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Bible study: "Pilgrimage as Solidarity" (Ruth 1:1–22)

"Pilgrimage as Solidarity" (Ruth 1:1-22) - a Bible Study on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace by Yolanda Pantou

23 May 2017

Bible Studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
"Pilgrimage as Solidarity"  (Ruth 1:1-22)
By Yolanda Pantou*

1In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 6Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 19So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 22So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Migration is a phenomenon as old as human history, yet it has become a prevailing issue and even a source of conflict in our contemporary world. Often today, one’s sense of belonging to one’s own certain national or ethnic group can overshadow concern for the human welfare of migrants and refugees, and newcomers are treated with suspicion and prejudice.

In this Bible study, we will see how immigration shares many traits with pilgrimage and how immigration can turn into a pilgrimage of faith if we give new meanings into it. We will also see that, though in many cases neither immigration nor pilgrimage are planned journeys—rather a reaction to a certain situation—yet some life-changing good can emerge from it.

In this Bible study, we will learn from the story of Ruth, someone who chose to immigrate as a form of solidarity with her mother-in-law, Naomi, the less-fortunate one. Here, we shall see how a journey of migration can change someone’s belief, value, and path of life.


There are some similarities between pilgrimage and immigration, whether forced or voluntary. Sometimes immigration can be understood as a pilgrimage, sometimes a pilgrimage of faith develops into a form of immigration. When people emigrate from their homeland to a new place, it involves faith: going to a place unknown, just as Abraham once did. Our text for this Bible Study, speaks about two stories of immigration—the first one was caused by scarcity of basic provisions, and the second one was caused by love and solidarity.

Naomi’s perspective

This story took place in the time of the Judges, before the time of the kings, before Israel became a kingdom. The family of Elimelech of Bethlehem-Judah migrated to Moab when there was famine in their homeland. Some interpretations point out that this act of migration might be considered as an opportunistic act or even a betrayal to their people, since the family left their homeland for greener grass during a time of trouble.[1]

It is not clear whether their moving to Moab was meant to be temporary or permanent. From Naomi’s reaction after the death of her husband and sons, it seems that, even after ten years of staying in Moab, she never really considered it as her homeland. But from the marriage of her sons to Moabite women, perhaps the “second generation” of this immigrant family did consider Moab as their homeland.

This phenomenon also occurs in today’s immigrant families. The first generation (the parents) normally would like to keep one foot in their land of origin, while the second generation (the children) consider their new land as their homeland. The fact that Naomi chose to return to Judah when she heard that the situation there had improved might leave us wondering whether Naomi was an opportunist. But we can also see that, from her point of view as someone who has lost her loved ones in a foreign place, she is desperate for a livelihood, and she perhaps never really felt that she belonged there.[2]

Ruth’s perspective

Now let us look at the second stage of our text: immigration from Ruth’s perspective. Ruth is a Moabite, a non-Jewish person. Yet not only is she willing to move with Naomi to Bethlehem, she is also willing to take Naomi’s God as hers. Naomi’s motivation for moving places differs from Ruth’s. Ruth leaves not because Naomi had anything to offer, nor because of Naomi’s charming personality.[3] In the beginning it seems that for the daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, following Naomi was a cultural obligation. Only when Orpah departs from them is it clear that Ruth’s motivation and commitment are more than just a cultural obligation

What would Ruth’s motivation be? It is pretty clear that she does it out of love of, respect for, and solidarity with her mother-in-law, Naomi. There is a further important factor in her decision, though, namely, a conversion of faith: “Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!” (Ruth 1: 16). Apparently there is a deep relationship between Ruth and Naomi, in which neither is thinking only of her own benefit. Naomi resists Ruth’s accompaniment. Naomi feels that she has nothing more to offer and that Ruth is still young and has more possibilities in life. But Ruth is not looking out for her own interest; she chooses to stay loyal to her widowed mother-in-law.[4]

Pilgrimage and immigration

Immigration and pilgrimage share some characteristics. In each there are elements of journey, impermanence, unpredictability, encounters, conversion, solidarity, openness, closeness, and divine providence. Immigration is never a one-direction story. In many cases there has been a previous bond. For instance, many people from the global South immigrate to countries that have colonized them in the past. One of the reasons is because they feel more connection to or have relatives or acquaintances in the destination country.

Not everyone wants to emigrate, just as not everyone wants to go on a pilgrimage. The fact that many people are being forced to immigrate in our world today could be seen as an opportunity to give meaning to our journey and a challenge to turn it into a pilgrimage  or a journey of faith for justice and peace. Through the story of Ruth and Naomi, we learn that pilgrimage can become an act of solidarity, accompanying the weak without regard for self-gain.

Questions for Discussion

1. What is your or your family’s experience of immigration?
a) What and who are you in this experience?
b) How does it feel to encounter and to influence (and to be influenced by)  different peoples and cultures?
c) What are the gives and takes, the learnings and challenges, of your encounters?

2. How can Christians and Christian churches play a larger role in turning immigration into a pilgrimage of justice and peace? What can we offer to people of different religions and values? How might this apply in your setting?

Ideas for Action

Watch this video about the journey of human DNA and discuss your possible origins.

If it is possible in your context, make friends with someone from a different origin or background, especially someone who needs your solidarity for justice and peace in their life.

[1] In verses 20-21 Naomi perceived her loss and coming home as if God was punishing her.

[2] In many cases, the lack of sense of belonging in their new country makes the immigrating people feel more attached to their homeland.

[3] Naomi changed her name into “Mara,” which means bitter. This shows how depressed she was at that time.

[4] Ruth’s choice is more easily understood within the perspective of traditional Asian culture. In comparison to people of the West, Asian people tend to look at life as a journey that is decided as we go through the stream of life. The spirit of amor fati is strong(er) within Asian culture and mentality. One does not change direction, but rather goes along with what life offers, one step at a time.

* Yolanda Pantou is a minister of the Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI), Indonesia.