No Moabite or Ammonite is to enter the congregation of the Lord, even to the tenth generation.
The writer of Ruth uses a story about marriage to shape our vision about a deeper concern. There are many ways to read the book, but my interest is directed specifically toward this deeper meaning. The first clue to what is going beneath the surface is the fact that the narrative begins by endorsing one form of marriage (marriage within the group) but ends by praising the opposite form of marriage (marriage outside the group).
Naomi's speech about marriage, and the responses of her daughters-in-law, occupies the center of the first chapter of the book (1:8-17). The gist of the conversation centers on Naomi's insistence that Ruth and Orpah leave her, return to their own country, and settle down with good Moabite boys. The underlying message: You belong with your own people and in your own place. You are better off with your own kind.
Israel had few good things to say about Moabites. The stories Israel tells about them reveals that there is bad blood between the peoples. There is the story about the ancestor Moab’s incestuous birth as a result of a daughter seducing her drunken father. The story about Moabite women seducing Israelite men at Baal Peor. The story about a Moabite king who tried to curse the Israelites in the wilderness. The story of Moab’s refusal to help the Israelites when they emerged from the wilderness. The comical, grotesque story about Ehud killing a Moabite king in the lavatory. The story of David’s ruthless slaughter of Moabite prisoners. Then there is Moses' own pronouncement that no Moabite must ever be allowed to be part of Israel, even a tenth-generation Moabite. The message is loud and clear. Keep your guard up. Watch out for those Moabites and don’t have anything to do with them!
Yet here we have a story about a Moabite woman who steps into Israel's space and communal life, marries a fine, upstanding Israelite man, and ends up bearing a son who will be the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king.
Naomi's sentiments speak to the power of the human impulse to preserve and protect lived space from encroachment by outsiders. It alerts us to how those sentiments affect the way we view the outsiders who enter our communities, the anxiety they provoke, and the stereotypes we employ to keep them at arms' length. How will the newcomers fit into our society? How do we make sure that they we don’t let so many in that they overwhelm us? How will immigrants change who we are and how we live? Our very national identity is at stake! It would be better for all of us if they went back where they came from.
Ruth the Moabite refuses to be turned away by Naomi's directives. Her "do not insist that I leave" is a courageous and forceful rejoinder to Naomi's "stay with your own kind" sentiment-- and the first step in the transformation of a community that is not looking for change.