Ruth 4 - Intermarriage
Was the Ruth-Boaz Marriage Forbidden by Covenant Law?
This article deals primarily with the question, “Did the marriage of the Moabite Ruth and the Israelite Boaz violate the covenant laws against intermarriage with foreigners?” Along the way, we’ll encounter and examine other related issues and doctrines, and take a historical trip through the OT.
Table of Contents
- Introduction - The Questions
- What the OT says about Intermarriage - w/ Examples
- The Marriage of Ruth and Boaz
Introduction - the Questions
In the Book of Ruth, the Moabite Ruth marries the Israeli Boaz, and they become ancestors to King David and the Messiah. This raises the following questions. Was not the intermarriage between an Israelite and a Moabite forbidden by the covenant law? Aren’t there prohibitions between the people of Israel and foreigners in general? Furthermore, wasn’t a Moabite expressly prohibited from participating in Israel’s worship for at least ten generations (Dt 23:3), or even forever (Neh 13:1)?
Before we get to the specific case of Ruth and Boaz, I believe it will be helpful to briefly explore examples of other OT Intermarriages. We’ll proceed in rough chronological order and attempt to answer some of the general questions by observing what the Scriptures have to say.
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What the OT Says about Intermarriage w/ Examples
The Mosaic Laws, given by God at Mt Sinai in the mid 1400s BC, established Israel as God’s chosen people. Included in these laws were prohibitions and restrictions against inter-marrying with foreigners to prevent the Israelites from adopting their pagan religions and cultures. Even prior to the law, going back about 600 years to the time of the patriarch Abraham, it was preferable that the chosen line of Isaac not intermarry with the Canaanites (Gen 24:1-4). Judah’s marriage to an un-named Canaanite produced three sons and led to the lowest point in his life (Gen 38). In contrast, Joseph’s marriage to the daughter of an Egyptian priest produced Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 41:50-52), two of the namesakes for the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses himself married the Midianite Zipporah after fleeing Egypt to Midain (Ex 2:11-22). In Numbers 12, his brother Aaron and sister Mirian used Moses’ foreign wife as a pretense to question his authority. God responded by striking Mirian with leprosy for a week.
Returning to the Mosaic Laws, we note the following Scriptures prohibiting intermarriage:
Then the LORD said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the LORD, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.” (Ex 34:10-16)
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you- and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Dt 7:1-6)
We observe that the preceding Scriptures do not universally ban all intermarriage, only those with specific nations for specific reasons. Other Scripture (eg Dt 21:10-14) allows marriage with a foreign woman captured in war (subject to the prohibitions elsewhere).
In addition the statutes relating to intermarriage, the law contains the following significant decree in considering the Ruth-Boaz union:
No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live. (Dt 23:3-6)
We see the king of Moab (in close alliance with the Midianites) summoning Balaam in Numbers 22. We then witness the results in Numbers 25, where the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD's anger burned against them (Num 25:1-3).
We’ll further evaluate Dt 23:3-6 later in the article, but we now mention a few well-known intermarriages which occurred after the giving of the law. While Israel was still in the desert, a son of an Israelite-Egyptian marriage got into a fight and blasphemed the Name (God). The Lord commanded the blasphemer be stoned outside the camp, revealing that foreigners and natives should receive equal justice under the law (Lev 24:10-22).
After the death of Moses, Joshua sent two spies into Jericho in preparation for the conquest of the Promised Land about 1400 BC. These spies were aided by a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab (Jsh 2), who also acknowledged the supremacy of the God of Israel (Jsh 2:11). As a result, Rahab’s family was the only Canaanites spared when Jericho fell (Jsh 6). In addition, she would later marry Salmon of the tribe of Judah and become an ancestor of Boaz, King David and the Messiah (Ruth 4:21-22, Mt 1:5). See our article on the Conquest for more information on Rahab’s inclusion into Israel.
