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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Immigration and the Bible (1)

As biblical Christians, we want to know what God has to say about all aspects of life.  As self-governing citizens in a representative democracy, we have a responsibility to rule ourselves according to freedom and justice as God defines them.  Since immigration is a hot topic in our political life, we can only benefit by seeing and obeying what God has to say on the subject.

The Bible says a lot more about immigration than you might think.  This is going to take a few posts to get through, but we'll try to eat the elephant one bite at a time.  Today we'll begin merely by identifying the relevant Scriptures in the Old Testament.  We'll save interpreting and synthesizing them for later.

For starters, it is worth noting that there are three Hebrew words (actually four, but two of them are cognates) that are used to denote individuals of a foreign nationality who have come among the Israeli people.  (This does not include words that refer exclusively to collectives like nations or to foreigners outside Israel's borders.)

1. zār, "other, outsider."  This term does not necessarily involve ethnicity or nationality, so it is sometimes applied to Israelites (for example, a person outside the priesthood) or to inanimate objects of no national origin at all.  But when zār does apply to someone of a different ethnicity or nationality, it always has negative connotations, which relates to the verbal form zūr, which means "to be/become estranged."  For example, it is frequently used of foreign invaders who take Israelis captive and loot their wealth.

2. gēr, "resident alien, immigrant."  Unlike the zār, the gēr has settled in the community for an indefinite period of time; he is not a visitor or part of a hostile military force.  He is part of the community, but he is still not "one of us."  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were gērim in the land of Canaan.  Their descendants were gērim in Egypt.  Moses was a gēr in Midian.  Gēr does not only apply to a recent immigrant but also to the descendant of an immigrant who may have been born in Israel but was genealogically separate from the Israeli family tree.  The gēr is never portrayed negatively, and the terms zār and gēr are never applied to the same people.  We'll see more about the gēr in a bit.

3. nēkār or nokri, "foreigner."  These terms have two definitions.  (1) Synonyms for zār.  (2) Any non-Israeli (Gentile), whether zār or gēr.

The reason it's important to know this is that contemporary English Bibles often translate these words indiscriminately, frequently using "foreigner" or "alien" or "stranger" for any of them, and it's not always easy to know which term is being translated.  Older translations are a bit more precise, often employing "sojourner" as the unique translation for gēr.  Like those older translations, below is a series of verses in the Old Testament that talk about how the Israelites were supposed to treat the gēr, which I have retranslated as "immigrant" to be specific, consistent, and suitable to our contemporary language.
Ex. 20:10 (Deut. 5:14) The seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the immigrant who is in your gates.

Ex. 22:21 You must not wrong an immigrant or oppress him, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Ex. 23:9 You must not oppress an immigrant, since you know the life of an immigrant, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Ex. 23:12 For six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you must cease, in order that your ox and your donkey may rest and that your female servant's son and the immigrant may refresh themselves.

Lev. 19:9-10 (23:22) When you gather in the harvest of your land, you must not completely harvest the corner of your field, and you must not gather up the gleanings of your harvest.  You must not pick your vineyard bare, and you must not gather up the fallen grapes of your vineyard.  You must leave them for the poor and the immigrant.  I am the LORD your God.

Lev. 19:33-34 When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him.  The immigrant who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.  I am the LORD your God.

Lev. 25:35-38 If your brother becomes impoverished and is indebted to you, you must support him; he must live with you like an immigrant.  Do not take interest or profit from him, but you must fear your God and your brother must live with you.  You must not lend him your money at interest and you must not sell him food for profit.  I am the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan—to be your God.

Deut. 1:16 I furthermore admonished your judges at that time that they should pay attention to issues among your fellow citizens and judge fairly, whether between one citizen and another or a citizen and an immigrant.

Deut. 10:17-19 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who is unbiased and takes no bribe, who justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.  So you must love the immigrant because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Deut. 14:28-29 At the end of every three years you must bring all the tithe of your produce, in that very year, and you must store it up in your villages.  Then the Levites (because they have no allotment or inheritance with you), the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows of your villages may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work you do.

Deut. 23:7 You must not hate an Egyptian, for you lived as an immigrant in his land.

