Immigration and Religion Overlap: The Book of Ruth

The movement of people is as old as recorded history, and the treatment of aliens in a foreign land did not escape the religious texts of the people of the Book. Perhaps the best scriptures on this topic is Ruth, which is a short and enjoyable relation of the two protagonists, Ruth and Boaz, who sacrifice the easy path to make the hard but noble choices which speaks volumes to their character.

To summarize, Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, left the land of Judah due to the spiritual and agricultural emptiness afflicting the area. With them traveled their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, and the four of them settled in Moab, an alien land. The two sons took wives from this country, Ruth and Orpah. However, all of the men in the family passed leaving Naomi without her husband and sons, only two foreign daughters in-law. But when the famine in Judah lifted, an empty Naomi decided to return.

At this point Orpah made the easy choice: she abandoned her mother in-law and stayed in Moab. In contrast, Ruth selflessly decided to accompany Naomi to the Lord’s land in Judah in a descriptive expression: “Do not entreat me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16). This declaration is a testament to Ruth’s compassion and devotion to her mother in-law. This act of filial piety inspired a spark of hope in a desolate Naomi. And so Ruth, a Moabite, emigrated from her home to Judah.

Ruth was an immigrant in Judah, her presence dictated by her family’s relocation.  And as an immigrant with few resources, Ruth took one of the few opportunities available to her in order to survive: gleaning. Gleaning is an extremely tedious form of field labor performed by picking up the stalks of grain leftover by harvesters. Ruth toiled in the barley fields, bending at the waist and working in the sun for long hours. How many new immigrants to the United States find themselves leaving their home countries and laboring in agriculture or other labor-intensive positions in order to be reunited with their families?

The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857

At this point we are introduced to Boaz, a landowner and distant relative of Naomi, in whose fields Ruth finds herself at work. His first act in the book is to offer a kind and encouraging greeting to his harvesters, an act that was as uncommon in 1200 B.C. as it is today. In another display of compassion, Boaz then extends a number of special courtesies to Ruth, shunning the bigoted perceptions and stereotypes of the Moabite people held by most Judahites. The simple kindness and platonic affections of Boaz eventually lead to a marriage proposal.

Boaz’s marriage proposal to Ruth was not without complications. Staying true to the author’s contrasting symmetry of the book, Boaz’s difficult and noble course of action is contradicted by a character referred to as “the kinsman-redeemer,” who was obligated to protect the interests of the needy members of the extended family. By purchasing the land of Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, either man would be obligated to take Ruth as his wife and risk his property being transferred to Elimelech’s house should an inheriting son be born. The kinsman-redeemer’s shallow refusal to entertain this risk amplifies the compassion and generosity of Boaz, who accepted this risk in order to protect Naomi and Ruth.

Although I have an enormous admiration for Ruth, my purpose in sharing this story is to relate the character of Boaz in his dealing with those laboring beneath him, and more specifically, his interactions with the immigrant Ruth. To cast judgment based on perception, rather than fact, is a typical characteristic within human nature. Ruth was not just an immigrant in Judah, not just a lowly laborer, she hailed from Moab. Moab and Judah were traditionally hostile towards each other and Ruth is often referred to by the author as “the Moabitess” to remind us of that hostility. It could even be interpreted as a derogatory term in this context. Yet Boaz was able to instantly see past this characteristic with ease, where others in his community could not. Consequently Boaz has been exalted as a noble and Godly example within Judeo-Christian theology, his actions a perfect example of the edict in Matthew 25:40: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

 

Ryan Morgan Knight is an attorney with Haynes Novick Immigration in Washington, DC, focusing his practice on a broad spectrum of employment-based nonimmigrant and immigrant visas.