Updated: Jul 18, 2021
The scriptural narrative of the promised land that Israel would come to inhabit included two different streams of thought: one of total separation from the surrounding nations, and another that recognized a possibility for inclusion. Deuteronomy and Joshua include commands of a fierce and unyielding separation from the nations that Israel would come to inhabit. However you interpret the book of Joshua—see some of my thoughts here and here—what is abundantly clear is a radical separation from the nations Israel would be inhabiting in practices and relationships, which also meant intermarriage was forbidden.
From this stream, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah emerge when the Israelites began to intermarry with the surrounding nations. The Israelites’ sin of intermarriage in these books is considered apostasy and a violation of God’s law with no exceptions mentioned. The rationale is that these nations would certainly lead Israel to apostasy so there needed to be distance in relationships and protection of the identity of God’s holy people. Consider this section of Ezra:
“When these matters had been concluded, the leaders approached me with this report:
‘Neither the Israelite laymen nor the priests nor the levites have kept themselves aloof from
the peoples of the land and their abominations [Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites,
Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites]; for they have taken some of their
daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and thus have desecrated the holy race
with the peoples of the land. Furthermore, the leaders and rulers have taken a leading part
in this apostasy!” (Ezra 9:1-2)
In chapter 10, the Israelites decide the solution to this apostasy is to divorce their wives, sending them away with their children (10:3, 44, see also Neh. 13:23). The Bible is silent on whether this was the only viable option for dealing with Israel’s sin of intermarriage.
However, there is a second stream of Old Testament thought that both gives caveats and, arguably, throws a big log in this first stream, channeling the waters in a different direction.
For one, in Deuteronomy there are multiple admonitions to care for the foreigner and alien among you, and not mistreat them. For example, Deuteronomy 24:17-18 (NAB) says:
“You shall not violate the rights of the alien or of the orphan, nor take the clothing of a widow as a pledge. For remember, you were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, ransomed you from there; that is why I command you to observe this rule.”
Even the Egyptian, Israel’s original “enemy,” is given special precedent to be treated kindly and ultimately accepted into the Israelite community (see Deut. 23:7-8). In the Genesis narrative, we see positive depictions of Egyptians (like Hagar) and other races (even Canaanites who are initially allies of Abraham). In fact, Abraham himself is depicted as coming from the ancestors of the Babylonians.
Even when we get to the conquest narrative of Joshua, we find breaks in the narrative to show positive examples of foreign people in the nations Israel would inhabit. At the very beginning (Josh. 2), we see Rahab the prostitute who gives her allegiance to the God of Israel and so is accepted into the Israelite community.
A little later in the narrative, we see the cunning of the Gibeonites who trick the Israelites into a treaty because of their fear of the God of Israel (Josh. 9). Hundreds of years later in the biblical narrative, we see David come to the aid of the Gibeonites because of the decision they made during the time of Joshua (1 Sam. 21:1-14).
From this second stream in the Old Testament, the book of Ruth emerges.
The book of Ruth is about the marriage of a Moabite woman (Ruth) to an Israelite man (Boaz). Ruth is called an eshet chayil, a “worthy woman” or a “woman of valor,” and some scholars believe that Boaz is given the imagery of God Himself as a refuge who spreads his “wings” over Ruth in protection. There may be word play in Ruth 3:9 since the word for robe used here can also be translated as “wing.”
Some scholars consider Ruth a polemic against the strong prohibitions of Nehemiah and Ezra (Note: since throughout much of their history these books have often been combined into one, I’ll refer to them from now on as Ezra-Nehemiah). One purpose of this article will be to show that calling Ruth a polemic against Ezra-Nehemiah is going too far. It is true that the book of Ruth itself supposes it was written long after the events it records (see Ruth 1:1; 4:7). Yet, while I am unsure of how these scholars come to the conclusion that Ruth was written after Ezra-Nehemiah or that it is written in response to Ezra-Nehemiah, these scholars do have a point given that there is clearly tension between the messages of Ruth and Ezra-Nehemiah.
Let’s assume for a moment that these scholars’ conclusions are accurate in these two assertions. If Ruth were written after Ezra-Nehemiah, the writer of Ruth likely thought that, in zeal for holiness and separation from the surrounding nations, many Jews had forgotten this other stream of thought which upheld the foreigner, stranger, and widow no matter where they were from. The author of Ruth seems to be saying, “Yes, the nations surrounding us are corrupt and we need to keep our distance, but there are people among them who would be willing to give their allegiance to the God of Israel just as Rahab and the Gibeonites did. There are foreigners who can be included.”