Immigration Issues and the Bible

By Debbie Wuthnow

Correctly Interpreting Scripture

Today we're going to tackle a topic of great concern for Christians -- and one that's misinterpreted today . . . immigration and scripture. This email is a little longer than usual, but to understand the issues, one must look at the context of scripture throughout the Bible -- and that's not done quickly. I'll be sharing with you today about territorial sovereignty, sanctuary cities, and the meaning of three Hebrew words that are critical to understanding Scripture. So, grab a cup of coffee, find a comfortable chair, and join me as we look at what the Bible has to say about immigration.

You have probably heard references that God’s Word says we should "show love to the foreigner (Lev. 19:33)" as a support for sanctuary cities and open borders. But is that an accurate interpretation of Old Testament references to foreigners and aliens? We want to make sure we are correctly interpreting God’s intent. I recall my Community Bible Study teaching director, Cheryl Sneeringer (yes, the wife of one of iVoterGuide’s founders), saying that there are three most important things when studying God’s Word. They are similar to the three most important factors in real estate. In real estate, it is, ”location, location, location” but in Bible study, Cheryl said it is “context, context, context!”

An excellent and in-dept discussion of this topic is James Hoffmeier’s “The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate.” According to Hoffmeier, three important contextual questions must be addressed before anyone attempts to apply Old Testament Israelite law to modern day situations:

  1. Was there such a thing as territorial sovereignty in the second millennium B.C.?
  2. What ancient words were used to describe “stranger” or “foreigner,” and what did they mean at that time?
  3. How did one attain those ancient descriptions of “stranger” or “foreigner”?

TERRITORIAL SOVEREIGNTY

Even in biblical times, nations had clearly recognizable borders typically demarcated by natural features like rivers and mountains. During biblical times – and even since then – wars were fought over those boundary lines, and forts were frequently placed upon those boundaries to defend each nation’s territory. Not only was there territorial sovereignty, but nations that fortified their borders were less likely to be attacked, as we saw when the Israelites conquered the promised land. Even ancient equivalents of the modern visa were required before people could enter another sovereign territory. After the exodus from Egypt, God’s people requested permission to pass through Edom in Numbers 20:14-21, and when that permission was denied, the Israelites were turned away. Foreigners had to obtain a permit to enter another land.

HEBREW WORDS IN CONTEXT

The most significant Hebrew word is ger. It is frequently translated as “stranger” (KJV, NASB, JB), “sojourner” (RSV, ESV), “alien” (NEB, NIV, NJB, NRSV), and “foreigner” (TNIV, NLT). It appears more than 80 times as a noun and an equal number as a verb (“gwr”), which typically means “to sojourn” or “to live as an alien.” Problems have arisen as more modern translations began interpreting the ger simply as “foreigner.” It is an imprecise interpretation because two other very important Hebrew terms are also used to represent the concept of “foreigner.” The words are nekhar and zar.

What is the difference between ger, nekhar and zar?

The biggest difference is that while all three are foreigners who might enter another country, the ger had obtained the legal permission to enter from the appropriate authority. For instance, when Joseph’s family traveled to Egypt in Genesis 47:3-6, they appealed to no less than the king of Egypt and were granted permission to reside in Egypt as legal residents, gers.

Another example is when Moses received permission to “sojourn” in the land of Midian after he fled Egypt. Moses was accepted into the family of Jethro, marrying his eldest daughter, Zipporah, and then Moses took on responsibilities caring for Jethro’s flock, thereby enabling Moses to call himself a sojourner (ger) not a foreigner (nekhar) even though he lived in a foreign land. In fact, his son’s name of Gershom contains the word ger, reflecting his change of legal status.

The operative difference being that ger have legal permission while nekhar or zar do not. We might call the ger those who follow the path of a legal immigrant while nekhar or zar are “illegal immigrants.” God makes a distinction, in the Old Testament, and I propose, the distinction holds true today.

In Old Testament times, the legal delineation between alien or stranger (ger) and foreigner (nekhar or zar) was stark indeed. The ger in Israelite society could receive social benefits such as the right to glean fields (Lev. 19:9-10), and they could receive resources from the tithes (Deut. 26: 12-13). In legal matters, the citizen and the ger were to be treated equally with one law applying to both (Num 15:15-16). In employment, the citizen and the ger were also to be paid alike.

In all these cases, no such provision was extended to the nekhar or zar. In a sense, the ger were not just aliens with legal protections, but they were considered converts and could even participate in the religious life of the community. They were also expected to keep dietary and holiness laws (Lev 17:8-9 and 10-12). It was also well known within Israelite society that money was not to be lent with interest, but one could loan at interest to a foreigner (nekhar). These passages make it clear that aliens or strangers (ger) received all the benefits of protection of a citizen . . . whereas the foreigner (nekhar) did not. It would be inaccurate to confuse the two and is especially relevant as we try to apply biblical principles to society today.

SANCTUARY CITIES

The term “sanctuary city” had its origins as early as the exodus times in the wilderness. During this time, God resided with the people in the Tabernacle, Israel’s sanctuary, in the middle of the camp. Exodus 21: 12-14 establishes the practice that if anyone kills someone accidentally, they may flee to “my alter” (in the sanctuary) where they may be safe until the case could be heard, protecting them from the law of retribution – an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. . . life for a life.”

Once the Israelites settled the promised land, it was impractical to have just one place of sanctuary. Six cities of refuge were designated within their borders – three on each side of the Jordan river – so that anyone who has killed another accidentally would have a place to flee (Numbers 35:15). The cities of refuge were not a place to avoid trial or punishment, but a place to make sure that the offender had the opportunity to a fair trial. American cities that use biblical justification for circumventing the rule of law by creating sanctuary cities for the illegal alien are misappropriating Scripture and corrupting the very laws which uphold justice and order.

I encourage you to read James Hoffmeier’s “The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate.”

This important topic needs to be addressed very carefully and prayerfully. The information above certainly helped in our discussions of immigration and sanctuary cities, and we hope it will inform yours, as well.

Some last thoughts...

Even though the Bible describes the practice of restricting foreign travel through sovereign land, it does not consider that right to be an excuse for unkindness. While the frequently quoted Levit. 19:33 and also Exodus 22:21 use the word ger: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt,” the New Testament is very clear that "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." Hebrews 13: 1-3

As we consider this topic, let’s also take the time to learn how scriptural truths can be applied to our own lives – not just to others. Christians are sojourners/aliens in a strange land, who have Jesus Christ as their City of Refuge. There is only one way to enter into that city... by the narrow gate and what was accomplished on the cross. Only those whom He has called may enter in, and the price of entry is accepting His invitation to receive His gift of grace.


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