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The Christadelphian | May 2011

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Being prepared
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Dynamic faith in context” | Islwyn T. Rees
  • “The Bible’s buried secrets” | John Adey, Thomas Gaston and Andrew Perry
  • Doubt and faith | Paul Cresswell
  • “Open thou mine eyes” | Mike Jenner
  • Moabite daughter of Abraham 1 – Sodom, Moab and Bethlehem | Michael Ashton
  • A son of old age 1 – A birth and an offering | Mark Sheppard
  • The lesson of the hyssop | Tom McCarthy
  • The whole counsel of God | Andrew E. Walker
  • Signs of the times Repression in Syria
  • Israel and their land War on several fronts?
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Moabite daughter of Abraham

1 – Sodom, Moab, and Bethlehem

TRAUMATISED by the cataclysmic events that changed their lives completely, two girls and their father sheltered in a hillside cave, fearful lest further destruction sweep them away as it had the city where they lived, their home and all its surroundings, their brothers, and the men they had vowed to marry. Finally, as they were fleeing for their lives, their mother too was caught up by the danger and lost her life. The image of desolation when they saw the earth being burned up in a ferocious celestial firestorm was imprinted indelibly on their memories and they could see no hope for the future. Society was so completely destroyed in the recent disaster they could not envisage how for them normal life could return. For even though they were of child-bearing age they doubted if there were any suitable men preserved alive through whom their father’s line could be perpetuated.

Sodom conceives Moab

Betraying the degraded morals of the cities where they grew up, the elder girl proposed a solution to their dilemma. The answer was staring them in the face, for there was a man who was still alive – their father himself! Where any normal young women would recoil in horror from such a suggestion being put to them, these un-named girls themselves proposed engaging incestuously with their father. They also devised how to achieve the desired result by ensuring their father was an unconscious participant in their shameful scheme. During the next two nights Lot’s two daughters were made pregnant by their drunken father, giving birth to sons whom they named Moab and Ben-Ammi, both names hinting at the despicable circumstances of their conception [1] (Genesis 19:30-38).

The incestuous seduction that resulted in the birth of Moab and Ben-Ammi, established a pattern that was followed by their descendants who were responsible for “the worst carnal seduction in the history of Israel (that of Baal-Peor, Numbers 25) and the cruellest religious perversion (that of Molech, Leviticus 18:21)”. [2] This led to a provision in God’s law prohibiting any from these two nations joining the Israelites in worship: “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever” (Deuteronomy 23:3).

The exclusion of Moabites and Ammonites from Israel’s assembly had parallels elsewhere in the law, which also proscribed the specific behaviour that brought the two nations into existence, so that they came to represent everything that is reprehensible in God’s sight. [3] No self-respecting Israelite would stoop to associate with them, and though there was no direct prohibition against entering into marriage with Moabites and Ammonites, as there was for example in the case of Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:3), the Jews obviously regarded them as a prohibited race. By the time of the return from exile they believed “the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands”, when they married Ammonites and Moabites as well as “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites … the Egyptians, and the Amorites” (Ezra 9:1,2).

Brought out of the cave

Conceived in the darkness of a cave, the scheme that resulted in the birth of Moab and Ben-Ammi shows the moral decline that always accompanies those who turn their back on God. The history of Lot’s family therefore stands in sharp contrast with other incidents in the scriptures that involve caves. There was a cave at Machpelah, for example, purchased by Abraham. But it became a symbol of the patriarch’s hope of resurrection for him, his wife, and all his faithful seed (Genesis 23:19). Another cave in Adullam was a sanctuary for David and four hundred men who fled from Israel’s weak and capricious king Saul, preparing for the day when David would reign from God’s throne in Jerusalem (1 Samuel 22:1). When wicked Queen Jezebel wielded power in the northern kingdom, Obadiah hid a hundred of God’s prophets in caves to await the day of her overthrow (1 Kings 18:4). It has also been suggested that when there was no room in the inn at Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to the Lord Jesus in a cave. [4] All these incidents have features that illuminate the New Testament account of the Lord Jesus’ burial in a rock-hewn cave with a stone rolled across the doorway (Matthew 27:60).

