Formations 12.11.2022: The Idolatry of the Tribe

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Matthew 1:5; Ruth 4:9-17

According to Deuteronomy 23:3, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall come into the assembly of the LORD even to the tenth generation. None of their descendants shall come into the assembly of the LORD forever.”

Taken at face value, this verse teaches that Ruth should never have been the great-grandmother of King David. She was a Moabite, and according to the Law, her descendants should have been barred from Israel’s assembly for ten generations.

Furthermore, the book of Ruth describes how she meets her future husband, Boaz, under questionable circumstances alone at night on the threshing floor (Ruth 3).

What is a woman like this doing in the genealogy of the Messiah? For that matter, what is she doing in the Bible at all?

I’ve recently learned that nationalism is not only a horrific distortion of the gospel, it’s an officially recognized heresy within the Orthodox Church. The blending of the church with the nation is called phyletism or ethnophyletism (“ethno-tribalism”). This heresy asserts that the church should be based on nationalistic and linguistic criteria and was condemned in 1872 as a reaction against growing nationalistic sentiments in Eastern Europe.

We know what racial and nationalistic prejudice can do in our world—or at least I hope we do! It presented the same dangers in the nineteenth century and even “in the days of when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1).

The Israelites might have claimed they had good reason to keep their distance from the Moabites. The two nations had been at odds for generations. Yet by God’s providence, this foreigner becomes part of the people of Israel. To her mother-in-law, Naomi, she is more precious than seven sons.


• How does Ruth’s story help us appreciate the “misfits” of the Christmas story: the impoverished shepherds, the foreign wise men, the utterly unexpected virginal mother of the Messiah?
• How does the Christmas story call us to rise above our cultural or national identities?
• What other identities or “tribes” do we hold onto at the expense of others?
• How does Ruth’s story prepare us to grasp that God likes to work through such unexpected and supposedly unsuitable people?
• What can her story tell us about our own obligation to look past a person’s labels and see them as God sees them?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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