Who is the Snake? A Biblical Immigrant Story

She clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died”
She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight
Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake
“I saved you,” cried the woman
“And you’ve bitten me, but why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in
“Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman,” sighed the snake

He read the poem again. He read it despite the protestations of the author’s family members who are well aware that the author would been horrified to find his work used to incite hatred. But that is our president and this, in part, is our America.

Today, the day after Donald Trump once again compared immigrants to treacherous snakes, I began a three-part series of classes with a local church group on the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth is a narrative of immigrant experience. As such, it cannot be a mere idyll. In three verses we learn that an Israelite named Elimelech emigrates to Moab with his family to escape famine in Bethlehem only to die in a foreign land. His widow, Naomi, is “left over.” Her sons marry Moabite women, but they, too, die in Moab. The text hammers the point home again: she is “left over,” a remnant of sorts.

Naomi is an immigrant. There is no evidence that she is mistreated by the Moabite locals. She does not leave with her sons after her husband’s death. After they marry, she clearly grows to love Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law. While the narrator defines them according to their marital status, Naomi calls them b’notai, my daughters.

Places can define us. But relationships can change everything. After they lose their husbands, Orpah and Ruth plan to stay with their beloved mother-in-law. They insist that they will “return” with her, accompany her as she goes back to Bethlehem (1:10). As her daughters, they believe that her home is theirs.

Naomi protests. Perhaps she is afraid for them. Moabite women could hardly expect a warm welcome from Israelites. So she tells them they should return to their biological mothers. She has no more sons to give them, she says.  Dreaming of the apparently impossible, she adds that even if she were to remarry and, miraculously, have more sons, it would be unkind to expect her daughters to wait for them to grow up.

Naomi does not just send Orpah and Ruth away; she believes that going “home” is their best choice. But not before desperately – even hopelessly – imagining what it would be like if she could offer them shelter, security and hope. Naomi did not wish to be separated from the women she called her daughters.

The first chapter in the Book of Ruth includes a number of variants on one Hebrew root: shin-vav-bet. Lashuv, tashav, shavah, nashuv, shov’nah… in twenty-two verses one or the other character is turning, returning, or told to turn around. Naomi will return to Bethlehem. Orpah and Ruth plan to return with her. Naomi insists they turn around, go, essentially back-wards. Ruth insists that to do so would be to leave Naomi, and she begs her mother-in-law not to make her turn back.

Is our identity generated by the place of our birth or the places we adopt? Do the kin we are born to or the kin we embrace define who we are and who we wish to become? Turn, and you become a different person. Return, and you will find that  those you missed have changed. You are a different person, too. Naomi discovers that her fellow Israelites will greet her and leave her.  It is the widow’s Moabite daughter-in-law who sees she is fed, not her former neighbors. Ruth, in turn, will be treated as a cipher by those same Israelite women though they also extol her service to her mother-in-law: Ruth, they say, is better to Naomi than seven sons (4:15).

One wonders how Ruth endured being passed over as Obed’s mother and simultaneously praised for the decency with which she tends to Naomi, the Israelite. As an immigrant she seems to exist primarily to ensure that Israelite society and royal lineage is secured. All she has to do is brave a potentially dangerous nighttime encounter, marry Naomi’s choice for her, bring a son into the world and hand him over to the Israelites. They will call him their own. They will name him. They will say he belongs to Naomi.

If there is a snake in this story, it sure isn’t Ruth.

America does well because we use immigrant labor without regret, concern, or thanks. Immigrants are our farm workers and our school janitors. They are small business owners who employ American citizens. They work as computer scientists, nurses, and doctors. Without immigrants in this country, America will not have the workers it needs to pay to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent in the decades to come.

Immigrants work for privileged Americans hoping to be accepted and understood, imagining what it would be like to give freely, safely, and openly to their new home. Like Ruth, they are enterprising, interested, energetic.

And we citizens do as the ancient Israelites did to Ruth. We live off their labor, their contributions, and their taxes. I must ask the leader of the Free World, who is so quick to demonize the immigrant population in this country: Who is the snake?

To Earn the Trust of Immigrants: Teachings from the Book of Ruth

Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of Humayun Khan, who was killed while serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

“Why did Elimelech and Naomi leave Bethlehem?” I asked.

They knew the story: This is a church filled with bible-literate individuals, after all.

“Because there was a famine,” one woman said.

“Does that happen elsewhere in bible?” I asked.

They named examples: Abraham leaves his land because of famine. Jacob sends his sons to foreign climes to find food.

“So,” I said, “Naomi and her family leaves Bethlehem, the house of bread, because there is no bread to be found. They leave their homeland because they are hungry, because they need to feed their children. They leave because they need to find a better place for their family.”

I paused and looked around. “Can we think about that, please? Can we think about the way our texts tell us that our forefathers and foremothers had every reason to emigrate in order to survive?”

Then I asked: “Do we know this family? Do we know these immigrants?”

For two Sundays church members and I explored the Book of Ruth. We spoke about the ways in which the text showed is the despair of indescribable loss. It is Ruth, the Moabite, who creates hope for her mother-in-law, Naomi. It is Ruth – not the townspeople of Bethlehem – who makes sure her widowed and childless mother-in-law is fed. It is Ruth who intertwines the law of the levir and the law of redemption and asks Boaz to help her make certain her husband, Mahlon’s line, will not be extinguished and her mother-in-law will eat.

The Book of Ruth is not simply a happy idyll.

Naomi sends Ruth into the night dressed and perfumed and tells her to lie down in the dark next to their kinsman. Naomi prepares her adopted daughter to act the seductress. What risks is Naomi taking with Ruth? Ruth belongs to a hated people. Moabites are clearly associated with sexual profligacy in bible (Numbers 25). Moabites may not be admitted, so Deuteronomy 23:3, into the congregation of Israel.  Ever.

Every major character of the Book of Ruth bends the rules in order to assure what appears to be a happy ending. And the outcome still leaves us with questions. The townspeople both name Ruth’s child and hand the infant over to Naomi. What of Ruth, who dared to come to a foreign country though she belonged to a despised people? Ruth vowed to be a daughter to Naomi. Ruth herself proposed the marriage that would, at one fell swoop, permit her mother-in-law security and a descendant who could – in some way – replace her dead sons? Does the end of the story give Ruth her due?

“Yes,” I said, “we know that immigrant women in this country are at risk. Yes,” I said, “we know immigrants who have given everything they had to this country and its people. Yes,” I said, “we know immigrants who are hated because they belong to a despised people. Yes.”

“Who here has served in America’s military? I asked. About ten people raised their hands. “Please rise,” I said. “Who has had a parent who served in America’s military?” I asked. “Please rise.”

And then, the parents of sons and daughters in America’s military. “Please rise,” I said.

I looked at those parents.

“It is reprehensible to attack the parents who have lost a child serving in America’s military. It is doubly reprehensible to do so because of those parents’ religion.”

Then I asked everyone to reflect about what they had learned and to dedicate it to the memory of Captain Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan and in honor of his parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan.

I asked everyone to pray with me. So we did. For an America that opens its arms to our immigrants. For a country that knows that we are the stronger for those who cast their lot with us.

We have our Moabites. The Book of Ruth tells us what we should do when they arrive at our shores. Welcome them, make them at home, and honor them for their courage and their hard work. Thank them for trusting us.

Earn that trust.  May we learn that lesson and act accordingly.