No public policy issue evokes as much emotion today more than immigration; it may have actually eclipsed abortion. Nor may any policy issue be as politically toxic; the “wrong” answer on this single issue may have brought down a GOP presidential front-runner. Debate concerning immigration policy rages from city councils to state legislatures and all the way to the US Supreme Court.

In my home state, the Alabama legislature passed what is touted as the toughest anti-immigration law in the nation, HB56. The GOP-led Legislature’s intent was clear and express. The chief sponsor and GOP House Majority Leader said that HB56 “attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life” and “is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves.”

In other policy areas, many of the supporters of HB56 frequently cite Biblical bases to support their respective policy positions (i.e abortion, capital punishment, homosexual marriage, and support of Israel). In fact, many critics derisively refer to these elected-officials and policy-makers as “Bible-thumpers.” But, while many reasons have been offered to justify the present set of anti-immigrant laws, very little reference to the Bible has been made. I am afraid there may be a reason for this silence.

What does the Bible teach us today about immigration? I have always argued that our Christian principles should have a vastly broader application than a few narrow social issues. Are there any principles found in the Scriptures which might inform our policy on immigration? I think so.

At a very general level, the Bible teaches us that we must be careful that our laws relating to immigrants are just. The Bible teaches that all civil rulers are “ministers” of justice. (Rom. 13:4) Whether kings, presidents, judges or any other official, all those in “authority” will be held accountable for their leadership, their actions and their enactments. (Jer. 23:1, Heb. 13:17, Jam. 3:1)

Justice is the standard by which every governing authority will be judged. The Lord commands: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow. .. ” (Deut. 16:20) Contrariwise, the prophet in Isaiah 10 warns: “[w]oe to those who enact evil statutes And to those who constantly record unjust decisions, So as to deprive the needy of justice And rob the poor of My people of their rights, So that widows may be their spoil And that they may plunder the orphans.” Similarly, the Psalmist decries those that “frame injustice by statute” (Psalm 94:20)

Correspondingly, civil leaders are exhorted to seek from the Scriptures principles to rightly discern between justice and injustice. Proverbs 2:2-9 teaches: “My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path”

So, should legislation like HB56 be considered an “evil statute” as defined by biblical standards? Does it frame justice or injustice toward the immigrant?

Since all Scripture is profitable for instruction and correction, the commandments and rightly-derived principles therefrom must form the foundation in formulating a Christian ethic of justice. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

For Old Testament believers, the Pentateuch and the Prophets provided very specific and express commands concerning the treatment of immigrants. The treatment of immigrants was literally addressed hundreds of times. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word mostly used for immigrant is ger.  This word is variably translated “resident alien,” “sojourner,” “alien,” “foreigner” and “stranger.”  You can see in Genesis 15:13 the common use of the word wherein the Hebrews were described as ger in Egypt.

  • “Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners (gerim, plural for ger) in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.”

Then when the Israelites sojourned in Egypt for 400 years and after taking possession of the Promised Land, they were commanded specifically to treat the immigrant (ger) in Isreal especially well.

  • Leviticus 19:33-34 “When a stranger (ger) sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger (ger) who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
  • Exodus 23:9 “You shall not oppress a sojourner (ger). You know the heart of a sojourner (ger), for you were sojourners (gerim) in the land of Egypt.

In very particular ways, the manner this love for the immigrant should appear in public was actually prescribed. Immigrants in Israel were to enjoy all the protections of the Law.

  • Numbers 15:15-16: “For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger (ger) who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner (ger) shall be alike before the LORD. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger (ger) who sojourns with you.”

For instance, the immigrants were allowed rest on the Sabbath, the same as the native Hebrew.

  • Exo. 20:10 “but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.”

Probably because of the easy temptation to exploit the ger, the Hebrews were expressly commanded to treat the immigrant fairly and equitably at the workplace,

  • Deut. 24:14: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners (gerim) who are in your land within your towns.”

In addition to general hospitality and equity, the ger was to be treated fairly in the courts:

  • Deut 1:16: And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien (ger) who is with him.

