For gentile Christians the Book of Ruth is cause for rejoicing.
In lections for the end of September this year, the book of Esther portrayed one of several occasions when Israel was saved from destruction through the loyalty and courage of a woman. This week the story of Ruth portrays one of the several occasions when gentiles get to join an otherwise separated elect people of God (in Ruth’s case through the loyalty and courage of a woman).
If we are doing biblical theology, the Book of Ruth is one of those stories that speaks of an apparently providential exception to the strict laws of exclusion that made Israel capable of modelling the holiness of God. As a Moabite, Ruth’s ethnic group was banned from the communal worship of the LORD (Deut. 23:3).
Paul used Abraham’s faith to argue for the possibility that other gentile idol worshippers could, through faith, be counted as righteous by God. The story of Ruth is an example of how one, normally excluded gentile, became included in the special purposes of God’s people through providential outworking of her compassion and loyalty to her widowed mother in law, and the auspices of a “kinsman redeemer”. And talk about special purposes, Ruth not only joined Israel but became the direct ancestor of both king David and king Jesus.
There is some irony in that David the great unifier and King of Israel, and the archetype of the anointed (Messiah) who is coming to re-establish the kingdom of Israel against the onslaught of the gentiles, had a great-grandmother from a gentile tribe who were explicitly excluded from Israel’s worship for 10 generations. It could be argued that David, the great worshipper who reinstalled the ark of the covenant in a tent of worship didn’t technically qualify to be in such an assembly. But in the wild and woolly days, as otherwise recorded in the Book of Judges, God is providentially setting up the ancestors of the royal house of David: what some scholars call “the seed-line of the Redeemer”.
The Bible is like that isn’t it? It sets itself up to be read as an entire narrative, rather than be dissected into discrete little bits that we are tempted to use in support of all manner of less than Christ like ideals. In the terminology of contemporary literary criticism, the reformation principle that “scripture interprets scripture” is now designated “inter-textuality”. The biblical canon seems to allow that the unfolding narrative provides commentary on what went before and even that new events add fresh clarification. It seems Torah instructions set an standard or an ideal and then often the stories illustrate the way Providence allows for exceptions to those ideals. It may be failure to read the bible as a whole narrative that gets fundamentalists into trouble.
If we are gentile followers of Yeshua Ha’Mashiach (Jesus Christ) we can be thankful to Ruth for showing us the possibility of being welcomed into the elect.