With anti-immigrant fever festering in countries of the Western world, I find inspiration driving on the King’s Highway into ancient Moab, east of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan. Here ancestors of David and Jesus found sanctuary during the era of judges when drought devastated their hometown of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-5).
The ancestors were Naomi, her husband and two sons. They surely traveled the King’s Highway into Moab because it was and still is the only main north-south highway through the region.
The family must have been in dire straits to migrate to Moab, because it was a nation Israelites despised. Israelites understood the founder of Moab to be the product of incest (Gen. 19:37). The Law of Moses stated that “no . . . Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:3) because Moabites had been hostile when Israelites passed through their territory on their way from Egypt to Canaan.
So what kind of reception did Naomi and family receive? Apparently better than some immigrants experience in my own country, and the family settled in Moab. Sons grew up and married Moabite women — and then tragedy struck. First Naomi’s husband died, then both her sons, leaving three widows — the Israelite Naomi and two Moabite daughters-in-law.
Naomi resolved to return to her native Bethlehem. She urged the two younger women to stay in Moab. But daughter-in-law Ruth clung to Naomi and spoke the timeless words, “Entreat me not to leave you or to turn back from following after you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Now it fell upon Israelites at Bethlehem to show hospitality to an immigrant. The Book of Deuteronomy may have said nasty things about Moabites, but it also said, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you” (Deut. 24:19).
Ruth was an alien in Bethlehem, and landowner Boaz allowed her to glean in his fields. Romance blossomed, the two married — and Ruth the Moabite became an ancestor both to King David and to Jesus.
Passports and visas did not exist in the time of Naomi and Ruth, but prejudice surely did. Naomi was an economic refugee when she traveled down the King’s Highway into Moab and had to overcome prejudice. If she and her impoverished family had needed to wait 20 years for an uncertain visa into Moab, they may have starved to death.
Stories of the immigrant grandmothers of Jesus remind me why it might be important for followers of Jesus to help create sanctuary today for immigrants who flee hardship in their homeland and look to us for hospitality.
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.