Immigration: What Does the Bible Say?
By Kevin Lines
There are more international migrants today than at any other time in history—more than 240 million. While two out of three international migrants live in Asia and Europe, the United States hosts 19 percent of international migrants, the most in the world.
It should come as no surprise that our nation, founded by immigrants and often relying on waves of new immigrants as the labor force for our economic growth, would continue to host migrants. The United States is still seen by many in the world as a land of opportunity; a place where, no matter your background, hard work can lead a person to a level of prosperity unknown in many parts of the world.
The movement of people from one place to another is a constant theme in human history and is of increasing interest to social scientists who study the rapid flow of information, goods, and people in our globalized world. And now, immigration is once again at the top of the list of political debates in both Europe and the United States.
This is nothing new. The “stranger” has often been seen as a threat to our way of life, even for those of us with migrant ancestors who were once strangers in this land.
While immigration policies and practices are easy ways to motivate people to vote for one candidate or another, there has been no major immigration reform in the United States for more than 50 years. There is no question immigration reform is needed in the United States, but as a missional Christian, my focus here isn’t on that political debate.
My position is that Christians need to respond first as Christians participating in God’s mission in the world and that the Bible can be our fundamental resource for understanding how we should treat migrants.
What does the Bible have to say about aliens and strangers?
Why I Care
Before I get to this question, let me share a bit about who I am and why I care about migration. My ancestors immigrated to the United States from Switzerland and Germany in the 1690s. They were Anabaptists seeking religious freedom; they settled in Pennsylvania, a colony William Penn founded in 1681, specifically with religious freedoms in mind.
I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an area still heavily influenced by Anabaptist Mennonites and Amish. I attended a public high school that was, I was surprised to find, comprised of nearly 35 percent immigrants or children of immigrants from Puerto Rico.
While attending Milligan College in Tennessee, I spent some time on a large tomato farm with migrant workers, mostly from Mexico. This was when I first learned about the large number of migrant laborers who travel around the United States harvesting the crops we eat.
Understanding my own family’s migration for religious freedom, having friends whose families had emigrated from Puerto Rico, and meeting migrant workers were all experiences in my early life that put a human face on who migrants were.
When my wife, Katy, and I moved to Kenya as missionaries in 1999 to serve with CMF International among the Turkana church, we became the migrants and strangers. I still remember the day the Kenyan government issued me my Alien Registration Card, an ID card with my photo and the word ALIEN written in large print at the top.
But it wasn’t until returning to the United States that Katy and I began to realize all the missed mission opportunities in our own country. With increasing migration, the world has come to us!
During our years in Lexington, Kentucky, we became involved in assisting newly arrived refugees through Kentucky Refugee Ministries, and I began to wonder more about what the Bible says about aliens and strangers.
Stories of Scattering
I reread the Bible through the lens of aliens and strangers and recognized two main themes. The first is that the Bible itself is filled with migration stories; stories of people being pushed or pulled from one place to another, stories of scattering. I found in these stories that God was working in and through the people being pushed, pulled, and scattered. The second theme is that God loves and watches over the “alien.”
The Bible is filled with migration stories of both push and pull. Even God is sometimes depicted as the actor in causing the migration:
• Adam and Eve were forced out of the Garden of Eden.
• Cain was condemned to wander for murdering his brother Abel.
• The builders of the Tower of Babel were scattered.
• Abraham was pulled out of Ur and is described as a “wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).
• Because of lack of food, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with their families, left their homes to settle temporarily in different places, such as Egypt (Genesis 12; 42-46), the Negev (Genesis 20), and Philistia (Genesis 26).
• Jacob fled from Esau.
• Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery.
• Moses fled Egypt after committing murder.
• Naomi and her family left Bethlehem because of famine and emigrated across the Jordan River to Moab, then back to Bethlehem with Ruth.
• Israel was scattered by an empire.
• Israel was pushed into exile by another empire.
• Daniel and his friends were living in Babylon.
• Some people of Judah were allowed to return to their homeland by the ruler of an empire.
• Samaria developed a people with hybrid identity.
• The Greeks migrated for trade.
• The Romans migrated for conquest.
• The Jews were in diaspora.
• Through persecution, the early church was also in diaspora.
• Jesus lived his life as a subject of an empire.
• Jesus, as a child, escaped political oppression in Jerusalem and became a refugee to Egypt; later, he and his family emigrated back to his father’s home.
• Priscilla and Aquila emigrated from Rome to Corinth and then to Ephesus.
Just as we find today, there were various reasons for migration in the Bible. Many of these migrants would be classified as refugees today, escaping terrible situations and seeking safety, food, and shelter; others were involuntarily deported after Israel was defeated in war. Some of these migrations were the result of sin and rebellion; some were caused by war and famine. Some of these migrants were willing, while others were taken involuntarily.
Yet, through these movements of people, God was writing a story of redemption and reconciliation to be heard throughout the world. What the people of God experienced in the Bible was similar to what migrants experience today, and can provide important lessons for us concerning migration.
