ~400 years there (Exodus 12:40). Not only that, but Boaz does not seem a newcomer in Bethlehem. There has been time for a settling, a famine, and a return… This story makes far more sense if we assume that Israel’s founding was a slow process of mini-migrations and assimilation, rather than great exodus event.

Ruth 3: On the threshing floor

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This next chapter is extremely interesting, both because of how risqué it is, and in how far many readers will twist themselves to keep Ruth a chaste and modest paragon of “womanly virtue.”

Naomi, who assumed responsibility for her daughter-in-law when Ruth chose to follow her instead of returning to her family, bemoans Ruth’s situation. She decides that, as Ruth’s substitute parent, it falls to her to find a home and family for Ruth. Like many mothers, she latches on to that nice boy Ruth was talking about the other day and immediately hears wedding bells.

But rather than, say, approaching Boaz as some marital mediator, Naomi instead proposes something a little more RomCom. She tells Ruth to wash and anoint herself, put on her best clothes, and go to the threshing floor where Boaz is working late. She should hide until Boaz has finished working and lies down for a nap, then “uncover his feet and lie down” (Ruth 3:4). I think it should be rather clear that “uncover his feet” is a euphemism, yet for some reason a whole lot of people insist on imagining that Ruth is really just to go in, lift his blanket off his feet a little, and… I don’t even know what the purpose of that is supposed to be.

The fact that it all takes place on the threshing floor may make the implied action a little clearer. According to Collins:

The threshing floor was not only a workplace but also a place of celebration, where men relaxed at the end of the harvest. Hosea accuses Israel of acting like a prostitute on all the threshing floors (Hos. 9:1). These were apparently places where prostitutes might expect to find customers. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.269)

So Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions and heads over to the threshing floor. She waits while Boaz eats and drinks, and we are told that “his heart was merry” (Ruth 3:7). I think that the implication here is that he’s drunk. If so, it’s an interesting possibly literary reference. The only other time that I can think of where a sexual encounter was initiated by a woman was in Genesis 19:30-38, where Lot’s daughters have sex with him. Like Boaz, Lot was also described as drunk during the encounter. Even more interesting, one of the children born from Lot and his daughters is Moab, forefather of Ruth’s people.

Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing Floor, by Ben-Zion

Ruth and Boaz at the Threshing Floor, by Ben-Zion

At midnight, Boaz is startled awake by the woman at his feet, and he asks her who she is. Ruth gives her name, identifying herself as his maidservant, and asking him to “spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin” (Ruth 3:9).

As a reader of the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, this grabbed my attention. In the series, part of the Westeros wedding ceremony involves the groom removing the bride’s cloak (which bear her natal family’s colours), and placing his own cloak (with his family’s colours) over her shoulders. The symbolism is rather obvious, switching her allegiance from her natal family to her married family. It also signifies protection – by placing his bride under his cloak, the groom is signifying that she is now under his protection.

That appears to be exactly what is going on in Ruth.

Denise Dick Herr adds another level of detail:

In Hebrew, the word for skirt, kanap, is the same one that Boaz used when he first met her: “A full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings [kanap] you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:12). To Ruth, the blessing of God that Boaz gave her is not enough. To receive the blessing, she needs a human agent, and she calls upon Boaz to be that agent.

Notice, also, that Ruth justifies her request by calling Boaz her “next of kin” (Ruth 3:9). While Boaz is not legally bound by the rules of the Levirate marriage, Ruth is invoking the spirit of the law to sway him.

The next of kin

Is it just me, or is Boaz’s answer to Ruth’s request in Ruth 3:10-13 rather bumbling? When I played the scene out in my head, he seemed to be gushing with words, clearly flustered by Ruth’s presence, her forwardness, or perhaps shame that he did not think to do more for the beggar who is his kinswoman.

He also seems concerned with his reputation – he wants to make sure that it is not known “that the woman came to the threshing floor” (Ruth 3:14). It seems that he is willing to comply with Ruth’s request because she has a good reputation (Ruth 3:11), but that reputation may not last if it is known that she came to the threshing floor like a prostitute, as Collins suggested above.

