Tonight in youth group, we remembered stories of refugees from Scripture.
There are so many… Abraham, Noah, Jacob, David, Hagar, Ishmael, the Israelites, Jesus… some argue that Adam and Eve were refugees as well.
There are dozens of refugees in the Bible… but what is a refugee?
A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”
We settled on the story of Naomi (because I love the ladies of the Bible, and she’s been on my mind recently), whose story is told in the book of Ruth. Definitely read the whole story – it’s only a few chapters long, and it’s an important story to know.
Naomi and her husband Elimelek lived in Bethlehem. They had two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. A famine (no food) in their hometown forces them to relocate to Moab:
Moab isn’t too far from Bethlehem, but people from Bethlehem didn’t always get along with people from Moab. Naomi, Elimelek, Mahlon, and Kilion were refugees.
The family spends ten years in Moab. Elimelek dies, and Mahlon and Kilion marry Orpah (not Oprah) and Ruth, who were Moabite women. Mahlon and Kilion die.
This is the story of two widowed women, and one widowed refugee. It’s set up to be tragic, and it’s hard to read if you’re really paying attention.
Being a widow in this context was a death sentence. Men could own property and have jobs, but women did not (some exceptions, but few). Naomi knew that and decided to return to Bethlehem, perhaps to improve her chances at a better life. She encouraged Orpah and Ruth to stay in Moab: “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands … It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
Orpah stayed in Moab, and reasonably so. Ruth decided to return to Bethlehem with Naomi.
Tragic circumstances originally forced Naomi and her family to move to Moab, and tragic circumstances compelled Ruth to move to Bethlehem.
Ultimately Ruth marries Boaz, and this marriage saves Naomi’s life.
[side note: I do not believe that marriage or having children saves women. I do believe that in this context, Boaz provided refuge to Ruth and Naomi not because they needed him to have value, but because God called him to help them at their most vulnerable. We don’t know a lot about Boaz’s character, except that he was good at getting his way.]
After piecing this story together with our high school youth, I asked them why they thought this text was in Scripture. The book of Ruth is a random, flippant story with lots of confusing details, and it’s really Naomi’s story because it begins and ends with her.
We wondered together if this story is in Scripture because widows and refugees matter to God. We wondered if the Holy Spirit preserved the story of Naomi because she was made in God’s image.
I asked them to take two minutes and think of the refugees in our world: to remember that they exist, to remember that they are made in God’s image, to remember that they are valuable. I did not tell them what to think, but I reminded them of the truth:
Refugees are made in the image of God.
“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him… He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes” – Deuteronomy 10.