23:3 An Ammonite or Moabite may not enter the assembly of the LORD; to the tenth generation none of their descendants shall ever do so, 23:4 for they did not meet you with food and water on the way as you came from Egypt, and furthermore, they hired Balaam son of Beor of Pethor in Aram Naharaim to curse you. 23:5 But the LORD your God refused to listen to Balaam and changed the curse to a blessing, for the LORD your God loves you. 23:6 You must not seek peace and prosperity for them through all the ages to come.
Living in Love and Faith (p224f) finds in this passage a ‘particularly obvious’ example of the ‘tension between inclusion and exclusion in Israel [that] is a consistent feature of the Old Testament.’
The present passage is quoted in the NRSV:
‘No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord … because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt….You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.’
This, we are told, ‘is hardly ambiguous. Not only are Moabites to be excluded from Israel, but Israel is explicitly under an obligation never to do anything for them.’
This contrasts sharply with the story of Ruth, the Moabite. She is not only treated with kindness by Boaz the Israelite, but he eventually marries her, and she becomes the great grandmother of King David.
The exclusion or inclusion of the Moabites seems from this (according to LLF) to have been ‘a divisive issue for some in ancient Israel’. This teaching in Deuteronomy
‘seems to be about revenge and resentment. It essentially tells Israel to respond to the Moabites in kind: hostility is to be met with hostility.’ The story of Ruth, in contrast, ‘is a story about the triumph of loving-kindness, a prime characteristic of the Lord himself (Exodus 34.6,7), which should characterize also those who respond truly to him (see Psalms 111 and 112).’
In comparing these two texts, it could well be that the book of Ruth stands closer to the heart of OT teaching. In Isaiah, for example, God promises to gather in foreign nations, and for his house to be called ‘a house of prayer for all peoples’ (Isa 56:7). So,
‘the judgement that Christians should privilege Ruth over the paragraph in Deuteronomy looks to be in line with the priorities of the Old Testament itself, quite apart from that of the New Testament.’
(This raises – for LLF – the further question of whether the relativizing of the Deuteronomy passage in Ruth might lead us to relativize or deprivilege the Levitical prohibition of same-sex intercourse.)
Martin Kuhrt notes the ‘rather slippery language’ used in LLF. What are called ‘tensions’ between two biblical teachings are treated as if they were actually contradictions, with the kinder doctrine being allowed to trump the harsher teaching.
But Deuteronomy, no less than Isaiah, is presented to us as ‘God’s word’. The incentive to work at both texts and to discover how they can be so regarded is significantly weakened if we dismiss the harder texts as merely the products of minds who held unworthy notions of what it means to be the people of God.
While claiming that the meaning of the Deuteronomy text is ‘hardly ambiguous’, LLF fails to note that the very translation is disputed.
NRSV (quoted by LLF), says, with reference to the Ammonites and the Moabites:
‘You shall never promote their welfare of their prosperity as long as you live.’
It is true that a number of other translations have something similar (for example, AV, RSV, GNB, ESV, NET).
But the NIV has,
‘Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.’
Kurht concludes that the Deuteronomy text,
‘does not say that Moabites are to be an exception to the laws about hospitality, not handing over escaped slaves, treating aliens justly, being kind to the poor and vulnerable, of which there are loads.’
Kurht refers to the NIV translation,
‘which says, not that the Israelites must never do anything kind to a Moabite (by way of exception to all the other laws) but that they were not to make a political treaty of friendship with them as a nation. The prohibition of Moabites ‘entering the assembly of the Lord’ to the tenth generation does not have to be read as a racist edict or an act of petty revenge, but as a God-given didactic intergenerational ban on Moabites having access to certain political and religious rights in Israel. This solemn ‘exclusion’ was a just and, in the long term, a merciful decree which would have reminded Moab of its sin in wanting to starve the pilgrim Israelites of food and water and hiring Balaam to curse them, with the aim of ultimate repentance, restoration and inclusion in Christ. It does not say that any Moabite found on Israel’s soil should be ill-treated or deported or that any Israelite man was forbidden to marry a Moabite woman who embraced the God of Israel as Ruth did. Had Old Testament law forbidden anything Boaz did for Ruth he would not have done it, because the book of Ruth takes pains to show that Boaz scrupulously obeyed the law of Moses in protecting Ruth, allowing her as a vulnerable widow to glean, and going through the lawful procedure for being her kinsman redeemer.’
