Was Ruth a Moabite? This question comes up frequently among those making an objective examination of the TaNaKh. While the Book of Ruth says plainly that she was (1:4), the assertion appears at first blush to be in violation of Torah based on the following verses:
No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of HaShem. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of HaShem forever, 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. But HaShem your God would not listen to Balaam; instead HaShem your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because HaShem your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever.
-Devarim (Deuteronomy) 23:3-4
In this passage, we are told that Moabites may not enter the assembly or receive blessings from Israelites. How, then, could it be possible for an Israelite to marry a Moabite?
To start with, permissibility and possibility are two entirely separate questions. The Israelites were never particularly careful about following the Law. That said, intermarriage between the two is not legally problematic, once we know what we are discussing.
- Entering the assembly is not the same as joining the nation of Israel. The “assembly” is the gathering where judgments are handed down and governance happens. It may be understood as the court of tribal elders or of Kohanim. Moabites may not participate in government.
- Blessings of peace and prosperity are given by elders, Kohanim, and dying family patriarchs as a precursor to the last will and testament. A blessing is a formal and sometimes legal statement, not a casual “good luck” or “have a nice day.”
So long as those two boundaries are respected, there is nothing to stop an Israelite from marrying a Moabite.
The other limitation for Moabites entering the nation of Israel is that Israel is not supposed to gain any of Moab’s land. While the following verse is specific to refraining from confrontation during the journey of the Exodus, the exclusion of Moab’s land from Israel’s possession does not appear to have a time limit:
And HaShem said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.
The book of Ruth tells a far more complex story than it is commonly credited for telling. It is not simply a love story, nor even one of a woman’s conversion. The story of Ruth’s conversion and marriage serves the purpose of establishing the legitimacy of the Davidic monarchy.
First, let’s begin with Ruth’s first husband, Naomi’s son. Ruth married one of the sons of one Elimelech, an Ephrathite from BeitLechem (1:2). The story goes that Elimelech took his family to Moab because a terrible famine afflicted the Israelites. Rabbinical commentaries say that Elimelech was wicked and selfish to flee the famine, but such behavior is common throughout the TaNaKh, and a man’s first responsibility is to his family and the continuation of his family name. Either way, Elimelech (and his sons, by extension) was an Ephrathite. The Ephrathites were a Levitical family. Another notable Ephrathite was Shmuel (Samuel) (1 Shmuel 1:1).
This might not seem immediately significant, since Elimelech’s sons both died childless. However, the purpose of Ruth’s return to Israel with Naomi is to seek out a Levirate marriage with Elimelech’s next of kin. Such a marriage would produce a posthumous heir both for Ruth’s late husband and for Elimelech. Under Torah (Devarim 25), such an arrangement is the right of a childless widow, albeit not a requirement. The continuation of bloodlines, however, is of utmost importance in the Torah. Since inheritance and tribal/familial affiliation under Torah pass patrilineally, the origin of the mother is relatively unimportant to this aspect of the story. However, the mother is bound to raise her children as Israelites (Devarim 4, and later clarified in the Book of Ezra), so Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s people is important (Ruth 1:15-18).
Once Ruth made her commitment to Naomi, the two journeyed back to the fields of a man named Boaz, one of Elimelech’s relatives (2:1), and the two help in the fields to earn their subsistence, as the Torah instructs. As a Moabite, there is no problem with Ruth earning her food in this way, because the Law applies to the Israelite and the sojourner alike (Vayikra [Leviticus] 24:22, et al) and because the gleanings are to be left in the field for the benefit of the poor and the sojourner (Vayikra 23:22).
Ruth also begins to form a relationship with Boaz. Here is where modern sensibilities sum up the chain of events under the title of “love story.” Such is, however, a gross oversimplification. Boaz, remember, is a Levite, and Levites have a responsibility to guide and teach those who need to be educated in the Law–including resident foreigners and aspiring converts. Ruth has made a commitment to become an Israelite, but she has not been accepted by any tribal elders. Her conversion is not complete. Yes, she and Boaz are forming a relationship, but she is also under his guardianship and tutelage. It is this part of the story, and not Ruth’s oath, that contains the narrative of Ruth’s conversion.
At a certain point, Ruth (guided by Naomi) broaches the issue of Levirate marriage with Boaz. (Ruth 3) Boaz is open to the idea, but he is not Elimelech’s nearest living relative. There is one man who is closer who has the right of first refusal. This is where things become legally complicated. Under Torah, a man who refuses the demand of a widow is to be publicly shamed by the widow in front of the elders. Ruth, being a Moabite, cannot approach the elders. Therefore, Boaz goes to the elders as Ruth’s proxy and shames his relative on her behalf (Ruth 4). This done, Ruth has been accepted as an Israelite, and receives a blessing from the elders. Boaz and Ruth are then free to marry, and their first child is the heir of Ruth’s late husband and of Elimelech by extension. Elimelech’s family line is preserved.
So what does this all mean for David?
- David is descended from the same family as Shmuel, who was prophet, holy man, and judge for the Israelites, and both made and unmade King Shaul (Saul).
- David is a Levite, but without Kohanic claims. He is connected to the priesthood, but separate from it.
- David has familial connection to Israel’s neighbor, Moab.
- The Davidic dynasty can own no land.
Think on that last point for a moment. The king has no land. European history was built on the king’s ability to seize and distribute lands and to control property rights. Ancient kingdoms were built on the premise that the king owned all the land within his domain. Land has always been a source of power and corruption. In this single case, part of the king’s legitimacy is that he is from a tribe that has no inheritance and cannot acquire one. Levites can lease land, and they can use land that belongs to HaShem (and the Temple), but they cannot own in their own right or pass land from one generation to the next (B’midbar [Numbers] 18).
Since ancient Israel was tribal, this is very important. It is an important check on the king’s power that he cannot use land to play favorites with his or any other tribe. The king has no right to seize land from any man or family, either, since that would diminish the inheritance of that man’s tribe. For the same reason, the king may not collect taxes in the form of land. Finally, any land the king conquers must either be divided among the tribes that participated in the action as part of the spoils of war, OR the land must be donated to the priesthood and dedicated to HaShem. It cannot be used to enrich the royal house.
Herein lies an interesting implication for the Temple. Shlomo’s Temple was built on the threshing floor purchased by David from Aranan haYebusi (the Jebusite) (2 Shmuel 24). According to the text, that threshing floor is the place where the plague sent to punish David for conducting a census stopped. But there are political implications to this location, too, created by David’s lineage.
- The Yebusi were the original inhabitants of Jerusalem. Aranan’s offer to donate his threshing floor for a Temple to the Israelite G-d demonstrates good relations between, at the very least, David and a Yebusi landowner.
- David cannot own land in his own right or acquire land for his tribe. The land purchased for the Temple, then is outside of the control of any tribe. Consequently, no one tribe can benefit from control of the Temple.
- By the same token, the Temple is outside royal control. It cannot legally belong to the royal line.
- David cannot remove land from the control of any tribe (subtract from their inheritance). As a Levite, he is legally cornered into purchasing the site of the Temple from a foreigner.
- If keeping the central point of worship outside of tribal control is important, then it may well have been a consideration in deciding to build a temple in the first place. A tent (the Mishkan) and the Ark could easily be moved and had been at various points captured in battle. With the building of a permanent structure, the central point of worship ceases to be a physical pawn in political squabbles.
The book of Ruth emphasizes Boaz’ descent from Yehudah (Judah), through Tamar’s son Perez–a case of a widow being denied her rights. Boaz’ actions with Ruth set right the wrongdoing of Yehudah. However, the son he produced with Ruth was the heir of a Levite first and foremost.