Meet people who have fled their homelands.Hagar. Joseph. Ruth. Jesus. Here is a riveting story of seeking safety in another land. Here is a gripping journey of loss, alienation, and belonging. In The God Who Sees, immigration advocate Karen Gonzalez recounts her family’s migration from the instability of Guatemala to making a new life in Los Angeles and the suburbs of south Florida. In the midst of language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, and the tremendous pressure to assimilate, Gonzalez encounters Christ through a campus ministry program and begins to follow him. Here, too, is the sweeping epic of immigrants and refugees in Scripture. Abraham, Hagar, Joseph, Ruth: these intrepid heroes of the faith cross borders and seek refuge. As witnesses to God’s liberating power, they name the God they see at work, and they become grafted onto God’s family tree. Find resources for welcoming immigrants in your community and speaking out about an outdated immigration system. Find the power of Jesus, a refugee Savior who calls us to become citizens in a country not of this world.
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Naomi and Ruth
A Blessed Alliance
Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.
— RUTH 1:16
I first heard of the book of Ruth when I was in college. I was at a friend's house for a small group meeting for my college fellowship. As we were waiting for everyone else to arrive, I happened to see an intricately embroidered picture hanging on the wall. In the foreground stood a bride and groom in all their wedding finery. Behind them was a little country church with colorful stained glass windows. Embroidered below the church were these words: "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Ruth 1:16."
My friend saw me looking at the picture. "Somebody gave that to my sister for her wedding," he explained.
"I didn't know there was a book in the Bible named after a woman!" I blurted out. Generally, I like to be in the know, and I didn't like to let on that I knew very little about the Bible. It was embarrassing. But this passage had caught me by surprise.
"Yeah, there are a couple," my friend said. "This one is in the Old Testament. It foreshadows Jesus through a man named Boaz, who is the 'kinsman redeemer' — a kind of stand-in for Jesus. But it's also about love and loyalty. So this passage is a popular reading at weddings."
The conversation shifted then, and I was left alone with my thoughts.
At that time I had very little experience reading the Bible, and much less in understanding anything I read. But this passage didn't seem to require much explanation, and it did indeed seem a beautiful sentiment for a wedding, speaking not just of love and loyalty but also of steadfastness and faithfulness.
Since then I've discovered that most children's Sunday school books portray the story of Ruth almost like a Disney princess tale: Ruth is the poor maiden, Naomi is the fairy godmother always looking out for her best interest, and Boaz is the knight in shining armor who saves the day. That version is a quaint little Bible story in which all the main characters — Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz — do everything right. That's what my friend described when I saw the embroidered picture on his family's wall. He believed this was a story about a heroic man who sweeps in on a white horse to save the damsels in distress.
But when I went home and read the short four chapters of the book of Ruth, I found that those words, spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law, Naomi, have nothing to do with marriage or even a romantic relationship. In fact, these words were not ones spoken during the best of times, like a wedding or the birth of a child.
No. These words were spoken by one widow to another during the worst of times, after a series of devastating losses: infertility, death, widowhood, abject poverty, and forced migration. It wasn't what I had thought at all.
It wasn't until many years later that I fell in love with this Old Testament book. Only years after that small group meeting did I realize how deeply I, as a woman and an immigrant, resonated with the story. The book of Ruth is one of the few places in the Bible where immigrants are treated just as God's law commands: "When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:33-34).
As an immigrant, I am loved and seen by the holy God of the universe. Our Bible, inspired by God, includes an entire book that deals directly with the just treatment and acceptance of the foreigner. In the many churches I had attended since my childhood, I had never heard that the Scriptures have something to say about the way that immigrants — people like my family and me — should be treated. I had never heard that the Bible commands that we be regarded as native citizens, treated fairly, and even loved like family.
Naomi and Elimelech, economic immigrants
In the biblical text, we learn that the story of Ruth begins in Bethlehem, a name that means "house of bread." But there's no more bread in the house. There's a famine in the land, and it's severe enough and lasts long enough that people begin to migrate in search of food.
A man named Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, immigrate to Moab, a neighboring country, with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. There, these economic immigrants find the food they need and decide to stay and build a life for themselves. For many years, the immigrant life is good: food is plentiful, and their young sons grow into manhood and marry local Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.
But quite suddenly their fortunes change. Elimelech dies, and as if that were not bad enough, the young sons soon die too, without leaving any heirs. Although Naomi's sons were married for more than ten years, neither of their Moabite wives were able to have children, and now both women are widows along with their mother-in-law. This all happens in the first five verses of chapter 1! As a woman who had seen so many of the women in my family fight for survival when tragedy befell them, I was intrigued. Clearly, this was going to be a story not about dead men but about the survival of women.
