Sunday, June 17, 2007

Immigrants and the Hebrew Bible

As has been true throughout the history of our nation, religion and values emerging from faith continue to play a significant role in shaping American politics and public policy.

So, given the current national debate over immigration and comprehensive immigration reform, it seems logical that people of faith would turn to the Bible in search of insight and direction. The narratives of our faith tradition make it clear that the people of God have lived as immigrants and "aliens" in various strange lands. This fact largely defined the experience of the Jewish people in biblical times and beyond. Jesus spent time as an immigrant during his early childhood when his parents fled with him to Egypt.

What does the Bible say about immigrants? What follows is a listing of some of the texts that speak of "aliens" and how they should be regarded:

"I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, where they lived as aliens." (Exodus 6:4)

"Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 22:20-22)

"Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:8-10)

"The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:34)

'The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. (Leviticus 25:23)

"And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

". . .so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands." (Deuteronomy 14:29)

"And rejoice before the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, the Levites in your towns, and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows living among you." (Deuteronomy 16:11)

"Be joyful at your Feast—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns." (Deuteronomy 16:14)

"And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:11)

"Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law." (Deuteronomy 31:12)

"All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, facing those who carried it—the priests, who were Levites. Half of the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had formerly commanded when he gave instructions to bless the people of Israel." (Joshua 8:33)

"So David gave orders to assemble the aliens living in Israel, and from among them he appointed stonecutters to prepare dressed stone for building the house of God." (1 Chronicles 22:2)

"Solomon took a census of all the aliens who were in Israel, after the census his father David had taken; and they were found to be 153,600. (2 Chronicles 2:17)

"The LORD will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. Aliens will join them and unite with the house of Jacob. (Isaiah 14:1)

"You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. (Ezekiel 47:22)

"So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty." (Malachi 3:5)

"Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household. (Ephesus 2:19)

"All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth." (Hebrews 11:13)

"Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11)

Conclusions? Here are a couple I've come up with.

1) God expects that "strangers" or immigrants be treated fairly, with compassion and justice. In fact, the faith of God's people is demonstrated by how they treat the outsider. Jesus once said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

2) People of faith regard themselves as "aliens" or immigrants making their way through life and, as a result, should naturally identify with others who are living here far from their homelands.

I'd love to hear your reactions.


Anonymous said...

I've looked, and there is a noticeable shortage of passages that say something like this: "when the aliens appear in your land, fill your buses to overflowing and send them away from your land..."

Randy Mayeux

Daniel Gray said...

A couple of those verses reminded me that God didn't want Israel to think it was their land. I think our culture has gotten to the point where we say it's ours and we can do whatever we want with it. (When in fact, we stole this land from other people.)

It also reminds me of the native American mentality that the land could not be owned, but they were allowed to use it (which is why it was so easy to "buy").

I think we place too much sense of personal ownership with land. We try to assert our overprotective control over it, because it is OUR land. It's mine, immigrants have no right to it.

Thanks for the scriptural reminder. The land belongs to nobody, except God. So we have no right to exert absolute control over it. We've been blessed with it, and need to share it's blessings with other people, rather than claiming to protect it for our own kind.

IBreakCellPhones said...


What do you think about the passages that state that the aliens were to respect the Law, and if they didn't, the same punishment applied to them as to the native-born?

Larry James said...

ibreakcellphones, thanks for the question. It is a good one. Of course, I think the provision that placed "aliens" under the same rules as Israelites or, I suppose, "citizens," was a good one that implied that the immigrants were respected and a vital part of the society.

The limit of law is discovered in the enactment of bad law. I am not saying that current immigrants from south of our border have not broken civil law (most don't realize that coming here without documents is not a criminal act, but a civil disobedience). What I am saying is that the system we have created in this country with its demand for cheap and willing labor implicates all of us in the current dilemma. To me, this means that since we share in the responsbility, we ought to be more gracious in working out provisions that reward hard work, good behavior and the desire to create a better life for oneself and family.

My major "beef" with the "law and order" opponents of immigration reform is their simplistic analysis of the issues that, for them all boil down to "they are breaking our laws." Laws that need reform and they aren't the only ones breaking immigration laws today.

The biblical materials set a tone and provide a direction for how our laws might be fashioned in a just and equitable manner going forward.

Lee Wilson said...

Another item to consider is that there are legal ways to enter this country and there are plenty of people who enter LEGALLY.

Other countries are much harsher than we to illegal immigrants. The laws are there to protect us because, for example, if someone who was a criminal or murderer from Mexico wants to come to this country and applies for citizenship, we might see the need to alert the Mexican authorities and to keep him out of this country to protect ourselves, children, property, etc.

As it is now, many criminals are fleeing Mexico and coming to the United States. We are becoming the escape plan for running criminals. And no, I'm not saying that all Mexicans who come to this country are escaping criminals. But a good portion are and if we don't enforce some sort of citizenship application, it will continue.

chris said...

The aliens and sojourners in Israel were descendents of the original Canaanites that God ordered driven out. Had Israel obeyed God they would not have intermarried with the pagans and eventually be carried into capativity. The pagans were forced into slavery to build the temple. While Israel should not have oppressed them, they should have obeyed God in the first place by driving them out. I don't think this has anything to do with being "invaded"
in the 21st century by another country.

Brady said...