In the period of the Judges, Samson (~1200 BC), over the objections of his parents, married two Philistine women, an unnamed woman and Delilah. The second marriage cost Samson his life, but God used the turmoil within both marriages to enact justice upon the Philistines (Jdg 14-16. In chapter 19 and 20, we have the sordid tale of the civil war with the tribe of Benjamin, leading to Benjamin’s decimation. The other tribes of Israel vowed never to give their daughters in marriage to the Benjamites, so they were forced to take Canaanite wives to insure their survival (Judges 21).
Moving to the monarchy, we see the affair of David with Bathsheba, an Israelite woman married to the Hittite Uriah. He marries Bathsheba after arranging for her husband to be killed in battle (2Sam 11). The outcome of these actions was the death of their first child, along with continued trouble throughout his lifetime (2Sam 12:11-23). By His grace however, God allowed David and Bathsheba to have a second son, Solomon (2Sam 12:24-25), who would carry on the promised royal line. David married several other women, including the foreigner Maacah, the daughter of the King of Geshur. This union, probably for political purposes, produced his son Absalom, who killed his half-brother Amnon for raping his sister Tamar (2Sam 13:23-37). Absalom later staged a successful coup (2Sam 15:1-12) against his father David’s throne, but was killed against David’s wishes by David’s general Joab (2Sam 19).
Solomon began by being faithful to God (1Kg 3-4), but his many marriages to foreign wives (700 total wives and 300 concubines) led him into worshipping foreign gods and idols, until God pronounced that He would take away the kingdom from Solomon’s son although, because of His promise to his father David (1Kg 11:1-13), his descendants would retain rule over one tribe (Judah). This judgment was fulfilled when the northern tribes split from Rehoboam, the son of Solomon with Naamah the Ammonite (1Kg 12:1-20, 14:21-31). Although the name “Israel” could still refer to both kingdoms, the southern tribe ruled by Solomon’s descendants became Judea and the northern tribes continued to be called Israel.
To mention one more prominent intermarriage, we move forward about 100 years to Ahab, King of Israel, who did more evil in God’s eyes than any of the kings before him (1Kg 16:29-33), including marrying the infamous Jezebel, daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians and worshiper of the false god Baal. Ahab’s reign is chronicled in 1Kg 16:29 – 22:40, including Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mt Carmel (1Kg 18).
So, due to their apostasy and idolatry, due in part to the outside influences and intermarriage with the forbidden Canaanites and other aliens, God raised up foreign powers to banish His chosen people from the Promised Land. First, the Assyrians conquered the northern tribes of Israel (2Kg 17, 722 BC), then the Babylonians exiled the southern tribe of Judah (2 Kg 25, 586 BC).
After the Persian conquered Babylon in 539BC, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. An estimated 50,000 Israelites departed in the first group led by Sheshbazzar, but many chose to stay in Persia. During this time, God ordained the marriage of the Jewish Esther to King Xerxes of Persia and used her to foil a plot to kill all the Jews in the empire. This story is recorded in the Book of Esther.
About eighty years after the return of the first exiles, the priest Ezra, a Levite descendant of Aaron, Phinehas and Zadok, set out for Jerusalem (Ezra 7, 458 BC) with another group of Israelites. We should clarify that all groups of Israelites (or Jews) returning from Babylon were Judeans, that is, from the southern Kingdom of Judea. The northern tribes were now dispersed throughout the Middle East and Asia. The Assyrians had exported much of the population and imported many other conquered foreigners (2Kg 17:24), so the northern part of the land, known as Samaria, consisted of a mixed breed of people that combined pagan and Jewish religion. During the time of Jesus, the Samaritans were considered “unclean” (unacceptable to attend worship) and Jesus instructed His apostles to go to the Jews first, then later to the Samaritans and all other people (Mt 10:5-6, Jn 4, Acts 1:8).
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found that many of the earlier arrivals in Judah Judeans had compromised their faith over the previous decades by intermarrying with foreigner. Ezra writes:
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness” (Ezra 9:1-2)
Here, Ezra extends the intermarriage prohibition beyond the nations listed in Deut 7:1. He prays, and then confronts the people, who renew their covenant with God and separate themselves from their foreign wives (Ezra 9-10).