But Ruth and Naomi's survival is doubtful. Though God has specifically outlined care for vulnerable people in the law — people like widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor — those laws were given to God's people, Israel, and even God's people don't always follow them. Life often does not work out well for people like Naomi and her daughters-in-law. It's altogether possible that Moab provides no protection for widows and other vulnerable people. So these women are, indeed, in a precarious situation. The ancient world is an agrarian society, in which widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor have no economic or social power and live at the subsistence level. If a tragedy like a famine, a drought, or a foreign invasion strikes, they are the first to suffer and perish. It's not unlike today, when the elderly, the homeless, single parents, and refugees are particularly vulnerable to poverty, abuse, or early death.
But amid all the tragedy, good news soon reaches Naomi: there's food again in Bethlehem! She can return home and find the sustenance that she needs among her own people. She decides to return and take her daughters-in-law with her. But just as suddenly, she changes her mind and decides the two young women should stay behind after all. Maybe since her daughters-in-law aren't pregnant with sons, they're of no use to Naomi — just more mouths to feed. Maybe she remembers the challenges and trials of being an immigrant and doesn't want to put her beloved daughters-in-law through the same thing. Just as they do today, immigrants in the ancient world often experienced xenophobia, suspicion, and verbal and physical abuse. Or maybe Naomi remembers that, no matter how much she loves her daughters-in-law, the Israelites despise their Moabite neighbors.
For there is lots of strife between Moab and Judah. Moabites are part of Abraham's extended family, descended from the incestuous union of Lot and his daughters in Genesis. In fact, Israel's disdain for their Moabite cousins can be seen in Deuteronomy 23:3, in which Moabites were excluded from the assembly of the Lord for ten generations and beyond. And they're not just excluded from the assembly; Nehemiah 13 states emphatically that a child of Israel is forbidden to marry a Moabite. So Naomi would have rightly feared how her daughters-in-law would be received in Judah. History told her not to expect a warm welcome for them.
Whatever Naomi's reasons, she manages to convince one of her daughters-in-law, Orpah, to stay. Orpah is sensible and decides to remain with her own people, perhaps realizing that her best chance at remarriage is within her own culture. But Ruth is undeterred. Some might even say that she is irrationally faithful. Theologian Megan McKenna notes, "Ruth sides with Naomi and gives her life to Naomi in love and friendship, leaving everything to make her mother-in-law's life easier. She pledges her life even unto death to her." Theirs will be a story of surviving or perishing, but Ruth will remain with Naomi come what may. She speaks her famous words of love and loyalty and renews her commitment never to abandon Naomi (see Ruth 1:16-17).
Sometimes I've wondered if Naomi, seeing Ruth's love and commitment to her, feels like many of the elderly Americans my mother took care of as a home healthcare worker in the United States. While their relatives couldn't care for them, my mother did so until their deaths. She offered them companionship and care, listening to their stories. Naomi faces an uncertain future, but she is not alone. She is with a woman, Ruth, who loves and cares for her deeply.
I can only imagine how painful and humiliating the trot into Bethlehem must have been for Naomi. She hadn't left under great circumstances, of course; there had been a famine, and all the uncertainties that accompany it. But at least she'd had a husband and young sons by her side back then, a woman's only assurance of security. Now she is coming back ten years older, and she literally has nothing except an empty belly. Beside her trudges another grieving widow — a barren woman, a foreigner, another person she'd have to take care of in her hometown.
This is not the triumphant homecoming she had dreamed of through all those years in Moab, the type of homecoming immigrants still long for today. The two times my entire family returned to Guatemala after we migrated to the United States were filled with joyful celebration at our arrival. Friends and family hired marimba bands and hosted parties for us, and my parents brought gifts for everyone. These are the kind of homecomings that immigrants dream of, when they return happier and better off. But Naomi's return is enveloped in grief and loss.
Ruth, the immigrant
But the timing of their arrival couldn't be better, given their circumstances. It's the beginning of the barley harvest. As an Israelite, Naomi likely knows this is an opportune time to return because of God's command in the law to provide for vulnerable people:
Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don't go back and get it. Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so that the Lord your God blesses you in all that you do. Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don't go back over them twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don't pick them over twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows.
(Deuteronomy 24:19-21, italics mine)
Indeed, in the story of Ruth we find this command carried out. Naomi and Ruth's story reveals a vision of a whole community that cares for immigrants and others in vulnerable situations.
