Immigration in the Bible

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

Immigration is a topic that is not foreign to the Bible. Seen in various ways throughout the Old and New Testaments, immigrants and migration form themes for many different stories and feature prominently in the groups that Israel is called to care for.

The Hebrew word ger is the word primarily used in discussion of foreigners. It has been translated as foreigner, stranger, sojourner, and is now even exclusively translated as immigrant in the Common English Bible. Used 92 times in the Old Testament, ger is often tied to a groups known as the quartet of the vulnerable, which is made up of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the ger. This quartet is often seen as needing special protection under the law because they are groups in Israel that could easily be taken advantage of. In an agrarian economy where land ownership was a necessity for sustainability, these groups would not have had access under the law to gaining property because property was hereditary. Thus, each of the members of the quartet were specially protected so that they could live as a full part of the community of Israel.

Israel had a special connection to the foreigner because of their time spent in Egypt. The entire community is called to remember the foreigners living among them because they too had once lived as foreigners in Egypt. They would remember not only the time spent in Egypt, but the subjugation and slavery that they had experienced, and be called to treat people living among them differently. In a similar vein, Israel was also called to remember that they were sojourning in the land that they occupied, because the land was God’s to give them. Their memory and their experiences in the present would then inform their need for just treatment of the immigrants among them.

The Bible speaks about immigrants not only through Old Testament law, but also through the stories of many different people in the Bible. One example, the story of Joseph, shows how a foreigner was able to prosper the land he had gone into by preparing Egypt for the coming famine. Not only that, but Jacob and all of his sons were driven into Egypt by the same famine. Israel had gone to Egypt in search of one of the most basic human necessities: food. This led to an entire nation living as immigrants and eventually slaves, a history that they are called to remember in their treatment of other foreigners in their midst.

Jacob and sons were not the only family to be driven into Egypt in search of food. Abram and Sarai, who were already Sojourners in Canaan, went to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan (a seeming theme in Genesis). Many know the story of Abram saying that Sarai was his sister instead of his wife so that he would not be killed, presumably because pharaoh would desire to take Sarai as his wife. But how many have seen this in the light of an immigrant doing what is necessary to enter a country in order to get food? Can we see that a survival need is what drives Abram’s actions?

In the book of Ruth, we see famine once again driving an immigrant story. Elimelek and Naomi, from Bethlehem, go to Moab with their sons to escape the famine. The story changes when the men die, and Naomi returns to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth. From this point we see Ruth navigating live in Israel as an immigrant. Ruth goes into the fields to glean what is allowed for foreigners so that she and Naomi will be able to eat. Boaz, whose field Ruth is gleaning in, notices and is kind to her. As Naomi’s kin, Boaz is able to redeem the property of Elimilek, which allows him to take Ruth as his wife. But so much more can be seen in this story. Ruth carries the distinction throughout the story of being called “the Moabite,” in many instances not even being referred to by name. Naomi doesn’t publicly acknowledge Ruth at any point in the story. Ruth navigates a foreign land, foreign law, and accepts a different religion in order to accompany Naomi. Through all of this, Ruth eventually is accepted into the community, and becomes the great-grandmother of David.

Stories of immigration are not confined to the Old Testament, as we see that even Jesus spent time sojourning in Egypt after his birth. While Joseph and Mary could have found a place in a Jewish community in a city like Alexandria, it is interesting to think that Jesus’ earliest memories could have been as an immigrant living in a foreign country, and how this time would have connected him to other immigrants and their stories. Immigrants today continue to identify with this story, connecting in an intimate way to Christ through his immigrant context.

These are only some of the various stories of biblical sojourners. Many more could be discussed, with migration happening for many different reasons: David fleeing from Saul and living among the Philistines; both Israel and Judah being taken into exile; Daniel in Babylon; Esther in Persia; or the various Jewish communities spread around the Mediterranean under Roman rule, to name a few. The importance here is to see that the Bible is not silent on this topic. As Christians, this must inform our view of immigrants and immigration.

The first three posts in this series have covered a very broad overlook of different principles involved in immigration. The following posts will begin to integrate the information and principles that we have already seen into how we can or should think or act with regards to immigration today.

This is the third posting in a series on immigration. Subscribe, like on Facebook, and follow on Twitter for more updates.

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