Whereas the cave near Zoar witnessed immorality, defilement and ungodliness, the cave near Jerusalem revealed God’s ways and enshrined His promises, teaching men and women how to live in His sight now, and revealing the hope for a future life when His Son returns in glory. Standing between these two incidents, drawing on the first and providing an introduction to the second, is the account of Ruth the Moabitess, “like a gem among rubbish”, as one book describes it. [5] Her story starts in obscurity and hopelessness, but ends in glory and promise. Above all else, it reveals God’s patient mercy, goodness and truth.

A genealogy of faith

Four short chapters are all it takes to tell her tale, but the events of her life have strong connections with both earlier and later histories of God’s people. Her book does not therefore stand in isolation, nor can it be understood in isolation, for the Moabite widow stands tall in the line of faithful and godly people as she is revealed to be a true daughter of Abraham. And as a woman of faith she will undoubtedly be blessed with faithful Abraham.

But as the story opens, it is not a historical connection with Abraham, Lot or Moab that is made, but a contemporary one with the society of that time: “the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). Descriptions of those days in the book of Judges are a litany of evil, wickedness, selfishness and lack of faith, punctuated by acts of heroism and faith as God periodically sent saviours (deliverers, or judges) who revealed His mercy and lovingkindness, saving His people from their oppressors. In its Judges’ setting, the book of Ruth plays a similar role, showing against a backdrop of utter degradation and immorality how God deals with men and women of faith.

The account starts in Bethlehem-Judah, [6] linking the events still further with “the days when the judges ruled”, because the closing chapters of the book of Judges record two incidents involving that town. The first is the story of a Levite – later revealed to be Moses’ grandson Jonathan – leaving Bethlehem, and leading the tribe of Dan into idolatry [7] (Judges 17,18). The other is the account of a Levite’s concubine from the town who becomes a focus for serious dissension in Israel, ending in civil war and the virtual obliteration of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-21). One is an account of religious apostasy, the other describes serious moral apostasy. Together, these chapters form an appendix to the book of Judges and relate to unspecified (but almost certainly early) [8] periods during “the days when the judges ruled”. By appearing at the end of the book they provide a powerful context for the story of Ruth which follows.

Little among Judah’s towns

The emphasis on Bethlehem-Judah in these chapters and in the book of Ruth is surprising, given its obscurity and lowly position in Israel. The town is not listed in Judah’s territory when the land was allocated to the tribe in Joshua 15, though it does appear in the Greek translation of that passage, [9] possibly because by the time the Septuagint translation was made David’s association with Bethlehem had given it a degree of prominence. But this was as nothing compared with the greater distinction mentioned by the prophet Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the one to be ruler in Israel.” This prophecy confirms Bethlehem’s earlier obscurity, while providing a remarkable prediction about the one “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).

The two incidents at the end of the book of Judges are therefore recorded because they occurred in this insignificant city in Judah, and because they prepare the ground for the unusual circumstances recorded in the book of Ruth that lead first to David and then to his greater son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Both accounts have features with strong echoes of the times of Lot and his family in Sodom. The Levite moved by stages (Bethlehem – Ephraim – Dan) to the very edge of Israel’s territory, as Lot moved from being with Abraham to the cities of the plain, then towards Sodom, until eventually he could be found in a prominent position seated in the gate of that morally corrupt city. By becoming custodian of the idols stolen by the tribe of Dan, the young Levite played his part in their false worship, which continued throughout the lifetime of the northern kingdom of Israel. Dan was therefore no better than the cities of the plain, which turned their backs on the true God.

The other Levite undertook the first stage of the same journey away from the influence of God’s laws, for he was on his way from Bethlehem to the hill country of Ephraim, and stayed overnight in Gibeah in Benjamin. While he was there, the men of Gibeah surrounded the house calling for the Levite to come out so they could abuse him, just as the men of Sodom demanded the visitors who were in Lot’s house for the same evil purposes. On both occasions the depraved men were offered virgin daughters, and eventually in the Levite’s case, he thrust his concubine out to them, and she died at their hands as they satisfied their evil lusts.

As bad as Sodom

The reason for conveying this abominable information as a separate section of the book of Judges is to fix beyond question the degradation of Israel throughout the whole period “when the judges ruled”. In its ways Israel was just as bad as Sodom had been, [10] and would merit the same treatment if the people refused to respond to God. While it is possible to read the book of Judges as a series of accounts of godly deliverers encouraging the people to worship their God single-mindedly, this is only part of the story. The continuing plot line describes the nation’s abject failure to remain true to her God. The closing chapters of Judges therefore carry a refrain, which surely applies throughout the whole period covered by the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

God gave Israel His laws to prevent this outcome. Moses told the generation that was about to enter Canaan that life in the land would be different from the nomadic existence in the wilderness: “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today – every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (Deuteronomy 12:8). With divine provisions for worship and godly legislation to regulate society, God’s people could have flourished under His protection. But intention was not matched by reality, and life during the period of the judges was continually impacted by the depraved morality of the nations God instructed His people to cast out.

