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Immigration and the Bible

THROUGHOUT HISTORY PEOPLE have frequently moved, migrating to find food or employment, fleeing from war or persecution, or just to improve their lives. Such moves often take travelers into foreign territory.

For the patriarch Abraham, migration was part of a divine calling to bless the nations. From his native Ur he traveled five hundred miles to Haran (Gen 11:31), then later journeyed an additional four hundred miles to Canaan (Gen 12:1-5). Abraham described himself as a "sojourner and foreigner" in Canaan (Gen 23:4). Today we might call him a resident alien or landed immigrant—one who takes up permanent residence in a foreign country with the permission of the authorities in that country.(1) Since Abraham did not own land in Canaan, he had to negotiate carefully to obtain water rights for his flocks (Gen 21) and a burial site for his family (Gen 23).

In the days of the patriarchs, Egypt was the wealthiest country in the Mediterranean region and a refuge for people from surrounding nations in times of trouble. When there was a famine in Canaan, herdsmen would come to Egypt in search of water for their flocks. The Egyptians provided help but kept close tabs on foreign visitors, building forts to protect their borders and monitor traffic into their country.

The Egyptians sometimes viewed these visiting herdsmen with contempt. One Egyptian document, Wisdom for Merikare (c. 2200 B.C.), comments on the plight of the "miserable Asiatic" who lacked water and food.(2) We see hints of this Egyptian prejudice in verses like Gen 46:34, which comments that "every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians." It was not so much the practice of herding sheep that they detested, but rather that this practice was associated with needy foreigners.

Egyptian ambivalence toward immigrants is reflected in their treatment of the children of Israel. As Joseph guided Egypt through a time of famine, the Pharaoh was happy to welcome Joseph's family to Goshen as resident aliens (Gen 46-47). However, subsequent Egyptian rulers turned on the Israelites and forced them into bitter slavery (Exod 1).

When God rescued Israel from slavery, the Israelites were accompanied on the Exodus by a "mixed multitude" of people of other nationalities (Exod 12:38). The same was true forty years later when they arrived back in Canaan (Josh 8:33). As part of Israel's overall mission to the nations, it was anticipated that others would be drawn to the true God (Deut 4:5-8) and seek to become resident aliens in the Promised Land. Such people were to be received with kindness, not as the Egyptians had treated the Israelites. "You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt," Lev 19:34 instructs. There are similar admonitions in Exod 22:21; 23:19; Deut 10:19.

The Torah, in contrast to other law codes of the Ancient Near East, grants special protection to resident aliens, who did not own land in Israel and often lacked the support of an extended family. They were allowed to glean the grain left in the fields, along with the poor, orphans, and widows (Lev 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut 24:19-22). In the third and sixth years of every cycle of seven years, a tithe was collected to help resident aliens ("the sojourner" in the ESV) along with Levites, orphans, and widows (Deut 26:12-13). Moreover, Deut 10:18 states that God "executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing."

Resident aliens are guaranteed equal protection under the law in the Torah. Law courts are admonished to judge impartially, treating Israelite and alien alike (Deut 1:16-17). Equal protection implied equal responsibility, with the same penalties for the same crimes. For example, "Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native" (Lev 24:21-22).

Sojourners could celebrate Passover if their males were circumcised (Exod 12:48), and they could offer sacrifices under the same rules that applied to native Israelites (Lev 22:17-19; Num 15:15-16). They were subject to the prohibition on leavened products during the Days of Unleavened Bread (Exod 12:19) and were expected to fast and refrain from work on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:29-30).

The sojourner or resident alien was a person who chose to live in Israel and adopt Israelite ways. And for the most part, they were welcomed, even when they came from peoples that were often enemies of Israel. Rahab (Josh 1), Ruth, and the Amalekite member of Israel's army in 2 Sam 1 are specific biblical examples.

Also, other foreigners came in contact with Israel, like people who came for temporary employment or business dealings. These people did not have the same responsibilities as resident aliens, so they did not enjoy the same privileges. For example, they could not observe Passover (Exod 12:45) or benefit from sabbatical year debt forgiveness (Deut 15:3). Such restrictions provided some incentive for a foreigner in Israel to become a resident alien.

When Israel did not live up to the standards of the Torah, they received correction from inspired prophets. Through the prophet Malachi, for instance, God promises judgment "against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner" (Mal 3:5). The New Testament epistle of James continues this type of rebuke against employers who, motivated by greed, exploit their workers (James 5:1-5). Sojourners can be especially vulnerable to this kind of exploitation.

Although our world today is much different from that of ancient Israel, Torah’s principles have modern applications. For example, a country should not grant resident alien status to a group of people and then turn against them, as the ancient Egyptians did to the Israelites. The United States now looks back with shame upon its treatment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

Employers should not bring workers into a country illegally and then take advantage of their vulnerable position to enslave or otherwise exploit them. Actions like these certainly violate the principle of love of neighbor (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:37-40) and other commandments mentioned above.

Finally, it is worth noting that just as ancient people were attracted to Israel's God and his ways, modern non-Christian immigrants and refugees often come to faith through the witness of Christians in their host countries.


(1) See James K. Hoffmeier, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 2009, p. 50.

(2) Hoffmeier, pp. 40-41.


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