Deut. 24:14-15 You must not oppress a lowly and poor servant, whether one from among your fellow Israelites or from the immigrants who are living in your land and villages.  You must pay his wage that very day before the sun sets, for he is poor and his life depends on it.  Otherwise he will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

Deut. 24:17-22 You must not pervert justice due an immigrant or an orphan, or take a widow's garment as security for a loan.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do all this.  Whenever you reap your harvest in your field and leave some unraked grain there, you must not return to get it; it should go to the immigrant, orphan, and widow so that the LORD your God may bless all the work you do.  When you beat your olive tree you must not repeat the procedure; the remaining olives belong to the immigrant, orphan, and widow.  When you gather the grapes of your vineyard you must not do so a second time; they should go to the immigrant, orphan, and widow.  Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do all this.

Deut. 26:11-12 You will celebrate all the good things the LORD your God has given you and your family, along with the Levites and the immigrants among you.  When you finish tithing all your income in the third year (the year of tithing), you must give it to the Levites, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so that they may eat to their satisfaction in your villages.

Deut. 27:19 "Cursed is the one who perverts justice for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow."  Then all the people will say, "Amen!"

Jer. 7:5-7 You must change the way you have been living and do what is right.  You must treat one another fairly.  Stop oppressing immigrants who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands.  Stop killing innocent people in this land.  Stop paying allegiance to other gods.  That will only bring about your ruin.  If you stop doing these things, I will allow you to continue to live in this land which I gave to your ancestors as a lasting possession.

Jer. 22:3 The LORD says, "Do what is just and right.  Deliver those who have been robbed from those who oppress them.  Do not exploit or mistreat immigrants who live in your land, children who have no fathers, or widows.  Do not kill innocent people in this land."

Ezek. 22:6-7 See how each of the princes of Israel living within you has used his authority to shed blood.  They have treated father and mother with contempt within you; they have oppressed the immigrant among you; they have wronged the orphan and the widow within you.

Ezek. 22:29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery.  They have wronged the poor and needy; they have oppressed the immigrant who lives among them and denied them justice.

Zech. 7:9-10 The LORD who rules over all said, "Exercise true judgment and show brotherhood and compassion to each other.  You must not oppress the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, or the poor, nor should anyone secretly plot evil against his fellow human being."

Mal. 3:5 "I will come to you in judgment.  I will be quick to testify against those who practice divination, those who commit adultery, those who break promises, and those who exploit workers, widows, and orphans, who refuse to help the immigrant and in this way show they do not fear me," says the LORD who rules over all.

Ps. 94:3, 6 "O LORD, how long will the wicked, how long will the wicked celebrate? . . . They kill the widow and the immigrant, and they murder the fatherless."

Ps. 146:9 The LORD protects the immigrants; he lifts up the fatherless and the widow, but he opposes the wicked.

Job 31:32 But no immigrant had to spend the night outside, for I opened my doors to the traveler.
Now here are some verses from the Old Testament that talk about how the native-born Israelite and the gēr were to be held accountable to the same law.
Ex. 12:17, 19 So you will keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because on this very day I brought your regiments out from the land of Egypt, and so you must keep this day perpetually as a lasting ordinance. . . . For seven days yeast must not be found in your houses, for whoever eats what is made with yeast—that person will be cut off from the community of Israel, whether an immigrant or one born in the land.

Lev. 16:29-30 This is to be a perpetual statute for you.  In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you must humble yourselves and do no work of any kind, both the native citizen and the immigrant who resides in your midst, for on this day atonement is to be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins; you must be clean before the LORD.

Lev. 17:8-14 You are to say to them: "Any man from the house of Israel or from the immigrants who reside in their midst, who offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice but does not bring it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to offer it to the LORD—that person will be cut off from his people.  Any man from the house of Israel or from the immigrants who reside in their midst who eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats the blood, and I will cut him off from the midst of his people, for the life of every living thing is in the blood.  So I myself have assigned it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life.  Therefore, I have said to the Israelites: No person among you is to eat blood, and no immigrant who lives among you is to eat blood.  Any man from the Israelites or from the immigrants who reside in their midst who hunts a wild animal or a bird that may be eaten must pour out its blood and cover it with soil, for the life of all flesh is its blood.  So I have said to the Israelites: You must not eat the blood of any living thing because the life of every living thing is its blood—all who eat it will be cut off."

