The bible has been described as the ultimate immigration story. The biblical story describes people constantly on the move, following God’s guidance into new and unknown lands. Jacob and his family are part of a wave of immigrants emigrating into Egypt to escape starvation. Their descendants, the Hebraic peoples, escape Egypt and migrate to Canaan, the tribal forerunners of David’s empire and eventually the nation of Israel. Borders are porous and relative in God’s eyes and God often guides people to pick up everything to seek new life and freedom in a foreign land.
The Book of Ruth is more than a quaint love story. It is a story of women’s agency, divine providence, intermarriage, and immigration. The story begins with a wave of migrants moving from Bethlehem to Moab during a time of famine. Like refugees throughout the ages, these immigrants are fleeing for their lives. Among these refugees is the family of Naomi and Elimelek and their two sons. No doubt, they are greeted with suspicion in Moab, whose citizens were often in conflict with the children of Abraham. But, eventually, they fit in, the boys marry Moabite women and they settle the land. A few years later, all three of the males die, leaving three widows to fend for themselves. Orpah returns home, but Ruth chooses to return to Bethlehem with Naomi now that the famine in Bethlehem has ended. Perhaps, Ruth’s family have died and she has nowhere to go. Perhaps, she is the victim of racism, ostracized for her marriage to a Judean. Despite Naomi’s protests, Ruth travels to Bethlehem with her; two women, one a foreigner, without resource.
We don’t know how Ruth was received in Bethlehem. We do know that Boaz, the man she eventually marries, is worried about her safety as a single woman, depending on the social safety net of the day (gleaning the leavings of the harvest), and perhaps the object of innuendo and threat. We do know that the Judeans of the time saw the Moabites as lowlifes, morally suspect, and promiscuous. No doubt some feared that “people like Ruth will take our resources, threaten our safety, and steal our young men from us.”
A romance blossoms between Ruth and Boaz, they marry, and give birth to a child, Obed, the father of Jesse, who is the father of the great King David. Imagine that, the great King David, a mixed-race ruler, the great-grandchild of a Moabite woman.
Some scholars believe that the story of Ruth was preserved in the biblical canon as a critique of Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s ban of intermarriage and requirement that Jewish men divorce and send away their wives and children. (Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 13:1-3, 23-29), based on a return to Deuteronomic law. (Deuteronomy 23:3-6) In contrast to rules demanding racial purity, Ruth affirms the providential nature of intermarriage and the significance of immigrants as bearers and agents of divine providence.
While such stories cannot guide us in the intricacies of public policy, they provide guidance in terms of what followers of the God of Israel and Jesus are called to do and to avoid. First, they provide an affirmation of the role of immigrants in salvation history. Without Ruth, there might not have been the nation of Israel or the birth of Jesus in the line of David. Without the kindness of those giving hospitality to immigrants, God’s vision might have been deferred or defeated altogether. While immigration is ambiguous, these stories beg the questions, “Are we banning a future spiritual, political, or scientific leader by our current immigration policies? Are we traumatizing a child, separated from their parents, who may grow up to be a Nobel prize winner or community leader?” Second, they challenge us to speak respectfully of those who migrate, whether in caravans or families? They are not a horde, an invasion, rapists, robbers, or terrorists. They are people, imperfect like ourselves, who have hopes and dreams and who are above all else, God’s children. Objectification of the stranger is an affront to God! Third, these immigration stories remind us to treat those who are emigrating with respect, following our laws regarding asylum, providing proper care, and balancing border control and national security with our moral obligations to our fellow humans. We may, as the author of Hebrews asserts, be entertaining angels unaware.
As a follower of Jesus, I counsel those persons who claim that the USA is a Christian country to read their bibles to behave as Christians and not as mob of persons guided by fear and hate. Love casts out fear and opens us to new possibilities for fair and rationale decision-making. Knee jerk xenophobia or hate-filled rhetoric will not save our nation, in fact, it will destroy the soul of the USA as we turn from our better angels to the demons of chaos, alienation, polarization, and fear.
Ruth, the Moabite immigrant, found a home and from that home came David and Jesus. The immigrant Holy Family found hospitality and the bearer of salvation was saved. We cannot trust our future to fear, but need to forge a future, grounded in rational law, recognition of the holiness of strangers and refugees, and God’s providential care for the aliens in our midst.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 45 books, including “Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” and “The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman.”