Awaiting the king

The well known phrase about there being no king in Israel only occurs in these final chapters of Judges – and nowhere else. So when the story of Ruth is placed alongside the two other events involving Bethlehem-Judah, there can be no doubt that readers are being led to consider how things will change once there is a godly king in Israel who will lead the people in God’s ways and by divine laws. As the book of Ruth makes clear, David – the man after God’s own heart – would not have been born had Ruth chosen to remain in Moab, or to worship Moabite gods and practise Moabite ways.

Though it was necessary for the satisfactory outcome of God’s purpose with Israel that Ruth should leave Moab and all it represented, it was also necessary that similar immorality within the borders of Israel be acknowledged and rejected. That this was done by a young Moabite widow is a testament to her understanding of God’s character, and her appreciation of His ways.

But were conditions as bad in Bethlehem-Judah when Elimelech and Naomi lived there as they were in the times described by the closing chapters of Judges? Surely Bethlehem could not have been labelled as a city like Sodom? One little clue pointing to the city’s potential for immorality can be found in the account of Ruth gleaning in Boaz’s fields. He expressed concern for her safety, instructing her, “Listen, my daughter … Do not go to glean in another field, nor go from here, but stay close by my young women. Let your eyes be on the field which they reap, and go after them. Have I not commanded the young men not to touch you?” (Ruth 2:8,9). Scripture uses here the same word “touch” as in the Genesis account when God prevented Abimelech from taking Sarah as his wife (Genesis 20:6), suggesting that in the absence of Boaz’s command Ruth was at risk from the sexual advances of his men with their Sodom-like morals.

There were other women nearby, for Boaz counsels Ruth to “stay close by” them, yet Boaz believed it was possible that Ruth could be abused by his men. If that was true of Boaz’s workers, and he was obviously a godly man who would expect good behaviour from his employees, the situation on other properties around Bethlehem would surely be considerably worse.

These, then, were the circumstances in Israel – and in Bethlehem – when the book of Ruth opens. The religious and moral apostasies that characterised Moab could be seen also in God’s land. Through Moses He warned His people, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, lest the Lord’s anger be aroused against you, and he shut up the heavens so that there be no rain, and the land yield no produce, and you perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you” (Deuteronomy 11:16,17). True to His word, and because Israel was His firstborn son, “there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1). “For what son is there whom a father does not chasten?” (Hebrews 12:7).

In time, this chastening by means of famine would yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness, for that is the lesson of the wonderful cameo about the life of Ruth.

Michael Ashton

[1] The meaning of Moab is uncertain, but is related to the phrase “of our father” in Genesis 19:32,34. Ben-Ammi means, “son of my people”.

[2] D. Kidner, Genesis, IVP, page 136.

[3] Note, for example, the echoes of Genesis 19 in Jeremiah’s prophecy about Moab: Jeremiah 48:20,26,28, etc.

[4] “… since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger”, Justin Martyr (AD 103-165), Dialogue with Trypho, 78.

[5] Robert Roberts, C. C. Walker, The Ministry of the Prophets: Isaiah, page 293. Or, “a pearl in the swinepen of the judges”, Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, page 614.

[6] Possibly called Bethlehem-Judah to distinguish it from another Bethlehem situated in the territory of Zebulun (Joshua 19:15).

[7] Dan was the first tribe publicly to establish idolatry in Israel, and therefore the first to vanish into obscurity.

[8] In Judges 18:30, the Levite is named as “Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh” – or more likely, Moses. In 20:28, the second incident occurred when “Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, stood before” the ark. Both incidents therefore probably occurred in the first generation after the conquest of the land.

[9] Joshua 15:60 LXX lists “eleven cities, and their villages” that do not appear in the Hebrew Bible. Included among these is “Ephratha, this is Bethlehem”.

[10] Sodom remained the yardstick against which Israel was measured. See, for example, Isaiah 1:10; Jeremiah 23:14; Ezekiel 16:46.

 

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