Lev. 18:26 You yourselves must obey my statutes and my regulations and must not do any of these abominations, both the native citizen and the immigrant in your midst.

Lev. 20:2 You are to say to the Israelites, "Any man from the Israelites or from the immigrants who reside in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death; the people of the land must pelt him with stones."

Lev. 22:18-19 Speak to Aaron, his sons, and all the Israelites and tell them, "When any man from the house of Israel or from the immigrants in Israel presents his offering for any of the votive or freewill offerings which they present to the LORD as a burnt offering, if it is to be acceptable for your benefit it must be a flawless male from the cattle, sheep, or goats."

Lev. 24:15-16 Moreover, you are to tell the Israelites, "If any man curses his God he will bear responsibility for his sin, and one who misuses the name of the LORD must surely be put to death.  The whole congregation must surely stone him, whether he is an immigrant or a native citizen; when he misuses the Name he must be put to death."

Lev. 24:22 There will be one regulation for you, whether an immigrant or a native citizen, for I am the LORD your God.

Num. 9:14 If an immigrant lives among you and wants to keep the Passover to the LORD, he must do so according to the statute of the Passover, and according to its custom.  You must have the same statute for the immigrant and for the one who was born in the land.

Num. 15:14-16 If an immigrant is living with you—or whoever is among you in future generations—and prepares an offering made by fire as a pleasing aroma to the LORD, he must do it the same way you are to do it.  One statute must apply to you who belong to the congregation and to the immigrant who is living among you, as a permanent statute for your future generations.  You and the immigrant will be alike before the LORD.  One law and one custom must apply to you and to the immigrant who lives alongside you.

Num. 15:24, 26 Then if anything is done unintentionally without the knowledge of the community, the whole community must prepare one young bull for a burnt offering. . . . And the whole community of the Israelites and the immigrant who lives among them will be forgiven, since all the people were involved in the unintentional offense.

Num. 15:29-30 You must have one law for the person who sins unintentionally, both for the native-born among the Israelites and for the immigrant who lives among them.  But the person who acts defiantly, whether native-born or an immigrant, insults the LORD.  That person must be cut off from among his people.

Num. 19:10 The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer must wash his clothes and be ceremonially unclean until evening.  This will be a permanent ordinance both for the Israelites and the immigrant who lives among them.

Num. 35:14-15 (Josh. 20:9) You must give three towns on this side of the Jordan, and you must give three towns in the land of Canaan; they must be towns of refuge.  These six towns will be places of refuge for the Israelites, and for the immigrant, and for the settler among them, so that anyone who kills any person accidentally may flee there.

Deut. 16:10-11, 13-14 Then you are to celebrate the Festival of Weeks before the LORD your God with the voluntary offering that you will bring, in proportion to how he has blessed you.  You shall rejoice before him—you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the Levites in your villages, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows among you—in the place where the LORD chooses to locate his name. . . . You must celebrate the Festival of Temporary Shelters for seven days, at the time of the grain and grape harvest.  You are to rejoice in your festival, you, your son, your daughter, your male and female slaves, the Levites, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows who are in your villages.

Deut. 29:9-12 Therefore, keep the terms of this covenant and obey them so that you may be successful in everything you do.  You are standing today, all of you, before the LORD your God—the heads of your tribes, your elders, your officials, every Israelite man, your infants, your wives, and the immigrants living in your encampment, those who chop wood and those who carry water—so that you may enter by oath into the covenant the LORD your God is making with you today.

Deut. 31:12 Gather the people—men, women, and children, as well as the immigrants in your villages—so they may hear and thus learn about and fear the LORD your God and carefully obey all the words of this law.

Josh. 8:35 Joshua read aloud every commandment Moses had given before the whole assembly of Israel, including the women, children, and immigrants who lived among them.
And one exception:
Deut. 14:21 You may not eat any corpse, though you may give it to the immigrant who is living in your villages and he may eat it, or you may sell it to an immigrant.  You are a people holy to the LORD your God.
There is also Scripture about immigrants in the New Testament, which we'll get to later.  But for the moment, let's consider this the material we have to work with.


  1. I must use your material as discussion fodder for the former ABSFASDPOV Group. Thank you

  2. I have paid a little bit of attention, not much, to the current story about the influx of children from Central America. These verses are certainly food for thought.