Immigration is a continuously controversial topic, especially in light of recent news coming out of Arizona. With the recent legal decisions by the Arizona state government regarding illegal aliens and the use of ethnic profiling, many contemplative articles & blogs are surfacing that deal with these issues.
What are the messages that scripture conveys regarding behavior toward strangers and are these messages conflicting like so much else in the Bible? Should we be paying attention to what the Bible says about these matters? Is the scriptural insight of the pre-Christian and early Christian era relevant to today's problems and how?
Biblical justice is characterized by protecting those who are in danger of falling out of the vital relationships to the community. This is seen by the social groups frequently associated with this need. One of these is the resident alien, e.g. Zech. 7.10, “Carry out genuine justice: . . . Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, or the poor.” Resident aliens were vulnerable because they were “strange,” causing fear; they were not included in the distribution of the land and were subject to reprisals and caprice.
The biblical inclusion was far reaching. Not only were the people commanded to love their neighbor as themselves (Lev. 19.18) but to love the resident alien as themselves (v. 34). Thus many protective laws were applied to them, including access to the harvest, and inclusion in much of the religious ceremonies. Such provision reached its peak in Ezekiel’s prophesy that they would be included in the future redistribution of the land (Ezek. 47.22).
This material is normative for us. Jesus said justice was the more important part of the law (Matt. 23.23). For the debate over immigrants today, further ethical reflection is needed, however, because of differences between our situation and the biblical situation. For example, the biblical materials do not have the same situation of the illegal immigrant. Boundaries were much less defined; a nation was defined more by its composition than by borders. The biblical materials regarding the resident alien nevertheless provide us with strong principles and deep passion for justice to the immigrant.
All considerations of such questions should be grounded in Leviticus 19:34: "...you shall love the alien as yourself..." (note that this text is explicitly parallel to Lev. 19:18, used centrally by Jesus). On issues of land for aliens, see also Ezekiel 47:21-23.
The story of ancient Israel begins with immigrants, Abraham and Sarah, who travel from Mesopotamia to Canaan searching for a place to settle (Genesis 12). In the story, Abraham and Sarah must emigrate from their homeland in order to fulfill the purposes of God. They prosper and for the most part, live peacefully with their neighbors in the land.
The downside of immigration is also part of the story. Their grandson, Jacob is tricked and exploited because he does not know local customs when he emigrates from Canaan to Haran (Genesis 29:15-30). Immigrants are treated very badly in other stories such as when Jacob’s descendents, immigrants in Egypt, are reduced to servitude (Exodus 1) or when foreign wives are dismissed (Ezra 10).
Immigrants are sometimes cited as models for local people (2 Sam 11). There are several fascinating stories where people think an outsider will do them harm but they are proven wrong. The outsider turns out to be a good guy (Gen 12:10-20).
Repeatedly, throughout the Torah, Israel is instructed to treat the outsider well (alien, immigrant, foreigner) remembering that they themselves were once outsiders in Egypt. Israelites should know what it is like to be immigrants because they were once immigrants.
The following texts speak forcefully for equal and compassionate treatment for immigrants. “One law, will be to you, for the outsider (foreigner, immigrant) and the insider (native born)…” (Leviticus 24:2). “The outsider will be like an insider to you. You will love him [or her] like yourself for you were outsiders in the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh, your God.” Leviticus 19:34 “Yahweh protects (watches over) the outsider, the orphan and upholds the widow…” Psalms 146:9 (All translations are mine.) Outsiders are often grouped with widows and orphans as those needing special protection. They are vulnerable to exploitation because their support system is absent or impaired.
In the Bible, the normative attitude of the people of God should be that immigrants are protected and treated with dignity and respect. They should be loved. When it comes to matters of justice, they should be treated the same as the native born people. This model certainly can speak to us today.
The word for outsider is ger (stranger, alien, foreigner, immigrant). Sometimes this word is accompanied by the phrase “within your gates” meaning the foreigner who lives or temporarily resides in your community.
It is important to recognize that nation states as we know them are a recent development in human history. The kingdoms of the ancient Near East did not have the concept of citizens and non-citizens. There were kings and members of the royal family on one side and servants of the king on the other. There were no “citizens” with “rights” and “privileges” until the development of the Greek city states. The concept of insiders and outsiders was certainly present. There were those within the tribe or clan and those outside of it. The loyalty of people was to the clan or tribe not a larger entity of government. Most people lived in small communities where outsiders were quickly recognized. In the larger cities and towns, outsiders were common because of the presence of traders, mercenary soldiers, diplomats and skilled workers who hailed from other places.