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Immigrants: Legal, Illegal and the Old Testament Law

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Guest Post by James K. Hoffmeier
Professor of Old Testament & Near Eastern Arcaheology
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

The national debate on the plight of illegal immigrants has been simmering for years. On April 24, 2010 a contentious bill (SB 1070) was signed into law in Arizona that permits state authorities to apprehend illegal immigrants. This bill, though not scheduled to take effect until July, has blown the lid off the pressure cooker, resulting in marches, boycotts and lawsuits. The burning issue is, what should be done with illegal immigrants (estimates vary from 12-20 million)?

Christian organizations, churches and individuals have been wresting with this question. Understandably, Evangelical Christians want to know if the Bible offers some guidance on the agonizing problems surrounding the debate. As a matter of fact the Old Testament has a lot to say about aliens or sojourners, after all Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were aliens or immigrants in Canaan, and the Children of Israel sojourned in Egypt for centuries. In order to come to an understanding of the relevant biblical terms, what they mean and how they might be applied to the current crisis, I carefully investigated the Scriptures, studying the Hebrew terms contextually. The results of my work was published by Crossway in a book The Immigration Crisis: Immigration, Immigrants and the Bible (2009).

For over thirty years I have been a professor of Old Testament, and have read through the Bible many, many times. Nevertheless, I was surprised by what I learned. Here I offer just two salient conclusions, but invite the readers to examine the book to follow the arguments and the data that lead to these observations.

First, the Hebrew word ger has been variously translated as “stranger” (KJV, NAS), “sojourner” (ESV, RSV), “alien” (NIV, NRSV), and even “foreigner” (TNIV, NLT). The latter is misleading and inaccurate as there are two other Hebrew terms that mean “foreigner,” namely zar and nekhar. From the Abraham and Isaac narratives in Genesis we learn that the Patriarchs had to negotiate treaties and agreements to sojourn in the territory of and obtain water rights from the local Canaanite and Philistine kings (cf. Gen. 20, 21 & 26). Pharaoh gave Joseph permission for his family to “sojourn” in Egypt (Gen. 45:17-18), and when the family arrived in Egypt the brothers asked Pharaoh for permission to “sojourn” in Egypt with their flocks (Gen. 47:5-6). From these and other references, I conclude that a ger was a foreigner who comes to live in another land with the permission of a host or the proper authority.

Second, the Old Testament law insists that once a foreigner attained ger status in Israel, he was to be treated like a native born Hebrew (Exod. 14:49; Lev. 18:26), enjoying legal protection, social benefits and religious inclusion. The Law, however, does not offer the same protections and benefits to the “foreigner” (nekhar and zar). For example, an Israelite was not allowed to charge interest to a ger, but could to a nekhar (Lev. 25:35-37; Deut. 15:3). Similarly, the ger could participate in Passover observances while the nekhar was prohibited (Exod. 12:43-49).

These distinctions demonstrate that the “foreigner” and the “alien” did not have the same standing in biblical law. Applying the foregoing observations to the current immigration dilemma, I propose a correlation between the ger of the OT and the legal immigrant today, and the “foreigner” and the illegal immigrant. In the current debate about the status of the illegal immigrants, some have cited OT passages about the ger arguing that illegal immigrants be treated accordingly. If my analysis is correct, this is a faulty application of these biblical laws to the illegal immigrant of today. On the other hand, the biblical laws urge us to help and incorporate foreigners who are legally among us, especially because they are easily exploited (Deut. 24:14-15).

9 Comments »

  1. Extremely helpful thoughts! Thank-you! I recently wrote a very small piece to our church about welcoming outsiders (referring mostly to those near us in our congregation but not on the “inside” when it came to fellowship) and used as an example the sojourner who is repeatedly mentioned in the OT. Though the emphasis in this book may be different in it’s primary application, thanks for bringing further clarification to this subject as a whole!

    Comment by Seth Kempf — June 4, 2010 @ 7:41 am

  2. I believe the bill not only gives AZ state law enforcement the ability to arrest illegal immigrants but also “those who they suspect are illegal but cannot prove they are legal at the time.” I believe that latter subject should be the main point of debate as I the fear of being detained and shipped off to a Federal Processing Center, where they would finally find out that one is truly in this country legally, is simply harassment. There are other ways to enforce a nation’s boundaries. I’m not sure why Arizona hasn’t recalled their National Guard troops from overseas and placed them on the border of their state. That would make a much bigger statement than a legalized harassment law such as SB1070 and have far fewer Constitutional questions and ALSO actually help solve the problem without the aforementioned harassment of LEGAL immigrants here.