Unfortunately, while he is willing to marry Ruth, there is a nearer kinsman than himself. Before Boaz can marry Ruth, she has to be offered to the nearest kin. If he refuses her, Boaz agrees to take her.

In the morning, they rise while it’s still too dark for them to be seen or recognized. Boaz instructs Ruth to spread out her cloak, and he fills it with barley.

When Ruth returns to Naomi, she tells her mother-in-law what happened.

Ruth 2: The first meeting

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Chapter 2 introduces us to Boaz. He is “a man of wealth” (Ruth 2:1) – though this means only that he’s an upper level farmer – and a kinsman of Noami’s husband, Elimelech. He isn’t closely related enough to be legally responsible for the women, as would be the case in a situation where the Levirate marriage applies.

To feed herself and her mother-in-law, Ruth decides to go out to the fields (it’s harvest time) and do some gleaning. This refers to the charitable structure in which remnants from harvesting are to be left in the fields for the poor to gather (Lev. 19:9-10, Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19-22).

When Ruth gets to the part of the field that belongs to Boaz, he calls out to the reapers: “The Lord be with you!” (Ruth 2:4), and they all respond in kind. Then he notices Ruth and asks his servant, the overseer of the reapers, who she is: “Whose maiden in this?” (Ruth 2:5). The overseer explains that she is a Moabite who returned with Naomi, mentioning that she has been gleaning ” from early morning until now, without resting even for a moment” (Ruth 2:7).

This passage is mentioned in Bill Gothard’s Advanced Seminar Textbook. In his section on the Seven Phases of a Godly Courtship, he uses the story of Ruth to illustrate each phase. In the first step, where the man is to show “the richness of his preparation,” his test is to show a desire to learn about his intended’s family. This makes an assumption about the cultural context of the question – one that really doesn’t seem justified. As Libby Anne puts it:

This is accompanied by the verse where Boaz asks his servant “whose damsel is this?” Contrary to Gothard’s interpretation, this could simply have been the ancient equivalent of asking for a girl’s phone number. More seriously, Boaz asks this when he first arrives on the scene, before being impressed by her. So perhaps this is simply the equivalent of asking “hey, who’s the new girl?”

(Incidentally, her blog post goes through each of the seven phases and is worth reading for anyone who can stomach evangelical patriarchal conceptions of courtship.)

I think that Libby Anne is correct. This is not Boaz initiating courtship by taking an interest in his intended’s family, but rather a way of establishing the identity of a new face on his field. It’s a far less creepy interpretation than the one put forward by Gothard.

Special Favours

Boaz now addresses Ruth directly, telling her to keep gleaning his fields and not move on to another. He positions her among his servants, telling her to follow his female servants, gleaning after them, and to drink from the water that’s been drawn for his working servants if she gets thirsty.

In response, Ruth prostrates herself and asks him why she should be considered special, even though she is a foreigner.

Boaz pouring barley into Ruth's veil, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, c.1650

Boaz pouring barley into Ruth’s veil, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, c.1650

Boaz responds that he’d heard of her faithfulness to her mother-in-law. To this, Ruth responds that he’s being very kind, “you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not one of your maidservants” (Ruth 2:13).

On the surface, it seems that Boaz is just extending a favour to someone he’s heard good things about, and Ruth is being duly grateful.

In a 5 Minute Bible episode, Tim Bulkeley suggested a slightly different interpretation. Have a listen the episode, but what I took from it is that he presents this story as being something of a culture clash: Boaz, a farmer, comes from a rigid culture in which roles are well-defined. As someone who is reasonably high up in his society’s hierarchy (he is described as a “man of wealth” in Ruth 2:1), he sees himself as a sort of benevolent dictator. He condescends to notice Ruth and her situation, and to help out in a very uninvolved way (he lets her glean his fields, which he must do anyway, and lets her drink the water that has been drawn by the labour of his servants).