Eric Lyons notes the scholarly uncertainty about the meaning of ‘the assembly of the Lord’, and remarks that while Ruth may have ethnically been a Moabite, she was, in effect, a Jewish proselyte (Ruth 1:16-18) who kept the Mosaid law (Ruth 3:1-18; 4:1-12; Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Lyons add that:
‘Another reason Deuteronomy 23:3 would not have applied to Ruth and her offspring is simply because a non-Israelite mother in Israel (especially one who was a proselyte!) did not determine the nationality of her offspring. Joseph’s Egyptian wife did not make their sons Ephraim and Manasseh Egyptians (Genesis 41:50-52). Moses’ marriage to Zipporah, a Midianite (Exodus 2:11-25), did not disqualify their sons Gershom and Eliezer from being Israelites (Exodus 2:22; 18:1-4), nor did it make them Midianites. Salmon’s marriage to Rahab (the Jerichoan harlot) did not mean their son Boaz was a recognized Gentile of Jericho (Matthew 1:5). And the Moabitess Ruth, wife of Boaz, did not make their son Obed, their grandson Jesse, their great-grandson David, or their descendants Joseph and Mary (the earthly parents of Jesus) anything other than legitimate descendants of Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38)—according to the standard reckoning of Israelite heritage. In the eyes of all of Israel, David was an Israelite of the tribe of Judah—and was no more a Moabite than he was a Jerichoan (He being the great-great-grandson of Rahab]’
Lyons adds, in a footnote:
‘Some think that Nehemiah 13:1,25,27 contradicts this explanation of Ruth and Deuteronomy 23:3. The social situation in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day (approximately 600 years after the time of Ruth), however, was quite different than what is found in the book of Ruth. Many of the Jews who had returned from 70 years of Babylonian captivity had taken for themselves “pagan” wives from among the Moabites, Ammonites, etc. (Ezra 9:1-2,14; 10:2,10-18,44; Nehemiah 13:23-30), rather than enter into lawful marriages with Jews or faithful converts to Judaism. The Old Testament prohibitions of marrying foreigners (Exodus 34:15-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-4) applied to pagan non-converts, not faithful proselytes.’
Michael S. Heiser (The Bible Unfiltered, ch. 22) asks whether Boaz broke the Deuteronomic law in marrying Ruth. Heiser notes that
‘the question becomes more uncomfortable when we realize that, later in Israel’s history, both Nehemiah and Ezra criticized the men of Israel for marrying foreign women after the return from exile (Neh 13:23–27; Ezra 10). Ezra actually sanctioned the marriages’ termination, even if they had produced children (Ezra 10:10–19, 44). Nehemiah mentions that some of these unions were with women from Moab (Neh 13:23).’
Heiser is not inclined to explain this in terms of possible meanings of ‘the assembly of the Lord’. Rather, he focuses on OT perspectives on foreigners.
‘Several passages distinguish foreigners from the collective assembly of Israelites (Num 15:15, 26; 2 Chr 30:25). Foreigners did not have equal status under all Old Testament laws—they were excluded from laws restricting indentured servitude (Lev 25:39–43, 46, 54–55), debt release (Deut 15:2–3), and loaning money at interest (Deut 23:19–20). And while intermarriage with foreign women was generally forbidden, there were exceptions (Deut 21:10–14). The case of Rahab is perhaps most telling: She had clearly converted to belief in Yahweh (Josh 2:11–12; Jas 2:25) and was allowed to live in Israel (Josh 6:25).’
This, writes Heiser, is crucial. There is no mention in Deuteronomy of what might happen if a Moabite embraced the God of the Israelites. Nor do the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah mention any conversions.
‘But in the case of Boaz’s redemption of Ruth, her allegiance to the God of Israel is front and center: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Boaz had not sinned by marrying a Moabite because Ruth’s loyalties were clearly with Yahweh, the God of Israel.’