How they illustrate the theme of reconciling the conflict between justice and mercy, show the Divine origin of the Bible, and point us to grand symbolism in the cross of Christ.
Ruth & Rahab were two women in the Bible who could not stand before God’s justice, yet were accepted through God’s mercy. Their lives help reveal the Bible’s great theme of how people can come to God. God solved the problem of the conflict between justice and mercy through Jesus and the cross. “so that he [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26b, ESV)
The Bible is actually made of many writings from different times. When the central themes of the Bible unexpectedly connect with each other in writings separated by hundreds or thousands of years, it shows God guided these writers to give His message. One writing in the Bible is the Book of Ruth. God had established Israel (Jews) as a special nation where God revealed Himself.1 Ruth was from an enemy nation (Moab) that had tried to corrupt, curse and destroy the Jews. Because of her nationality, Ruth was forbidden by law to ever become part of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Yet, the book of Ruth is about how she became an honored part of the Jewish nation. She became great grand-mother of Israel’s most important earthly king (David) and also a direct ancestor of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ genealogy in the book of Matthew usually just lists His male ancestors (some of whom were kings) and not the mother’s name. But some women ancestors are mentioned, including Ruth and Rahab. Both of these women had a strange distinction. They were not Jews and seemingly were disqualified from being God’s people, yet they were honorably accepted in Israel.
Despite her background, Ruth showed great faithfulness to her Jewish mother-in-law even after the death of her Jewish husband. Ruth endured difficulty and put her trust in God. As a result, she had a rewarding remarriage to another Jewish husband. The mother of Ruth’s new husband was Rahab who had even worse beginnings than Ruth. Not only had Rahab been a prostitute, but she was a Canaanite. Because of the extreme wickedness of the Canaanite people (including sacrificing their children), God had issued a general declaration of execution against them (Deuteronomy 12:31; 20:16-18). According to God’s command (law), Rahab was not only excluded from becoming an Israelite, but she was supposed to be killed. Yet, she was not only allowed to live, but also lived with the Jews and became an ancestor to the kingly line of Christ.
So, do God’s commands sometimes contradict what He really wants? Did God not know that He would want to accept these women in spite of His commands against them? What seems to be a contradiction in the Bible reveals the point of two of the Bible’s deepest themes; God’s justice and mercy (or Law and Grace). God’s justice demands that all good be rewarded and all evil be punished. If a person does any wrong, even in thought, God’s Law demands their spiritual death (exclusion from God’s life and pleasure). But, God’s grace and mercy desires to forgive and give spiritual life even to the undeserving. Therefore, in a very real sense, justice and mercy are conflicting and opposing each other. But, in another very real sense, they agree with each other. After all, you can’t forgive someone unless they have done wrong. Real mercy can’t exist without real justice. If it is not justice to punish evil, then it is not mercy to forgive it. Some people make the mistake of thinking that God must show the same mercy to all. But, mercy must be free to be given or not to be given. If mercy has to be given, then it would actually mean that justice has no real demands. Justice would only have empty warnings of punishment because mercy would never actually allow it. But, God tells us repeatedly that He is the God of justice and mercy. Justice is not an empty threat toward evil. Mercy is not a hollow promise to be freed from a consequence that couldn’t happen. Although people may struggle with the conflicting goals of justice and mercy, or the way God decides to show them, even daily life requires us to make decisions of justice and mercy. If people don’t use some system of rewarding good and punishing evil, things will fall apart for lack of justice. But, if no mercy is shown, then life is unbearable because none of us perfectly keeps all the rules.
How God keeps the agreement and resolves the conflict between justice and mercy is central to the Bible and the cross of Jesus. A cross is made when two lines that run in exactly different directions meet each other. The cross is the only place where the two lines can meet. It is the only place that someone who is traveling down one line can switch to the other line. The Bible teaches that there are two lines or two ways for people to try to approach God. These two ways are represented in two covenants (or contracts) given by God through two different men; Moses and Jesus. But, two women are used to represent how we should respond to these contracts.
Through Moses, God gave the covenant of Law in which a person must live in perfect obedience to God by their own strength. If people under this contract break those terms, God will deal with them according to justice and punish them forever for violating the infinite goodness of God. Even people who don’t know about Moses can be relating to God according to the contract of Law or justice. Every attempt to be good without God’s Savior appeals (consciously or unconsciously) to the contract of Law. Even atheists are aware of a standard of good to follow. We accept the contract of Law by faith in (dependence upon) someone or something other than Jesus. Sometimes, it is openly a faith in our selves without God. Often, it is hidden as faith in a God (god) that we can please by our own efforts. The Bible reveals that this way seems right to people, but is actually the way of death. Moses’ laws of exclusion and death against Ruth and Rahab represent the contract of Law that actually requires all of us to spiritually die because of bad things we have done, said or thought.
Through Jesus, God gave the covenant of grace. Under this contract, we trust in God’s gift of goodness (or righteousness) to us through Jesus and not our attempts to be good. Even Jesus’ name means that “God is salvation” or “God saves”. In other words, God has to rescue you from evil because you can’t save yourself. Though faith in Jesus, God will forgive us, accept us, include us and give us eternal life. In the Covenant of Grace (a.k.a. the Good News of Jesus Christ), God keeps the Law for us, pays for our sins by dying in our place, and lives inside of us to help us do good by His power. What we need to do is inwardly turn to God (repent) and trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior (the only one fit to rule over us and the only one able to save us). When Ruth and Rahab put their trust in the true God and sought to be among His people, they were no longer under the contract of the Law and were free from its demands. They became parties to (participants of) the contract of God’s grace. God invites everyone to come to the cross of Jesus and accept the contract He made for us there. It is in Jesus and the cross where “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.” “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Psalm 85:10, John 1:17 (ESV).
Footnote: 1The physical Jewish nation is a symbol or shadow of the special “nation of God’s people”, but the spiritual reality is that “God’s special people” is made of everyone who trusts in God’s salvation (Jesus).