Christians, for whom the Bible is a sacred text, will surely struggle to find a certain voice on the issue of immigration within the pages of their various canons. Fear and mistrust of foreigners is an ancient habit.
The legal tradition within the Hebrew Scriptures fails to find its voice on this issue because it is dealing with abstractions.
Exodus 23:9 says, “You shall not oppress a stranger, and you know the life of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:34 says, “The stranger, the one living as a stranger with you, shall be to you like a citizen among you, and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in Egypt.”
But Deuteronomy 7:2-3 volleys back with: “When the LORD your God places them before you and you strike them down, you shall completely destroy them. You shall not make covenants with them and shall show them no favor. You shall not intermarry with them, not giving to their sons and not taking their daughters for your sons.”
In a narrative setting many centuries later, and in a much more personal way, Nehemiah would reaffirm this attitude in Nehemiah 13:23-25: “Also in those days I saw Judahite men returning with women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab…. And I contended with them, and I cursed them, and I struck the men among them and pulled out their hair.”
Responding to this kind of fear, mistrust and blame with opposing pronouncements in similar form is rarely effective, but the Old Testament also shows us a more human way to speak about such issues, using the language of story.
In terms of narrative artistry, the little book of Ruth, comprising only four chapters, may be the pinnacle of biblical literature.
It opens with a family on the move, driven by lack of resources from Bethlehem, which, ironically, means “House of Bread,” to the foreign land of Moab.
This family thrives and is enlarged when the two sons marry Moabite women, bringing two new daughters-in-law into the household.
This period of prosperity comes to an end, however, when the father and both sons die, leaving three widows behind.
Unlike much of the biblical tradition, this book assigns no blame for the calamity. The two young men died before producing heirs not because they were evil or had sinned in some way. Untimely death is simply something that happens.
Neither are the women judged for the poverty into which they are plunged. The storyteller takes meticulous care to allow the two young women to make opposing decisions, without evaluating one of them as wrong.
Orpah returns to her family in Moab and Ruth travels with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to back to Bethlehem, where she will live as a “foreigner.” This word will turn out to be our interpretive key, not only to the meaning of the book of Ruth, but to the meaning of our lives in a place where we are all immigrants.
Once settled in her new surroundings, Ruth immediately looks for a way to provide for her mother-in-law, exposing herself to humiliation and great danger. While walking behind a group of workers harvesting barley, she picks up the remains that they leave behind.
This activity brings her into contact with a well-respected man named Boaz. In the midst of the second chapter of the book of Ruth, a remarkable conversation takes place, as the landowner invites the strange woman to harvest in his field, to stay close to his workers for safety, and to sit with him to eat lunch.
Ruth responds to the hospitality of Boaz with a question, “Why have I found favor in your eyes to have regard for me, when I am a foreigner?”
Boaz then compliments Ruth with this statement: “All that you did with your mother-in-law after death of your husband has been carefully reported to me, that you left behind your father and your mother, and the place of your birth, and went to a people whom you did not know a few days ago. May the LORD prosper your work, and may your reward be prosperous from the LORD, the God of Israel, to whom you came for refuge under his wings.”
Ruth responds, “I have found favor in your eyes, my master, for you have comforted me, and you have spoken unto the heart of your servant, even though I am not like one of your servants.”
What the English language cannot duplicate is that the word Ruth uses to identify herself as a “foreigner,” nakriyah, is a noun derived from the verb, yakar, which means “recognize” or “regard.” In fact, it is a form of this verb that Ruth uses in the same sentence to describe the actions of Boaz toward her. His regard for her and her foreignness are rooted in the same word.
By the time the book of Ruth concludes, Ruth and Boaz have married and had a son, Obed, who by Israelite law, becomes the heir of Ruth’s first husband.
The genealogy of this family, which can now continue, is presented in the final verses of the book. These verses reveal that this is the genealogy of David, Israel’s greatest king. The foreign woman for whom the book is named, Ruth, is his David’s grandmother.
That the book of Ruth is centered around the question of human identity is revealed by the question that both Boaz and Naomi ask Ruth in Chapter 3, “Who are you?”
The question for us is how we will regard those to whom our immigration policy asks this question of identity.
We may disregard them as “illegals,” or we may have regard for them and see in them the face of a young woman from an ancient time, struggling to find favor in someone’s eyes.
They may be the source of our nation’s finest hour.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at BelmontUniversity.