The immigrant, Ruth, is welcomed onto the field of Boaz, a relative of Naomi's, although Ruth has no knowledge of this fact at the time. There she gleans what the regular harvesters left behind, just as the Scriptures said, and brings it home to her mother-in-law. Boaz knows that even this immigrant from a despised community is entitled to work for her livelihood. He provides her with a decent job and a decent living. And the work Ruth performs is not undignified or demeaning; it is hard work, just as all agricultural work is, but it is exactly the kind of work that most people did in the world of ancient Judah. Ruth isn't doing the work that nobody else is willing to do. Many immigrants today spend long hours in fields, slaughterhouses, and warehouses, doing the backbreaking work few others are willing to do. But Ruth is welcomed onto Boaz's field to do the work any citizen in need would have done.
And Ruth is entitled not just to a job but also to respect. Boaz reminds his workers that there is to be no harassment and no sexual or physical assault (see Ruth 2:9, 15). Being a poor immigrant doesn't mean that she should endure humiliation and mistreatment. Today, many immigrant women have no such protection. Most immigrant women working in agriculture have been sexually assaulted or know a woman who has been. Many view it as an unavoidable condition of this kind of work. But Boaz makes sure that Ruth is safe and is treated as respectfully as any one of his workers.
He also invites Ruth to his table, where she breaks bread with him and his workers. She drinks from the water containers filled by the harvesters, and she is satisfied and has leftovers for Naomi and herself. She is allowed the same rights and privileges as a native Judean. Boaz practices true hospitality — philoxenia, as it's called in the New Testament. Philoxenia is a love of strangers and foreigners.
And both Ruth and Boaz are entitled to Sabbath: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, and worship. Boaz surely knows that in Exodus a strict command was given for Sabbath:
Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don't do any work on it — not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you — so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. (Deuteronomy 5:12-14, italics mine)
God is very concerned with providing rest for those who can't secure it for themselves and wants the people to remember that the Sabbath was created for everyone, not just the Israelites. All creatures, including enslaved people, immigrants, and even animals, are invited into a weekly day of rest. So it is that Ruth rests one day a week, along with the people of Judah.
The story of Boaz?
Readers of this passage often focus on Boaz's kindness and generosity. It's true that Boaz shows both those qualities — his generosity of spirit is unparalleled. But what is usually overlooked is the fact that, as a follower of the God of Israel, Boaz is actually not free to act in any other way. Boaz simply does what God's law commands. It is God's law that guarantees Ruth a place in gleaning his crops: "He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
All the people in the margins of society, not just Ruth, have the right to simply walk onto a field and begin to work for their livelihood. And Boaz has an obligation not to order his regular workers to harvest everything for his own economic gain. They cannot harvest what grows in the corners of the field, nor what they missed on the first time around. Compassion for those who are poor and marginalized is considered more important than efficiency or profit. And it's clear that Boaz shows compassion to all in need, because he extends it to Ruth even before he knows she is Naomi's daughter-in-law.
While the story of Ruth is often retold as a Disney fairy tale, such a reading of this story robs Naomi and Ruth of agency. It removes the choices and actions that empower them to labor with God for their flourishing. Yes, it's true that Ruth and Naomi are poor and vulnerable. But they are not helpless.
They conspire for their survival, writes McKenna, as they share "love, history, and hope together."
A blessed alliance
If you look closely at the dynamics that lie behind the story, you'll see another dimension — something theologian Carolyn Custis James has called "the blessed alliance." A blessed alliance occurs when women and men work together for the flourishing of the world. According to Genesis, writes James, "male/female relationships are a kingdom strategy — designed to be an unstoppable force for good in the world."
Everyone in the story of Ruth has something to offer:
Ruth may be a poor, immigrant widow, but she is a hard worker. The text tells us she gleans and threshes until evening, collecting about twenty quarts of threshed barley. She's also socially savvy and compassionate. Ruth boldly but appropriately makes herself known to Boaz — in fact, most biblical scholars say she makes the first move in their eventual relationship! She also takes good care of her mother-in-law. And her love and loyalty to Naomi earn her Boaz's favor.
Naomi may be poor and too old to work, but she is a cultural insider. Because she's an Israelite, she knows how to navigate the laws of the land — the law that provides for the poor and the immigrant, and the law that says her closest relative must come to her aid. As a woman and a widow, she's powerless to enforce these laws, but she helps Ruth to understand the system and to position herself in such a way as to benefit from it. She could have chosen to have Ruth work and provide for her, but instead she shows Ruth how to make her way in the society of Judah. She teaches Ruth about the culture of this new land she inhabits.
And then there's Boaz. As a man and a landowner, Boaz is the most powerful of the three. Providentially, he understands the biblical use of power for the common good. Rather than reveling in his own privilege, exploiting his workers, or caring only for his own people, he chooses justice and compassion. Offering Ruth an honest means to earn a living while providing a safe work environment for her, he cares for the immigrant widow. And he does so long before there's any benefit for him — long before there's any promise of marriage between them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The God Who Sees"
Copyright © 2019 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia 22803.
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