God’s Word on Immigration

If you were thinking that this might be a political post on immigration, I’m sorry to disappoint. It is a biblical one. Politics has been defined as “the art of compromise,” and I have no real interest in dying on the mole-hill of cultural relativism. Just like the wind, it is constantly changing its speed and direction.

Instead, our first response as believers should involve the opening of our Bibles. We need to see what God has to say on the matter. Specific to the issue of immigration, we have been witnessing the wanton abuse of Scripture.

This may sound crude, but many are intentionally illiterate when it comes to the Word of God. It’s one thing to hear an unbeliever make an attempt with their perforated Bible—punching out the verses they don’t like. But when a believer argues from the one Book they should be carefully and contextually reading above all others—simply put, they should know better.

One of the most popular examples dealing with immigration is Matthew 25:35-40:

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ (NASB)

Please, this passage has nothing to do with social action. It’s not a challenge directed to all humanity, nor is it the intention of this specific statement from Jesus that He will ultimately judge everyone on how they help the poor or needy. Otherwise, our Lord would be teaching salvation by works.

jesus-wept-1313925-1278x855Culture and context matter. Read the entire chapter and you will see that Christ is in effect saying “I can see that you are my chosen children because of how you minister to your fellow brothers and sisters who are in need.” Look again at v. 40. The words “brothers and sisters” cannot refer to unbelievers; and many of them were in great need during the first century (i.e., prison).

Should we care for all those in need? Yes. Should it be the fruit of our root? Certainly, I’m not denying that. However, this is not the passage for it.

Old Testament Teaching
As you read through the Law (i.e., the Pentateuch (Greek title), Torah (Hebrew)) one of the themes that emerges has to do with the subject of immigration. Truly the OT has much to say on this issue! But it can be confusing when reading our English translations.

Hebrew is the original language of Moses’ writings. An English translation attempts to render as accurately as possible the meaning of the biblical text from the original language. Therefore, when we read a passage about an immigrant, say Exodus 22:21, we find that different English words are being used to represent the original Hebrew.

The NIV reads “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (emphasis mine). The KJV and NASB both use “stranger,” the ESV calls him a “sojourner, and the HCSV a “foreign resident.” Each of these translations have one thing in common. They create confusion for the person who cherry-picks a verse to support a particular viewpoint instead of reading the page carefully and contextually.

Legal Immigrant
When looking at the Hebrew, we learn that the Bible clearly distinguishes between a legal immigrant (gēr) and an illegal one (nekhar). The gēr is a person who had entered Israel and had followed God’s legal procedures (circumcision, etc.). By doing so he was recognized as a citizen. Moreover, he was to be viewed as if he was a native-born Jew. A legal immigrant.

In Gen 45:17-18; 47:3-6, we see the brothers of Joseph entering the land of Egypt during a famine—seeking the fertile land of the Nile. What did they do? Read the two passages and you’ll see that they first declared their intentions and then humbly submitted to their authority, asking for permission to live off the land.

In Exod 12:48-49 we learn that a gēr could participate in the sacred Passover celebration; and that the Israelite was to love the gēr as himself (Lev 19:33-34). Additionally, the gēr could receive help. In Deut 24:19-21, he could access the farmer’s tithe, a crop that was stored every three years, put away for the Levite, the widow, the orphan, and… you guessed it, the gēr.

Illegal Immigrant
The nekhar (along with a few other Hebrew terms, like zar) represented an individual that did not have the same benefits or privileges that the gēr did. Why? Because he did not submit to the governing authority. He did not follow the rules of the land.

Exod 2:18-22 illustrates this well. You may recall how Moses had struck and killed an Egyptian taskmaster. This put him on the run from Egypt all the way to Midian. As he rests at a well, Moses meets the daughters of Jethro and protects them as they are harassed. His involvement helps them to return early from their chores:

When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?” They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.” “And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.” Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporahto Moses in marriage. Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.” (NIV)

Because of these events—admittedly a brief synopsis, Moses (who arrived as a nekhar) was able to call himself a gēr. In fact, Gershom’s name (his son) reflects this very change in status, as it contains the word gēr! Moses went from being a foreigner to a citizen by submitting to the authority of another.

Nations of the OT World
Scripture not only delineates between the legal and illegal person entering a country, the need for the person to submit to the authorities, and the privileges gained or forfeited. It also places a high priority on the protection of its own borders.

Here are just a few examples:

God speaks of punishing the Israelites in Deut 28:52; Neh 2:13 by allowing their enemies to breach the walls of their cities. The good king Asa, who “did what was good and right in the eyes of the LORD his God,” said “Let us build these cities and surround them with walls and towers, gates and bars. The land is still ours, because we have sought the LORD our God. We have sought him, and he has given us peace on every side.” So they built and prospered” (2 Chr 14:2, 7 ESV).

In Psa 51:8, king David prays that God would “Do good in Thy good pleasure unto Zion: build Thou the walls of Jerusalem” (KJV). Isaiah in 26:1 proclaims that Judah will one day sing, “We have a strong city; He sets up walls and ramparts for security” (HCSB).

My favorite is found in Prov 25:28. We have used this verse in our own home often to teach on the importance of controlling our emotions. If you are not familiar with this one be sure to mark it. It serves as a great reminder for each of us. We are to show meekness, literally “power under control” as it pertains to our emotions.

How does God through the pen of Solomon illustrate this wise lesson?

Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit. (NASB)

I love it. It is easy to connect the dots and see that the Old Testament is full of protective principles for the residents of a nation. God clearly places a high priority on the right of governments to decide who will enter their nation and who will not.

Furthermore, we are reminded in the New Testament that this responsibility falls into the hands of the government (read Rom 13:1-7).

Implications for the Issue of Immigration
These principles most certainly can guide us in our decision-making for today on immigration as they are reinforced in both the Old and New. We’ll just need to be careful not to force what was meant wholly for Israel into some sort of “polispeak” for today.

Yet, the Bible does give us “everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness” (2 Pet 1:3, NIV). There is a correlation between the gēr and nekhar of the Old Testament and the legal and illegal immigrant of today. It is also appropriate that we would exclude those who have a criminal record, communicable disease, terroristic tie, etc. Allowing only those who chose “to be subject to governing authorities” (Rom 13:1, ESV) to enter this land.

Whatever policies are floated by an administration, this is where I land biblically. All that remains is the heavy lifting! Which is to apply these principles without wavering from the absolute truth of God’s Word, and to do so in the love that Christ exemplified—seeing each individual as made in the image of God.

May we treat all immigrants justly and fairly on God’s terms.

Two resources I found to be especially helpful were Wayne Grudem’s According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (2010, Zondervan) and James K. Hoffmeier’s The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (2009, Crossway).