For You Were Strangers [Immigration in Scripture 1]

The treatment of migrants asylum seekers and families crossing the border illegally has become a national conversation of late.  Christian scriptures have been invoked by politicians and protestors to justify a variety of positions.  As people of faith, we should try to understand America’s immigration policies and call for appropriate action to fix broken systems.  But, to define “appropriate” we need a working knowledge of what the Scriptures say about immigrants and strangers.

This series of posts is a VERY brief primer on six themes.  Several excellent books have been written on immigration through the lens of Scripture. For a more in-depth look at migration in general, check out Global Migration: What’s Happening, Why and a Just Response by Elizabeth Collier and Charles Strain.  For reflections on immigration to America specifically, pick up Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R. or Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang.

Theme 1: You were once aliens

Deuteronomy 10:19 says “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.  Any discussion of immigration and scriptures has to wrestle with the fact that the people of God were, more than once, aliens in a foreign land.

Deuteronomy is framed as a retelling of the sacred Law before the people of Israel enter into the promised land.  The promise of that land was first given to Abram (later called Abraham).

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

-Genesis 12:1-2

Abram leaves Ur, his homeland, and comes to reside in Canaan.  God’s promise that this will be the land of his descendants is reiterated, but for three generations the family lives like perpetual migrants.  They reside in tents, they move from place to place with their flocks.  They leave and go to Egypt when there is a famine.  Isaac and Jacob, Abraham’s descendants, each return to Ur for a time.  Even when Sarah, Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother, dies and Abraham must secure a place to bury her, he speaks of himself as an alien in the land.

 “I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold from you any burial ground for burying your dead.”

-Genesis 23: 4-6

For the first five books of our scriptures, God’s promise of the land is stable, but the people’s residency is fluid.  Through the end of Genesis, the migrant experience is primarily a positive one*.  But then there comes another famine, and Isreal (Jacob) once again takes his family to Egypt because his son Joseph has become a court official.  That whole generation resides in Egypt until their deaths.  The Israelite community grows.  And then Exodus makes this ominous transition:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

-Exodus 1:8

The Egyptians come to fear the Israelites living among them.  Out of that fear, they become ruthless and cruel.  The lives of the Israelites become so bitter and oppressive that they cry out to God for salvation.  God raises up Moses, does miracles and signs, and finally leads the Israelites out of Eygpt.  But God does not want the people to forget what it was like to be aliens in Egypt.

Deuteronomy chapter 10 recounts Moses receiving the (second) tablets of the Law and God summarizing their essence.  Core to what it means to be Israel is this understanding: that God is just, that God provides for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and that, having been strangers yourself, you should reflect God’s love for strangers among you.

The call back to the Hebrew’s time as residents and then slaves in Egypt will show up time and again across the scriptures of the Old Testament.  Generations later, when David recaptures the Ark of the Covenant (with the tablets of the Law) from the Philistines, the people sing a song recounting the great deeds of God, including how God protected the people when they were immigrants:

When they were few in number,
    of little account, and strangers in it,
wandering from nation to nation,
    from one kingdom to another people,
he allowed no one to oppress them;
    he rebuked kings on their account,
saying, “Do not touch my anointed ones;
    do my prophets no harm.”
-Psalm 105: 13-15

As we’ll see later, the people do forget.  Later prophets will cite the treatment of strangers and immigrants as one of the reasons for the downfalls of Israel and Judah.  When the people forget what it was to be alien and oppressed, they are cast into exile.  They become immigrants in a strange land once again.

What It Means Today:

It is both presumptuous and risky to rob a Biblical narrative of its context and conflate it with the modern day.  However, these stories have been told for millennia because they contain important lessons.  America has often described itself as a nation of immigrants.  98% of us have at least one ancestor who arrived in the territory in the last 500 years.  The stories of those ancestors are varied.  Some fled persecution, others were destitute and seeking a better life, some came for higher education, some brought desirable skills, some were criminals, some did not come here by choice.

We, like Israel, have to wrestle with our own history of being aliens and strangers.  That does not mean open borders and unrestricted immigration.  In the next two posts, we’ll look at how the law of Israel set boundaries and privileges for immigrants in their midst. However, if we are taking the Biblical witness seriously, our history should instill in us a desire to act justly and with mercy towards present immigrants and asylum seekers.

Yesterday, the Administration missed a deadline to return very young children to their parents.  They have laid out no clear plan for how families will be reunited.  They changed the policy for dealing with asylum seekers and migrants without a way to humanly hold people in detention.  They are turning their backs on immigrants who willingly offered their lives in the service of this countryThey are delaying or denying asylum seekers due process and creating an environment of uncertainty and fear even for those who have abided by the law.  There is no mercy in these acts. Is there even justice?

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…
-Deuteronomy 8:12-13 

For Reflection:

  1. Where does immigration play a role in your family’s history?
    • How did your ancestors come to the country?
    • How where they received when they arrived?
    • How has their experience shaped your story?
  2. Read the first chapter of Exodus and imagine you are an average Egyptian.
    • As the Pharoh’s attitude toward the Israelites changes, what language is used to describe Israelites?
    • How is the treatment of the Israelites justified?
    • Do you agree with their treatment?  Why or Why not?

Feature Image by Joel Tanis and available for sale online.

*Arguably the experience worked better for Abraham than Sarah and it was not without its compromises.  Read the whole story in Genesis 20.

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