Who was Ruth?
The apostle Paul tells us that “the law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14). Many have turned this into an excuse for sin or to set aside the law, rather than to change our perception of the law. There are two ways to apply the law, depending on which covenant forms the basis of our faith. An Old Covenant perspective is not wrong in itself, but it sees the law through a veil and therefore has a limited perception of truth. A New Covenant perspective clarifies and adds to our understanding, thereby raising us to a higher standard.
When Jesus explained the law in His Sermon on the Mount, He did not put away the law against murdering one’s neighbor. He added to its meaning and put us on a higher standard by telling us that “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty” (Matt. 5:22). That is an example of the law being spiritual, yet it does not legalize murder itself.
There were rituals in the law that were superseded by spiritual applications, particularly the laws of cleansing. The Old Covenant demanded that the priests wash their hands and feet at the laver to cleanse themselves, but mere water did nothing to cleanse the conscience (Heb. 9:9, 10). We are cleansed by the Word (John 15:3), which is also the sword of the Spirit.
The laws of war were likewise spiritual in nature. So men were not allowed to cut down fruit-bearing trees in time of siege (Deut. 20:19), but the spiritual law was also set forth when the reason for this law was given: “for the trees of the field are men” (literal rendering). In time of war, there is little or no time to discriminate between good and bad soldiers. How many fruit-bearing “trees” have been killed in battle in violation of this spiritual law?
The two types of cleansing existed side by side from the beginning. Levitical priests were supposed to understand the greater cleansing even as they washed themselves with water. The water was a reminder of spiritual things, and if their hearts were right with God, their ministry was also valid in the sight of God.
Yet we know that many of the priests were wicked in their hearts, though they may have followed the rituals to the letter. The Old Covenant application of the law lacked the power to regulate or prosecute wicked and faithless priests, for its jurisdiction was limited to their actions. The law could not prosecute thought crimes. The courts lacked the power to prosecute men for hating their brother without cause. The courts could only prosecute men if they carried out their hatred and actually murdered their neighbor.
The point is that both Old and New Covenant perspectives and applications existed side by side from the beginning, but only under the New Covenant could matters of the heart be judged. For this reason, we see that the New Covenant was given first, most notably to Noah and to Abraham, centuries before the Old Covenant was given through Moses. Therefore, it is clear that both covenants have existed together from the beginning.
In fact, the Old Covenant could save no one, because no man could fulfill his vow to God, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” (Exodus 19:8). Paul says, “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23).
Some have gone so far as to say that no one prior to Christ could then be saved—as if the New Covenant did not exist until Jesus died on the cross. But Abraham was saved by faith, for he believed that God was able to fulfill His promise (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:21). We could say the same for all of the righteous throughout that time in history—especially those men of faith listed in Hebrews 11. Even Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant, had New Covenant faith, and so his face was glorified (Exodus 34:29).
The Law Regarding Moabites
In regard to Naomi’s two sons, Ruth 1:4 tells us that “they took for themselves Moabite women as wives.” Was this lawful? Did God lead them to do this? Did they respond to God’s leading? Did they act by faith? The law appears to forbid such a thing in Deut. 23:2, 3, and 6,
2 No one of illegitimate birth shall enter the assembly [kahal] of the Lord; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly [kahal] of the Lord. 3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly [kahal] of the Lord; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever [olam] enter the assembly [kahal] of the Lord… 6 You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days.
How does one reconcile this law with the marriage of Naomi’s sons? If unlawful, how could Ruth become an ancestor of David and ultimately of Jesus Himself?
The law should not be read to mean that Ammonites and Moabites were to be excluded for “ever.” The phrase, “even to the tenth generation” is meant to limit the time, not to support the idea of forever-ness. The word olam, translated “ever” in verse 3 above, means an unknown or indefinite period of time. More properly, it should be understood that Moabites and Ammonites were forbidden indefinitely from entering the assembly. This leaves open the possibility of the ban’s reversal at some unknown point in time.
This law is given in the context of “illegitimate birth” (Deut. 23:2). Moab and Ammon are singled out on account of the incest (with Lot) which formed those nations at the beginning. Hence, there is no doubt that the law recognized that Moab and Ammon had incurred a spiritual curse that was passed down from generation to generation. Yet such curses could be reversed by a spiritual process, as we know from experience even today. No one was doomed to remain cursed forever.
Who’s Your Father?
As we said earlier, the name Moab identifies the son of Lot as one marked by incest and is actually a cursed name when viewed by the law. It is the name passed down through the flesh, and in that sense it is an extension of the curse passed down to all flesh from Adam himself. One of the most important themes in Scripture is to show us how to reverse that curse and to regain purity and immortality. In fact, if there had been no way for Moabites or Ammonites to reverse their curse, how could we expect to reverse the curse from Adam?
