In today’s gospel, we hear the opening lines of Matthew’s Gospel, the genealogy of Jesus, forty-two generations that stretch from Abraham to Christ. Among the generations we read: “…Boaz became the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Obed became the father of Jesse, Jesse the father of David the king…” Ruth has “her own book” in Sacred Scripture. The Book of Ruth is named for the Moabite woman who commits herself to the Israelite people by an oath to her mother-in-law Naomi: “Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David by marriage to Boaz of Bethlehem.
It is my experience that many people of faith begin to roll their eyes when Scripture begins to mention the Moabite, Ammonites, Armorites, Edomites and all the other “ites” – but there in lies the depth and richness of the story God’s working and mystery.
But the story begins with Abraham and Lot. After leaving Egypt, there arose issues between the “camps” of the two – over shepherding and grazing issues. Abraham offered Lot a “peace plan” by which Lot might choose lands to the East of the Dead Sea or to the West. “Lot looked about and saw how abundantly watered the whole Jordan Plain was as far as Zoar, like the LORD’s own garden, or like Egypt. This was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot, therefore, chose for himself the whole Jordan Plain and set out eastward.” (Gen 13:11). Lot and his family were living in Sodom which is ultimately destroyed (Gen 19), it is at that point that although saved from their destruction, Lot and his family “Since Lot was afraid to stay in Zoar, he and his two daughters went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country, where he lived with his two daughters in a cave.” (Gen 19:30) It is now that the Moabite people appear in Scripture.
The Moabite people are “cousins” to Israel, but their path of faith is far different. Moab and Ammon were born to Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and Lot’s elder and younger daughters, respectively, in the aftermath of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. To be fair, the daughters plied their father wine and seduced him, still it is from this incest with his daughters that descent both the Moabites and Ammonites (Genesis 19:37–38).
The Moabites first inhabited the rich highlands at the eastern side of the Dead Sea, extending as far north as the mountain of Gilead, but they themselves were afterward driven southward by warlike tribes of Amorites, who had crossed the river Jordan. These Amorites, described in the Bible as being ruled by King Sihon, confined the Moabites to the country south of the river Arnon, which was less favorable and more arid.
For 600 years there was little to no contact between the cousins, the direct descendants of Abraham or Lot. According to Deuteronomy, God renewed his covenant with the Israelites under the leadership of Moses at Moab before the Israelites entered the “promised land” (Deuteronomy 29:1). Moses died there and was buried in an unknown location in Moab. But according to the Book of Judges, the Israelites did not pass through the land of the Moabites (Judges 11:18), but conquered Sihon’s kingdom.
In any case, after entering the promised land, the relations of Moab with Israel were of a mixed character, sometimes warlike and sometimes peaceable. From the time of the Judges of Israel (~1200 BCE) through and up to the time of Kings and the invasion of Babylon (~587 BCE), the relations between the two nations were mostly contentious marked by armed conflict.
During the same time, the religions of the once-cousins drifted apart. Little is known about the details of their religious practice apart from their following of a pantheon of gods, with on particular god named Chemosh as the prime focus. Human sacrifice was part of the tradition (1 Kings 3:27). We know that King Solomon, near the end of his reign “had as wives seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, and they turned his heart.” Among them was a Moabite princess who persuaded the King to build a temple for her: “Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and he did not follow the LORD unreservedly as David his father had done. Solomon then built a high place to Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, and to Molech, the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain opposite Jerusalem” (1 Kings 11:6-7)
And Ruth was a Moabite. But from Ruth came Obed, Jesse, David – and from David, ultimately Jesus. Indeed, all things are possible with God