A decade later, Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and served as leader (or governor) from 445-433 BC. After a trip back to Persia, he returned and found that Ezra’s reforms had not lasted and the people, including a son of the high priest, were once again intermarrying with pagans. He banished the offender and purified the priesthood:
Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married
women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children
spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the
other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of
Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat
some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take
an oath in God's name and said: “You are not to give your
daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take
their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.
Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king
of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king
like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king
over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign
women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this
terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by
marrying foreign women?”
One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest
was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him
away from me. Remember them, O my God, because they defiled
the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and
of the Levites. So I purified the priests and the Levites of
everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his
One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me. Remember them, O my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites. So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task.(Neh 13:23-30)
We’ll further evaluate many of the previously mentioned OT Scriptures in our next section.
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The Marriage of Ruth and Boaz
To sum up what we’ve written thus far, the Mosaic Law appears to prohibit intermarriage only to certain Canaanite nations; however, Ezra extends this prohibition to all foreigners on a religious basis. Now that we've completed our brief look at some of the prominent intermarriages in the OT, we can turn our attention to the marriage of Ruth and Boaz. In doing so, we’ll further evaluate some of the aforementioned Scripture as it pertains to the questions raised in our introduction.
Ruth was a Moabite from the land of Moab, located across the Dead Sea to the east of Israel. Moab was formed by the incestuous union of Lot and his oldest daughter (Gen 19:30-38). The Moabites worshipped a god named Chemosh and one of their idolatrous rituals included child sacrifice. Because of these practices and their oppression of Israel (Num 22-25, Jdg 3, Is 15-16 etc), the Moabites were cursed by God (summed up in Dt 23:3-6 above).
So, returning to the question of whether or not the intermarriage between an Israelite and a Moabite forbidden by the covenant law, we see that even though Moab is not named in the forbidden nations of Ex 34:10-16 or Dt 7:1-6, the curse against Moab in Dt 23:3-6 is enough to prevent intermarriage between an Israeli and a Moabite. Some scholars have made an attempt to validate the marriage of Ruth and Boaz by claiming that Ruth was not really a Moabite, but a member of one of the trans-Jordan tribes of Israel (Reuben, Gad, or Manasseh) who happened to live in the land of Moab, but this theory conflicts with the text of the first chapter of the Book of Ruth.
Others have claimed that the marriage was forbidden, but that Ruth and Boaz lived in the early part of the Judges era, so that the marriage did not prohibit King David’s participation in worship. Remember that Dt 23:3 stated that “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation”, so it is claimed that King David was at least eleven generations removed from Ruth. This conjecture however, conflicts with Ruth 4:13-17 which states that Ruth was the great-grandmother of David.
Furthermore, we can note that the number “ten” in Hebrew writings often means completeness, so with respect to time, “even to the tenth generation” could mean “forever”. Following the reformed principle of “analogia fidei” (analogy of faith) which holds that “Scripture interprets Scripture” (Scriptura Scripturae interpres), we see that the author of Nehemiah (probably Ezra the Priest) writes, On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing). When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent (Neh 13:1-3). Thus, the inspired author of Nehemiah interprets the text of Dt 23:3 as a permanent injunction.
So, in light all the previously mentioned Scripture, how can we argue that the marriage of Ruth and Boaz was not prohibited by the OT Scriptures? Fortunately, we interpret this particular marriage in the full context of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we have yet to exhaust. Isaiah 56:1-8 is a wonderful section of Scripture which pertains not only to Ruth, but addresses the salvation of all foreigners and blessings for all nations. It is one of my favorites, so we present it with emphasis:
This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is
right, for my salvation is close at hand and my
righteousness will soon be revealed. Blessed is the man who
does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath
without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any
Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The
LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not
any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is
what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant -
to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial
and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them
an everlasting name that will not be cut off
Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant - to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant - these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The Sovereign LORD declares — he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
Therefore, to those individuals of any foreign nation who have bound themselves to the Lord, serving, loving and worshiping Him, and holding fast to His covenant, the curse is lifted. Just as it is with us today, when we commit ourselves to the Lordship of Christ, the curse is no longer valid. It is gone and forgotten.