Reversing Adam’s curse involves the same principle by which Ammon and Moab might also reverse their curse. It all comes through the blood of Jesus Christ, who took upon Himself the curse—all curses—and paid for the sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2). So Gal. 3:13 says,
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”
The curse placed upon the ground in Genesis 3:17 is no different (qualitatively) than the curse on Moab. The Bible speaks of many curses throughout history. All such curses are legal in nature, and so they are also spiritual and must be dealt with on a spiritual level.
In the end, all curses are extensions of the curse of the original sin of Adam. The apostles teach us that the way to reverse all curses is through the blood of Jesus Christ. This is accomplished by changing one’s identity from fleshly to spiritual.
The flesh (as it exists today) will always be under the curse of the law, having come from parents who pass down Adam’s curse to all who are born of flesh. But the seed of the word has the power to beget spiritual children through circumcised ears, and we may then transfer our identity to the “new self” (Eph. 4:24) that is blessed by God.
This new self, or new identity, is a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17), no longer stigmatized by the curse upon Adam—nor any curse from the past, for that matter.
Was Ruth an Israelite?
Those who view this law purely with Old Covenant eyes often find it necessary to deny that Ruth was actually a Moabite. They say that she must have been an Israelite living in Moab.
Support for such a belief is drawn from the fact that Moab had been conquered by Moses just before he died and before Joshua led Israel across the Jordan River (Deut. 2:29-37). Further, we read in Deut. 3:12-16 that their territory was given to the tribe of Reuben and Gad.
So it might be argued that Ruth was of the tribe of Reuben. However, Ruth 1:4 chooses to tell us that Ruth was a “Moabite.”
Why not tell us that she was of Reuben? Why treat the land of Moab as if it were a land of foreigners, or non-Israelites? The territories of the other tribes of Israel were known by their tribal names, and those living there were Judahites (Yehudi), or Ephraimites, or Gadites, or Manassehites. Why not call Ruth a Reubenite, if, indeed, that were the case?
Ancient Jewish tradition, as far as I know, made no attempt to call her an Israelite by genealogy. Yet some today believe it is important to make her an Israelite. They see genealogy or race as an important issue, supported by the law that excludes Moabites and Ammonites from the assembly.
The Hebrew word translated “assembly” is kahal, whose New Testament Greek equivalent is ecclesia, “the church.” Hence, the exclusion of Moabites from the church, they say, implies that such people remain under a curse and are not able to be saved.
In my view, when Ruth said, “Your people shall be my people” (Ruth 1:16), she was no longer a Moabite but an Israelite in the eyes of God. One’s citizenship is a matter of law, not genealogy or race.
Whether Ruth was a Reubenite with a Moabite street address or an actual Moabite, she was under the curse of the law prior to her faith in the God of Israel (Jesus Christ). We may all agree that she was under the curse of Adam, even if she were of the tribe of Reuben. In fact, Reuben himself lost the birthright for defiling his father’s bed (1 Chron. 5:1). Hence, when Jacob blessed his sons, his “blessing” on Reuben was more of a curse, telling him, “Uncontrolled as water, you shall not have preeminence” (Gen. 49:3, 4).
Moses later blessed Reuben in dubious terms, saying in Deut. 33:6,
6 May Reuben live and not die, nor his men be few.
He implies that Reuben (as a tribal unit) might expire altogether.
Ruth, then, was born under a curse, regardless of her genealogy, and her solution was to reverse the curse through faith in Christ. She did this, and thereby became a new creature, having neither Adam, nor Reuben, nor Lot as her father. She was begotten by the Spirit through New Covenant faith in the same manner that we ourselves have become new creatures.
The only real difference is that we have more revelation through the apostolic writings, giving us greater understanding of the legal principles by which this is accomplished. In other words, we no longer see through the glass darkly, nor are we restricted by the Old Covenant veil (1 Cor. 3:15).
Legally speaking, then, Ruth’s faith changed her identity, and she was no longer a Moabite in the eyes of the law. For this reason, the restrictions in Deut. 23:2 and 3 no longer applied to her, for the law no longer saw her as a Moabite. Such is the benefit of understanding that the law is spiritual, for it gives us confidence in spite of our fleshly condition and circumstance.
Putting it in New Testament terms, we can say that in her fleshly identity, she was restricted indefinitely from entering the assembly (church). But by faith, she became part of “the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). More than that, by crossing the Jordan River and entering into the Promised Land, she became a type of the overcoming Bride of Christ that is pictured toward the end of the Book of Revelation.
Was Ruth a “gentile bride”? In her fleshly genealogy, yes, she was. But legally speaking, that is, spiritually speaking, “there is neither Jew nor Greek… for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul could say that because those who are begotten by the Spirit have one Father, and if they possess New Covenant faith, they have the same mother (Sarah) as well.