The Immigrant Story
If you’re a child of an immigrant, there’s probably a point in your life when it hits you: They could make a movie about my dad’s life. Or my mom’s life. There’s this incredible disconnect when you look at your parents now, living comfortably in middle-class America with normal American things. It’s almost impossible to imagine that they were from some rural village in Asia, or Africa, or South America. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine that my dad was a country boy who only had meat with his meals on special occasions, who had rocks for toys and who studied so hard that he made it to the big city of Taipei and the Harvard of Taiwan. And who jumped onto a plane to go to San Antonio after medical school for another master’s degree, knowing little to no English and having only two suitcases to his name. There must be millions of stories like his, and stories even more fantastic yet real, like a friend whose dad swam for three days to escape Communist China, hiding in the dense jungle and swimming from sandbar to sandbar.
He doesn’t speak of it often, but I know those first years in America must have been hard. Loneliness must have pressed in on all sides, as well as the fear of the unknown and the confusion of trying to decipher a language he could barely understand. Yet there were also kind strangers who helped him along the way. Perhaps the faces and names are beginning to fade, but he has never forgotten the fellow student who took him out to eat and treated him to a new delight: strawberries and cream.
I thought about my dad and mom often, my friends’ parents, and even the vast, swollen wave of Syrian refugees that have washed up on distant shores when I studied the book of Ruth recently. The Bible never ceases to delight and surprise, and for those of you who think that the Old Testament ethic is xenophobic, ethnocentric, harsh and violent, I invite you to consider the book of Ruth.
Man’s Heart Towards Immigrants
In this wondrous little narrative, Ruth is an immigrant if there ever was one. She chose to leave land and country, friends and relatives to go with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to a foreign land—the land of Israel. And not only that, she comes from the country of Moab, a country that was considered the enemy of Israel. For Ruth takes place in the time of the judges (Ruth 1:1) and Eglon, king of Moab, had only recently oppressed the Israelites (Judges 3:14).
Throughout the narrative we’re given a pretty good sense that Ruth did not feel terribly welcome in the city of Bethlehem. Ruth is frequently given an epithet, “the Moabite”, not only by the narrator (Ruth 1:22; 2:2, 21), but from the lips of the people as well. In Ruth 2:6, after Boaz asks his servant who the young lady gleaning in his field might be, it is telling that the servant answers, “She is the young Moabite woman…” Ruth’s ethnic identity overshadows all, so that servant does not identify her by name. The people of Israel had a difficult time seeing past Ruth’s ethnicity to who she was as a person–someone with a name, a home, and a story. All they knew was that she was different.
How often is this the immigrant experience, even today? You would think that the xenophobic tendencies of an ancient culture would have been improved upon with millennia of education, science, and human advancement. But no amount of time or learning can change the fundamental bent of the human heart to exclude and demonize the other. This recent election cycle and Europe’s own woes with the refugee crisis are proof enough. Only something greater can change the heart.
God’s Heart Towards Immigrants
God’s heart towards the foreigner, the immigrant, and the sojourner is fundamentally different. As the whole Bible makes clear, God has a special love for the poor and the oppressed, and immigrants usually fall into both categories. They come to their new countries with very little and being different, being the “other”, they are vulnerable to oppression, hatred, abuse, and exploitation. And from the very beginning, God provided protection for this vulnerable class of people. Exodus 22:21 says, “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (ESV, unless otherwise noted). In Leviticus 19:9-10, when God legislates the gleaning system of welfare in Israel, he says this, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap the field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleaning after your harvest…You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am YHWH your God.” Laws such as these revealed God’s heart of love towards the immigrant.
And his love is not just any ordinary love. For the sojourner who has sought refuge in the land of Israel and ultimately YHWH, he extends the same hesed he has towards his people—a highly important concept in Ruth. Now hesed is a Hebrew word that is a translator’s nightmare. For instance in Psalm 136, where every refrain is “his hesed endures forever,” the ESV translates it as “steadfast love”, the NAS, “lovingkindness, the NIV, “love”, the NKJV, “mercy”…well you get the picture. We must always be cautious to assign any one word too much meaning, or assume a one-to-one correspondence between word and concept. But the concept that hesed primarily denotes is God’s great, gracious, merciful, steadfast, covenantal love for his people–love in its fullest conception. And yet in Ruth we see that YHWH’s hesed is extended to the immigrant (Ruth 2:20).
But how? God’s hesed comes to Ruth as it always does, through those who love and follow his law. In this case, that person is Boaz.
At the end of Ruth 1, Ruth and Naomi have returned to Bethlehem, the widow and her widowed daughter-in-law, with no land to their name and little hope of survival. And as the chapter 1 closes, it closes with the phrase, “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” This was a Biblical cliffhanger. Would Ruth and Naomi find enough food for the winter? Would they find food at all? Turn to Chapter 2 to find out!
At the beginning of Chapter 2, Ruth’s only option was exactly the means of welfare that God provided in Leviticus 19:9-10 (see above). And in God’s providence, he leads her to Boaz’s field. There Ruth experiences true hesed. For Boaz understood the law not only in letter, but in spirit. Boaz could have done the bare minimum towards Ruth and so satisfied the law, but he understood God’s heart behind the gleaning law and other laws protecting the sojourners. He understood that these laws were meant to protect and care for, to show mercy and grace towards those who were most vulnerable and most in need.
And so Boaz does far more than simply let Ruth glean in his fields. He instructs his young men not to touch her (2:9a). He tells her she can drink from the water jars of his servants (2:9b). And when lunchtime rolls around, he invites her, Ruth—a Moabite, a foreigner, a widow whom everyone overlooked—to eat with him and his workers, to eat until she was satisfied (2:14). But Boaz’s generosity is still greater as he lastly instructs his servants to pull out the harvested grain from the sheaves so that Ruth can maximize her harvest for the day (2:16). This largesse makes no sense to Ruth (2:10) and probably to his astounded workers. Why show such generosity to an immigrant from an enemy land?
It is true that Boaz had heard of Ruth’s love and sacrifice for Naomi (2:11), but we shouldn’t take away from Boaz’s actions. Ruth had entered his sphere and so his heart was to spread out his wings over this poor and vulnerable immigrant, to provide and protect, living out the heart of his God and both the letter and spirit of the law. She sought refuge in YHWH and now in Boaz’s field, how could he not show hesed towards her?
In showing compassionate love towards an immigrant, Boaz typifies Christ. For we too were the poor and vulnerable, those without husband and land. We were actually more than immigrants, we were those in far-off lands and God in Christ left his home to seek us out, to bring us to his table, to spread his wings over us, and become our everlasting refuge. Only in knowing this greater Boaz is the fundamental bent of our hearts changed. And being changed, how can we not then love the immigrant in our midst?