Ruth, for her part, comes from a semi-nomadic society where roles are more fluid. She asked Boaz’s taskmaster, out of courtesy, for permission to glean after the workers. Boaz then swoops in acting a bit pompous in his role of saviour. It’s possible, then, that Ruth’s response is a little snarky. Rather than humbly gushing about how kind he’s being even though she isn’t in his household and doesn’t consider herself worthy of being so much as a servant to him, perhaps she is using a little snark to remind him that she isn’t one of his servants.

I’ve followed Bulkeley’s advice and read the book twice, once seeing her character as humble and once as snarky. While I feel that both fit, I like snarky Ruth a whole lot better.

Denise Dick Herr looks at how Ruth and Boaz typify the differences between male and female speech. Her article covers the whole of Ruth and is a very thought-provoking read. In this particular conversation, she notes that Boaz approaches Ruth first, indicating that he knows the problems she faces (though, notably, focusing only on Ruth’s material needs), and lists the solutions he is willing to provide. His speech is written in imperatives – she may follow his reapers, she may drink his servants’ water.

Ruth, on the other hand, shows a focus on establishing her place in her relationship with Boaz. She does not thank him for what he is giving her, but rather asks him why she has found favour with him.

Dick Herr notes, also, that Boaz uses significantly more words than Ruth, pointing to modern research showing that when men and women talk to each other, men tend to dominate the conversation and speak a great deal more than women.

So there are many different ways to approach this text, and many ways to view the characters. It’s a short story, but rich in complexity and realism.

The rest of the day

At mealtime, Boaz calls Ruth over and offers her some bread dipped in wine. When she finishes, Boaz instructs his reapers to let her glean “even among the sheaves” (Ruth 2:15), and even to pull some out from the bundles and leave them for her. As my study Bible puts it, “he authorizes a little generous cheating on her behalf” (p.326).

By evening, she had gleaned a whole ephah of barley!

She returned to Naomi and shared with her what was left from the meal Boaz had given her earlier. Naomi, impressed with Ruth’s gleaning, asks her where she worked and who gave her the food. When Ruth tells her about Boaz, Naomi recognises him as a relative.

In closing, Naomi is pleased that Ruth has been given permission to stick close to Boaz’s female servants, since if she were alone, she might be molested (Ruth 2:22). There’s safety in numbers, apparently.

So until the end of the barley and wheat harvests, Ruth continues to glean from Boaz’s fields.

Ruth 1: Going home

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We remain in the days of the judges for the story of Ruth. In that time, a famine drove the Ephrathite Elimelech out of his home in Bethlehem (which is in the territory of Judah). He found his greener pastures in Moab and settled there with his wife, Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.

The detail of the famine driving out the family is an interesting one, and it connects Elimelech to patriarchs like Abraham (who went to Egypt while there was a famine in Israel in Genesis 12) and Jacob (who also goes to Egypt during a famine in Canaan in Genesis 42). I can see three possibilities for the inclusion of this detail here:

  1. The story in this book is the literal, historical truth and this is how it began.
  2. Famines happened often enough for this to be a plausible literary device to get the family into Moab.
  3. There is a deliberate literary attempt to connect the book of Ruth to the stories of the patriarchs.

Given some later details that I’ll talk about when I get to them, I think that some combination of #2 and #3 is most likely.

Elimelech died in Moab, and his sons took Moabite wives – Orpah and Ruth. After about ten years, Mahlon and Chilion also died, apparently without having had any surviving children.

Thus our scene is set.

The Return

With nothing left for her in Moab and having heard that the hard times are over in Israel, Naomi decides to return to her own natal lands. Before she leaves, she urges her daughters-in-law to return to their own natal homes, there to hopefully start again in new marriages:

Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find a home, each of you in the house of her husband! (Ruth 1:8-9)

It’s interesting that she talks of their mother’s home, not their father’s. Ruth seems to me a very feminine story, one that is focused on the domestic sphere concerns of finding a secure place for one’s own family, rather than with the grander political concerns of the past books we’ve read.

