The More Things Change...

As we are in the midst of a significant debate on immigration in our country, I plan to spend this week and next reflecting on how the Bible enters into this debate.  This week will be a reflection on the treatment of immigrants/foreigners/strangers, and next week we will look at the idea of merit-based immigration.  

Then [Ruth] bowed down, face to the ground, and replied to him, "How is it that I've found favor in your eyes, that you notice me? I'm an immigrant." (Ruth 2:10 CEB)

You will gather the more you read this blog that one of the things that irritates me the most is not being honest with how complicated the Bible is.  I frequently tell my congregation or groups that I teach that I can use the Bible to justify any stance. Partially that is due to the inherent flexibility of meaning found in practically any text. Partially, though, it is due to the fact that this one book is made up of many smaller books, books that represent different stages or contexts in different cultures’ lives.  So while I agree with the assertion that Jesus was himself a Middle Eastern refugee (Matthew 2:13-23), who was later in life put to death for the equivalent of terrorism, and that he generally pushed for inclusion of all people into the family/nation of God, to characterize the Bible as uniformly in favor of open borders is to be dishonest about the text.  Allow me to share some distinctions, and then we can make informed decisions about which stance we want to take.

Let me begin with the story of Ruth. Ruth is the daughter-in-law of Naomi, a woman from Judah who had relocated to Moab when there was a famine in Judah. She and her husband Elimelech had fled across the border to Moab because they could not provide for their family in their homeland. While in Moab, things don’t go terribly well. Elimelech dies, and then Naomi’s two sons die, leaving behind a total of three widows, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, who were both Moabite. Naomi decides to return to her homeland, and Orpah goes home to her family, but Ruth decides to go to Judah with her mother-in-law. Much like the dreamers here in our country, Ruth is going where her family goes, even if that is into hostile territory (Moabites were not beloved by Israelites in most of their history). Now Ruth is a stranger in a strange land, and she has no way to care for herself and Naomi, except to go behind workers in the field and pick up their scraps. She does this in a man named Boaz’s field, and when Boaz finds her, he tells her she is to keep gleaning in his field and he will protect her. Then Ruth responds by saying, "How is it that I've found favor in your eyes, that you notice me? I'm an immigrant." (Ruth 2:10 CEB) 

The word in Hebrew Ruth is using there to call herself an immigrant is nakriyah, the feminine version of the word nakriy. While I was preparing a Bible study on Ruth recently, that word caught my eye because it was not the word for immigrant/stranger/alien/foreigner that I remembered learning in Hebrew. The word I learned was geyr. Having noticed the difference, I set about seeing if there was a difference in connation to the two words, and I can say that there is. Geyr tends to be used in situations in which an immigrant is viewed in positive or protective terms. In Exodus and Leviticus it is used to describe strangers who are integrated into the community, as those who honor the Passover and fall under the same laws as the Israelites, etc (i.e. Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 17:10). It is the word for the protective laws given in Deuteronomy: “That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19 CEB)  Geyr is a word of inclusion and assimilation.

Nakriy, on the other hand, is used when there is a potential threat coming from strangers. It is a word reflecting fear and exploitation. It is the term Rachel and Leah use for how their father feels about them – they are just tools he can use to increase his own wealth (Genesis 31:15). It is okay to call in a debt from a nakriy, but debts from fellow Israelites must be forgiven in Sabbatical years (Deuteronomy 15:13). It is the root word that sometimes gets translated as adulteress in Proverbs. In prophets like Obadiah, the foreigners are the ones who will come in and take land away from the Israelites (1:8). Then, most notably, it is the word used for foreigners in Ezra and Nehemiah.

Let’s recall what was happening in Ezra-Nehemiah. The Israelite/Judean people had been given permission to leave their homes in exile and return to their homeland. Not only that, they could rebuild Jerusalem. These returning exiles arrived home to find other people living there. This would not do. If they were going to return to their past glory, and if they were going to recreate proper worship of God, they had to get rid of these foreign influences (for now, let's just blow past the fact that it was people who were returning to Jerusalem who were defining themselves as natives and the people living in Jerusalem as foreigners). As a result, foreigners were cast out, including any foreign wives or children that had married an Israelite/Judean. Then, they set about to building a wall to keep those foreigners out. They had a culture to preserve, a way of life to defend, and there could be no threat to that project.

Into this division of meaning between geyr and nakriy comes Ruth. Ruth’s story is a story of immigration. Immigration driven by survival, or driven by love. Yet Ruth seems to recognize what a precarious position she is in. She does not refer to herself as a geyr, but as nakriyah. She is afraid. She is vulnerable. She could be exploited. And Boaz will decide to what extent that is the case. What is his response? “Boaz responded to her, ‘Everything that you did for your mother-in-law after your husband's death has been reported fully to me: how you left behind your father, your mother, and the land of your birth, and came to a people you hadn't known beforehand. May the LORD reward you for your deed. May you receive a rich reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you've come to seek refuge.’" (Ruth 2:11-12 CEB) Boaz knows Ruth’s story, and as soon as he does, however he may have felt about immigrants beforehand, he has to make allowances for this woman who is just trying to survive and do right by her family.

Make no mistake, the tension between geyr and nakriy appears in the New Testament, though it tends to show up in the question of whether or not Gentiles are included in the family of God. So we have one biblical witness (in some Torah laws, in Ezra-Nehemiah, in the fears of the prophets, in the opponents of Paul) that calls for caution (or in more extreme cases, exploitation or deportation) when dealing with the stranger. Then we have another witness (in some Torah laws, in the life witness of Jesus, and in Paul) that argues for inclusion and protection of the stranger.

In the midst of these legalistic debates wades the story of Ruth. And Boaz learns of her story. In that, there is a response of mercy. And exception to the rule. And ultimately, this union creates the path for the birth of David and eventually for the family of Jesus, both of whom are descendants of Ruth and Boaz. Perhaps that is the lesson for us, as we move across time and will continue to find ourselves caught between these two extremes in how we treat people. Maybe we should stop and hear each other’s story. Then we could understand better how a nakriyah could become a geyr, but also we could understand that there are many ways of seeing the world. The more we learn from one another, the more we are honest about the many sides of a story, and the more willing we are to hear each other’s stories, the greater the likelihood that the more things change, the more they will actually change.

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