In Ruth’s case, she commits herself wholly to the God of Israel, swearing an oath to Naomi that “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ru 1:16). So, Ruth becomes a Jew by covenantal confession. In addition, Ruth’s bold proposal to Boaz as her kinsman redeemer (Ruth 3) indicates that she no longer saw herself as a foreigner, but as one subject to the Jewish laws and traditions. Likewise, Boaz’s response signifies that his thoughts were consistent with hers. So, Boaz did not marry Ruth the pagan worshiper of Chemosh, but Ruth the dedicated follower of God.
Some might ask, does Isaiah 56:1-8 then contradict with Ex 34:10-16, Dt 7:1-6 and Dt 23:3-6? Not at all. We’ve seen from the cases of Rahab, Ruth and the nations involved in the conquest, that the basis for the judgments and pronouncements were on religious and spiritual grounds, rather than ethnical. Thus, when we evaluate each in this context, along with the whole of Scripture, we find the texts to be complimentary. We can even view the Isaiah text as an “exception” or “qualification” to the other texts, a practice that is quite common in the Bible.
For example, this built-in “exception clause” was delivered by God to the prophet Jeremiah: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it” (Jer 18:7-10). Therefore, judgment clauses are often dependent upon the response or spiritual state of the recipient. Even in Ezra, who extended the prohibitions of intermarriage from the seven Canaanite nations to all foreigners, we see that those who separated themselves from pagan practices were allowed to participate in the Jewish Passover (Ezra 6:21).
In addition, qualifications are not limited to the OT only. For example, when Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name” (Jn 14:13, see also Mt 7:7, Jn 15:16 and 16:23), a cursory reading could give us the impression that this is an unconditional or universal guarantee. Examining the remainder of Scripture however, we see many qualifications or hindrances to answered prayer, such as having sin in our lives (Ps 66:18, 1Pe 3:7), asking with a lack of faith (Mk 11:24, Ja 1:6-7) or with wrong motives (Ja 4:3), exhibiting a lack of persistence (Lk 11:5-8, 18:1) and finally, failing to ask according to God’s will (1Jn 4:14-15). Another good example involves Jesus’ teaching on divorce, where Mt 19:9 qualifies Mk 10:11.
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In conclusion, I think the key to understanding the issue of intermarriage between an Israelites and foreigner is that the prohibition is given, not on the basis of ethical grounds, but on spiritual grounds. God did not forbid the marriage because the spouse came from another nation or another race per se, but because the foreigner was committed to a pagan religion, and would inevitably lead God’s people into idolatry and the worship of false gods.
The institute of marriage is very important to then Lord, but faithfulness to His covenant is even more important. So, the ideal marriage or intermarriage should be between a man and a woman who were both fully committed to upholding God’s laws and covenants. This included raising children who were also faithful.
We’ve seen several examples of foreign women such as Rahab and Ruth who, upon pledging their faith and loyalty to the one true God and His covenants, joined Israel and had their marriages blessed. On the other hand, we’ve also seen Israelites such as Solomon led into idolatry by taking on foreign wives who were attached to pagan religions (1Kg 11:1-11). Indeed, Israel’s idolatry and assimilation into pagan culture eventually led to the exile of the people of both kingdoms.
Ruth’s complete loyalty the God and her new Israelite family resulted not only in her blessed marriage to Boaz, but the continuance of the line from Abraham, Jacob (Israel) and Judah to King David and eventually, to the Messiah Jesus. Her inclusion in the Messiah’s ancestry indicates that people from all nations will be included in the coming kingdom.
The Apostle Paul wrote that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom 9:6). In the same letter, he also gives a description of the real Jews. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code (Ro 2:28-29).
Thus, we see that that the basis for our participation in the new covenant kingdom is similar to that of the Hebrew covenants, by our faith in Jesus the Messiah and obedience to God’s Word (Rom 1:5). Yet, while Ruth and Boaz could only look forward to the Messiah, we can look back with unveiled faces as we are being transformed into His image (2Cor 3:15-18).
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