Ruth 1 - Naomi entreating Ruth, by William Blake, 1795

Naomi entreating Ruth, by William Blake, 1795

Even Genesis, which focused on households rather than nations, was preoccupied with who begat whom, and how much livestock was owned, and which wells were owned by whom. What mattered about the household was who owned it, who was its patriarch.

Here, however, what matters is who will care for the women when they return, who will fuss over them, who will try to find them new husbands. Naomi does not send the younger women back to the homes of their fathers, but to the arms of their mothers.

The daughters-in-law initially refuse, but Naomi emphasises that she has nothing to offer them, she has no more sons to give them in a Levirate marriage. “Would you therefore refrain from marrying?” (Ruth 1:13). Over and over again, she calls them “daughters” – not “daughters-in-law,” but “daughters.” It’s sweet, and it shows the depth of the relationship between the three women. Even though Naomi is old and would have no one to care for her if the younger women should leave her, she sends them away for their own benefit, calling them her “daughters” as she does so.

They weep, and Orpah kisses Naomi, complying with her request. Ruth, however, “clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). When Naomi tries once again to encourage Ruth to return to her family, she replies:

Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. (Ruth 1:16-17).

In researching this chapter, I saw Ruth’s speech here used to hold her up as an exemplar because she – a foreigner – converts to the worship of God. But that’s not how I read it at all. To me, the god she is agreeing to worship is irrelevant, she is following Naomi. If Naomi worshipped Baal, Ruth would convert to the worship of Baal.

This is not a story about one woman’s steadfast faith in God, it is a story of two women who love each other and who will care for each other even when they are cut off from all social protection and support. This isn’t a religious story, it’s a human story.

The two women arrive in Bethlehem. While the “whole town” (Ruth 1:19) is stirred by their return, it seems that only the women greet them. “Is this Naomi?” they ask.

Naomi, grieving for her lost family and poor fortunes, tells them not to call her Naomi. Rather, she says, “call me Mara [bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20).

Background Information

Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic points out that the names of these characters seem to have been carefully chosen:

The names of the characters in this book are symbolic. Mahlon means “sick” and Chilion means “failing.” These two die just five verses into the first chapter. Their father’s name, Elimelech, means “God is king” and is fitting for the book’s premonarchical setting. Naomi means “pleasant” but when she falls on hard times she renames herself Mara, meaning “bitter.” Orpah’s name means “the back of the neck;” she turns away from Naomi. Ruth, on the other hand, means “friend” and she proves a true friend to her mother-in-law. Finally the name Boaz means something like “in him is strength.”

This use of names leads me to think that the book of Ruth is a work of  historical fiction. That does not mean that all of the characters and events in the story are fictional. Even Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter includes historical people and events.

Also, when Naomi tries to encourage her daughters-in-law to return to their families, she argues that she has no more sons to give them. This would refer to the Levirate marriage, outlined in Deut. 25:5-6. Essentially, if a man dies without kids, his widow should marry one of his brothers. Her firstborn is then counted as the child of her first husband, able to carry on that line. We saw this kind of marriage in action in Genesis 38.

According to Collins:

This law prevented the widow from marrying outside the family, thereby alienating the family property, but it also was a way of ensuring that the widow would be taken care of. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.269)

It meant that she would have a new protector/home in patriarchal society. In Naomi and Ruth’s case, however, no brothers exist. By remaining with Naomi, Ruth can only expect to live on the margins as a beggar, since without a relative to marry she would – as Naomi puts it – have to “refrain from marrying” (Ruth 1:13).

It’s also important that Ruth is a Moabite. Women like her are said to have tempted Jewish men away from YHWH in Numbers 25, and in Deut. 23:3, we are told that they are absolutely never ever to be allowed into the assembly of the Lord “even into the tenth generation.”

Those books were about politics, and their concern was about the threats of miscegenation to existing power structures. The book of Ruth, however, is about ordinary people, people who find love and support where they can.