Considering the Foreigner
The most common translations of the words used in the Bible related to migration include “alien,” “resident alien,” “foreigner,” “stranger,” and “sojourner.” In the Old Testament, these words are translations of the Hebrew nouns nekar and ger, and the adjectives nokri and zar. The most important of these terms is ger, used 92 times.
Dr. J. Blair Wilgus, associate professor of Old Testament at Hope International University, Fullerton, California, explains that generally, a ger is “a person who takes up residence in a country that is not their own; a foreigner.” A ger could be someone who settled down on either a short-term or permanent basis.
It fascinates me that the people of God are instructed to interact with the ger. These ger, the foreigners living among God’s people, were seen as vulnerable and are often listed in laws related to the ways widows and orphans were to be treated. The ger could easily be overworked, underpaid, or not paid at all. God’s law responded to this:
The ger qualified, along with the widow, orphan, and the poor, for gleaning privileges at harvest time (Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Ruth 2, 3) and the triennial tithe (Deuteronomy 14:28, 29).
The ger were to be granted rest on the Sabbath with everyone else (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14).
The ger were to be paid a fair wage on time (Deuteronomy 24:14, 15).
The ger were to receive equal treatment before the law (Deuteronomy 1:16, 17; 27:19).
Opposition and violence toward the ger were condemned by God through the prophets (Jeremiah 7:5-7; 22:2-5; Malachi 3:5).
The ger could take part in the rituals and religious life of Israel (Exodus 20:8-11; 12:48, 49; Leviticus 16:29, 30; Deuteronomy 16:11, 14)
What could possibly be the motivation for laws that seek to protect the “alien” in the Old Testament? One motivation was explicit: God loves and watches over the ger (Deuteronomy 10:14-19; Psalm 146:6-9).
If that weren’t motivation enough, God repeatedly reminded the people of Israel that they themselves were once “aliens and strangers” in Egypt; that they should understand what it meant to live as despised foreigners. Because God had brought Israel out of Egypt, they were to be gracious to the ger in their midst. Some of these ger even came with them out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38).
The treatment of the ger would be a measure of their faith in God (Leviticus 19:34; Exodus 23:9). In fact, God reminded Israel that they themselves were “but aliens and tenants” living in God’s land (Leviticus 25:23, New Revised Standard Version).
We and Jesus Are Aliens
In the New Testament we do not find direct teachings on the ways “aliens” should be treated when living among God’s people. Yet, what we do find in the life and teaching of Jesus and in the Epistles is relevant to the question of how we are to relate to the “strangers” living among us.
First, we note that Jesus and his family were refugees; they fled to Egypt so Jesus could escape Herod. Though Jesus never directly mentioned this later, being a migrant was part of his life from the very beginning. We also see the ways Jesus treated the outsider and the stranger during his ministry.
Jesus regularly spent time with those who were seen as strangers or were despised by others. Prime examples were his interactions with Samaritans, people who were hated by the Jews. Samaritans were not only seen as ethnically different, but were people with religious traditions that were unacceptable to Jewish law and tradition.
In John 4, Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman. When she understood whom she was speaking with, Jesus sent her to town to be his witness.
In Luke 10, in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus made a Samaritan, the ethnic and religious foreigner, the example of right action. Dr. Carl Toney, associate professor of New Testament at Hope International University, explained: “Jesus’ actions and teachings often followed this pattern of reaching out to aliens and strangers, whether women, Gentiles, lepers, or sinners, with the good news that they are part of the kingdom of God.”
The New Testament letters make it clear that all followers of Jesus are “aliens” and “strangers” in a spiritual sense (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11). Our true citizenship is found in the kingdom of God rather than this world (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 13:14). Hospitality toward both fellow believers and those who are unknown is seen as virtuous (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9). In fact, hospitality is considered such an important Christian virtue that it is listed among the characteristics required for church leaders (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8).
Reading the Bible with an eye toward aliens and strangers reminds us that God loves all people—even migrants; that migration is a regular part of the human story—even in the Bible; and that the Old Testament law directed God’s people to welcome, protect, and assist those who were vulnerable. Jesus reminds us to reach out and minister to those who are at the margins of society, and the New Testament letters call us all to be hospitable toward strangers and aliens.
As we seek a biblical response to migrants in our communities, we must remember that not all immigrants are illegal, and that many undocumented immigrants are in need of compassion from Christians. Christians must resist tendencies to condemn migrants and their desire to relocate.
If being a missional Christian means reaching out to all people in our communities, with missional justice together with evangelism, we must remember the ways we were once far off from God as aliens and strangers, hold true to the ways we live as resident aliens (1 Peter 2:11), and witness to the ways we have been made citizens of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19).
Dr. Kip Lines serves as professor of intercultural studies at Hope International University, Fullerton, California. He will become executive director with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, Indianapolis, Indiana, this June.