    Comment by taco — June 4, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  3. oh, if it wasn’t clear, I’m trying to link the post’s last sentence in terms of the entire debate.

    Comment by taco — June 4, 2010 @ 11:48 am

  4. Thank you for the helpful thoughts!

    As a resident of AZ, it’s become more and more clear to me that Christians need to help and support legal immigrants; they are as you said, “easily exploited” by a system with which they are not yet familiar.

    At the same time, those who are opposed to SB1070 on the basis of “compassion,” are unwittingly supporting a system of abuse. It seems like a weekly occurrence now for police to find a home in which dozens of immigrants are chained to the walls by the coyotes that brought them over. The women and children are abused and sometimes trafficked “to pay for their trip over.” Those without coyotes often simply die in the desert for lack of water. The employers that knowingly employ illegal immigrants often pay them sub-standard wages, and occasionally, don’t pay them at all. SB1070–if enforced without resort to prejudicial treatment–is a good thing and will result in many lives saved.

    It seems that two things sustain and increase this ongoing cycle of abuse, murder, kidnapping and rape: (1) Too few simple, legal routes to obtain work in the US, and (2) Too little enforcement of existing immigration law. As a result, many come through illegal routes, and find themselves at the mercy of coyotes, the unforgiving desert weather, and unscrupulous employers. I think Christians would do well to seek better routes into the country, and better enforcement of the laws that prohibit illegal traffic.

    It’s good to have your thoughts on this, and it helps us as Christians to know why we should care for legal immigrants, and not feel obligated to support illegal immigration.

    Comment by Dan — June 4, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

  5. Dan, Illegals are treated harshly by their coyotes and sometimes by those who hire them here, no doubt. As Christians we love our neighbors as ourselves, yes, but we also must give unto Cesar what is his, obey the laws of the land we’re in. How does breaking the law honor Jesus and bring non believers to Him by our example? So then, how to have compassion on the illegals? If you have the means, hire them legally and bring them over here legally. Otherwise, encourage them to stay put (enforce laws) and make their own country better. Missionaries change people’s lives all over the world without bringing everyone needy back to America. We have many jobless and homeless American citizens who deserve our compassion and we can start with our home towns (as Jesus said, we will always have the poor).

    Comment by Carol — June 10, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

  6. All are cordially invited to consider other aspects of the issue. I found this review extremely helpful:

    http://www.denverseminary.edu/article/the-immigration-crisis-immigrants-aliens-and-the-bible/

    Comment by TIU Student — June 12, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  7. Second, the Old Testament law insists that once a foreigner attained ger status in Israel, he was to be treated like a native born Hebrew (Exod. 14:49; Lev. 18:26), enjoying legal protection, social benefits and religious inclusion. The Law, however, does not offer the same protections and benefits to the “foreigner” (nekhar and zar). For example, an Israelite was not allowed to charge interest to a ger, but could to a nekhar (Lev. 25:35-37; Deut. 15:3). Similarly, the ger could participate in Passover observances while the nekhar was prohibited (Exod. 12:43-49).

    Question: Were the nekhar and zar allowed to live in Israel?

    Comment by Jason — June 14, 2010 @ 8:27 am

  8. Hi Carol,

    I know I’m late responding; I think I must have given the impression in my first comment that I want illegal immigration to continue. I was saying that those who oppose the new law in AZ (it’s a law that allows the state to enforce the existing immigration laws) and who oppose it on the basis of “compassion” are failing to recognize how dangerous illegal immigration is for the immigrants. I do not support illegal immigration because it results in a lot of loss of life and welfare for those who enter the country illegally.

    I think that legal immigration should be supported and encouraged, and that it is good for Christians to promote smooth pathways to gain employment in the country legally. I just generally disagree with the idea that we should ignore the poor in other countries because we have poor folks in our own.

    Grace & Peace,
    Dan J.

    Comment by Dan — July 13, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

  9. [...] multiple posts, so let me set that issue aside.) Also, an OT professor at TEDS wrote a book (summarized here) that suggests that the OT Israel treated “legal” immigrants differently than those who [...]

    Pingback by A few thoughts on Immigration Reform and the Gospel | Just:Words — June 25, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

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