Immigrants Seeking Refuge Under God’s Wings, in the Book of Ruth and Today

 In Telling a Better Story

February 16, 2021

By: Mark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville

Grounded flights during COVID and tightened international borders affect all of us, but none as much as asylum seekers. We see images of 50 or so Boeings beached upon airport tarmacs, the shadow of their wings crisscrossing the concrete. These wing-shadows call to mind an Old Testament image: The shadow of Yahweh’s wings of refuge (Ps 63:7). God’s wings extend to offer shelter for immigrants in the book of Ruth in the Old Testament. These divine wings offer protection and a home.

Let’s drop into this well-known biblical story at the point where Naomi returns from the country of Moab to her own Israelite clan, with her daughter-in-law Ruth. (We note in passing the ease with which Naomi has passed from Israel into Moab and then back again.)

The story takes us to the land of Judah in early spring, the time of the wheat and barley harvest. In ancient times, impoverished people could sometimes gain permission to glean in the field behind the harvesters, collecting what they could in order to survive another day. Ruth gleans in a field belonging to a man, Boaz. When Boaz inquires with the foreman about Ruth, the foreman praises her hard work. As with many migrants today, Ruth’s tireless work is recognized and appreciated by others.

Boaz blesses Ruth with a most remarkable phrase: “May you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (Ruth 2:12).

This metaphor of Yahweh’s sheltering wings evokes the care and protection of Yahweh, and it appears a number of times in the Old Testament (Ps 36:7-9; 57:1). Only here is it applied specifically to an outsider who is seeking a place to dwell and flourish. Whatever Ruth’s understanding of Yahweh and Yahweh’s people had been before arriving in Judah, Boaz seems to think that Ruth has come to the right place. According to Boaz, Yahweh’s protective wings extend to shelter and embrace even the outsider who comes seeking a home. The image is of a mother bird who shelters her chicks under her wings. Yahweh’s care is a kind of maternal nurture: the tender devotion and fierce protection of a mother. And here this intimate covenant phrase of Yahweh’s wings is applied to non-Israelites: Yahweh enfolds and protects vulnerable outsiders with maternal care (see also Deut 10:18-19). Boaz’s phrase doesn’t apply just to Ruth. Rather Boaz seems to be pointing to a reliable characteristic of Yahweh, who will step into the protective role of mother, for the outsider. This phrase will reappear shortly in the story.

When Ruth reports Boaz’s generosity to Naomi, her mother-in-law says, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin” (Ruth 2:20). Naomi gives instructions to Ruth to prepare herself and to secretly approach Boaz by night as he sleeps on the threshing floor. Ruth is to uncover Boaz’s feet and lie down beside them. With her sound knowledge of local marriage and redemption customs, Naomi is guiding Ruth toward Boaz. (This moment in the story makes visible two crucial elements that enable displaced people today to effectively integrate in their new society: local knowledge and social networks.) When Boaz wakes with surprise, Ruth answers, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin” (Ruth 3:9). The Hebrew word for “cloak” used here is the same as the word for “wings” that was used by Boaz earlier (Ruth 2:12). Ruth is picking up Boaz’s own phrase, as much as saying: You be the answer to your own prayer, Boaz! You be the wings of Yahweh in providing my mother-in-law and me refuge!

When the sun rises, Boaz springs into action. Boaz redeems the family’s field and marries Ruth, preserving Naomi’s husband’s name. Ruth’s determination and risk taking provided a home for the next generation of her family. As Daniel Carroll has observed, Ruth’s son Obed’s experience will be very different from hers, for her bravery and ingenuity have created a pathway for her son to enjoy a life in a new land.

In our book, Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics, we show that the image of Yahweh’s wings protecting and enfolding people-on-the-move is a glimpse into the tender heart of God. This is not a romantic, idealistic notion. It’s meant to be put into practice, embodied, as Boaz did. As the church plays our part in the mission of God, we are called to reflect and incarnate this tender welcome.

And yet this ethic goes well beyond the walls of the church. According to Scripture, all of humankind, every person, is created in the image of God. And so if we are to live as fully human, if we are to be all that we are created to be, then we all need to embody the tender welcome of God. How can we, as the church, extend this joy-filled invitation to our communities, to our nation?

What will a post-COVID reality be? As we seek to reimagine our communities for a post-COVID world, can we also reimagine refuge? As we dream of borders re-opening for our own non-essential travel, can we also visualize offering a home for those who have no choice but to travel? Can Christians who find refuge in Christ offer refuge to people on-the-move? And can we advocate for this tender welcome within our society?

Adapted from Refuge Reimagined: Biblical Kinship in Global Politics by Mark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville. Copyright (c) 2021 by Mark R. Glanville and Luke Glanville. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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