Thanks for the verses. There seems to be a shift of attitude when you get to Nehemiah. I don't know if he did a good job of living out Deut. What do you think?

Larry James said...

Brady and all, I think the provisions, especially those from the Law of Moses, are best applied today in the creation of a faith-informed worldview, if you will. I understand that there are differences in both Israel's application of these provisions and in our current situation as a people. And, Israel did not always execute the laws as intended. It is the heart behind these rules that I believe apply today.

The Nehemiah narrative follows a time of war and captivity where refugees and captives return to their own land--a bit different than our situation today, unless you want to raise questions surrounding the failed treaty of 1848!

Chris, as to why Israel went into captivity, etc., it wasn't just idolatry. . .injustice and the nation's policy re the poor also was a major factor.

Anonymous said...

As the son of a Canadian immigrant who, with my mother, came to the USA in the 1920's and didn't become a citizen until the mid-thirties I have a more than passing interest in the present state of our borders. I find it it dificult to understand this "Christian" country being so adamant about the etnicity, language, and culteral differences of many of the "aliens" met here. The Statue of Liberty must stand for only those who have all the necessary paper-work. Perhaps we may some day get it "right" and truly become a democracy.

chris said...

Perhaps we don't want a duel culture like Canada, part French and part English. Millions of Hispanics would change the entire complexion (pardon the pun) of our country. BTW we are a Republic.

Larry James said...

Chris, don't object when folks here recognize your prejudice and racism based on color and culture. There is no amusement in your comment. There is however the means to discern your real concerns.

Shannon said...

I am seeking to be on God's side in this debate, but I have so many questions. I am a public school nurse in the mid-cities area, and I work with many immigrant families-both legal and illegal-from all over the world. I too love these families, and I too feel compassion for all people groups who suffer extreme poverty and oppression in the world. This debate for me is not about ownership of land, as much as treating each other with respect. There are so many injustices occuring to Mexican citizens as they cross our border--by Mexican smugglers! The Mexican government does not have the means or perhaps wisdom to seek out ways to improve their current situation, instead they encourage their citizens to slip across our border illegally and disobey our laws. How does this help either culture? It seems to me, this crazy culture of law-breaking allows darkness and sin to flow unchecked-just as in the days of prohibition or union mob bosses.

bpb said...

I just wanted to point out that we lose our focus . . . we tend to only be concerned with "illegals" from Mexico or south of the border.

Anonymous said...

interesting examples: prohibition and union mob bosses. the first, an example of what happens when you have a really bad law. the second when greed and materialism put workers in such a vulnerable position that they consent to drastic measures. there are reasons why things happen.

Anonymous said...

Larry - Your heart's in the right place. But selective quotes pulled from any book, especially the Bible, don't make a case. If one quote doesn't support your position, you can generally find another one that does. Case in point - immigration. If you want to be kind to immigrants, you pull out Deuteronomy 10:19: "Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." But if you've got a different opinion, flip back a few chapters to Deuteronomy 7:2 and go with: "And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them." Hmm. Do I go with "love" or the whole smiting without mercy approach? The Bible's not much of a handbook, I'm afraid.

Larry James said...

Anonymous, 4:06 pm, I understand your point; and to an extent you have one. The various "truths" or principles of scripture reflect the historic and cultural contexts of the times in which they were produced and from which they arose. At times, the truth sounds fairly self-serving for the people who held them sacred. At other times, they are hard and prophetic, with messages like objective, investigative reporters. But on the whole, you can come to see overarching themes and values.

The verses you cite have nothing whatsoever to do with immigrants or the "aliens" of the land. You quote an invasion text--the army of God taking over or back the land of promise. The language falls into the self-serving category in this case of a justified plan of warfare for Israel.

If you pull down and exhaustive concordance and run the references on "ailen," "aliens," and "strangers," you will see the overwhelming stream of consistency about how outsiders and foreigners should be treated. It is not as murky as you suggest, I can assure you, especially on this subject. The Hebrew Bible from Exodus thru the prophets makes it clear that immigrants are to be treated with special regard, since the people of God were themselves aliens and strangers in a foreign land. . .much like all of our ancestors, unless we happen to be Native American.

By the way, every competent Hebrew scholar would agree with me on this one. At the end of the day, the Bible has lots of apparent contradictions and some competing values, but it is not quite like statistics!

BTW--my "heart is in the right place" on this one for only one reason: my reading of the Bible for the last 50 years. And this has been the case for a number of others whose impact vastly exceeded anything I will ever accomplish--Wilberforce, King, et. al.

Fer Reyes said...

This is in response to Lee Wilson's comments:

Applying for a visa in any US embassy abroad takes #1 A good fat bank account #2 Properties #3 Good job (that is only if the person is seeking a turist visa not an immigrant visa) and if someone wants a worker visa you must have the 3 points above plus #4 specialized college education and #5 the employer sponsoring the petition. If someone is applying for a student visa their parents must comply with points 1, 2 and 3 as well, but if someone is seeking assylum you must have a shot in the head for them to believe you! I can tell you the vast majority of illegal immigrants coming to the US is exactly for the lack of all the points above to provide to their families, so guess what...They won't even make it for the first interview to apply for a visa!

The hardships they encounter when crossing borders illegaly pay off when they send $ back home and are able to put food on the table.

And to your other point saying that a "good" portion of illegals are criminals back in their native countries, I would love to see your scientific data on that.

Love to all!