And, although excluded from some religious ceremonial rites, immigrants were allowed access to all the other privileges and immunities of the Law, the same as a native Hebrew. For instance, the Cities of Refuge were open to the immigrant, (Josh. 20:9) and immigrants enjoyed the privilege to own land. (Eze. 47:21-23)

In spite of all these specific provisions, God still saw fit to set the immigrant within a privileged category in ancient Israel. In fact, the ger is included alongside widows and orphans within a legally protected class. Like Deuteronomy 27:19, this triad-motif is continually employed by the writers of the Scriptures throughout. For instance, Psalm 146:9 declares:

  • The LORD watches over the sojourners (gerim); he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

And in the Prophets, Jer 22:3 states:

  • Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien (ger), the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

While many today complain that modern-day immigrants consume welfare benefits, attend “our” schools, and clog up hospitals, we learn from Deuteronomy 10 of God’s especial care for members of this triad:

  • He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner (ger), giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners (gerim) in the land of Egypt.

To substantiate this promise and love for the ger, God actually demanded and specified special financial provision and assistance for the ger in the Hebrew Republic. The Hebrews were always to leave the edges of their field unharvested for immigrants for gleaning. Deuteronomy 24:17-22 commands:

  • “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner (ger), the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner (ger), the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner (ger), the fatherless, and the widow.  You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.

The same command is repeated at Leviticus 19:9-10 and Leviticus 23:22. By way of example of this command, Ruth (a Moabite immigrant herself) gleaned from the fields of Boaz. (Ruth 2) The immigrant also shared with the Levites, the widows, and orphans in the annual celebratory offerings in the Feast of Weeks (Deut. 16:11) and the Feast of Booths (Deut. 16:14).  In addition, immigrants (gerim) were to “eat and be filled” in the triennial poor tithe offerings. (Deut 14:28-29, 26:12)

The Hebrews were not to grumble about this financial sharing either, but instead rejoice.

  • Deut 26:5-11 “And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned (ger) there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God and worship before the LORD your God. And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner (ger) who is among you.”

On top of this, special curses awaited those that mistreated immigrants.  A specific curse was reserved for those depriving the immigrant (ger) of justice.

  • “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner (ger), the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deut. 27:19

As another instance, in Zech 7:8-14

  • “And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner (ger), or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the LORD of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the LORD of hosts. “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the LORD of hosts, “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate.”

This brief survey only represents a sampling on the commands specifically related to immigrants.

Repeatedly, the reasons provided for this special treatment are: (1) God’s love for the immigrant (ger) and (2) the Hebrews were once ger themselves in Egypt. Accordingly, the immigrant was to be highly regarded in Isreal, yet because of human flesh and jealousy, a legal hedge of protection was erected around the immigrant.

So what does all this mean for modern times?  Without a doubt, the proper exposition of Old Testament law itself is hard. Making modern application of its principles for the Church is hard enough; further still, rightly applying those principles to the City takes, not dogmatism, but great circumspection, prudence, and humbleness.

However, for New Testament believers, the Mosaic Law is a formulation of the moral law, the higher law if you will, that is known to all people (Rom. 1-2) and which binds all people. While the specific formulation of the higher law found in the Mosaic commandments is limited to a “peculiar” people during a particular period of redemptive history, the moral principles found therein are still binding on all peoples today, although the ceremonial aspects have certainly been abrogated. (By way of example, see apostle Paul derived a principle for the New Covenant church from an obscure Mosaic law prohibiting the muzzling an ox in I Timothy 5:18.) Rightly dividing the moral principles and general equity away from the ceremonial, the judicial, and the Isrealitish-special-holiness aspects continues to be our task. So while a lot of the specific laws of the Old Testament are no longer binding, the moral principles, which can be found, certainly are.

So what principles might be gleaned from all these passages above concerning the ger?

(1) The overwhelming counsel and testimony is clear: treat the immigrant well by practice and by law. (2) Any modern law, which affects the modern day ger, immigrants, better be narrowly and circumspectly drafted. Does the law, on it face or by application, single out immigrants for greater suspicion or humiliation? Is the immigrant treated more harshly than the native by the enforcement of the law? Is exploitation of the immigrant encouraged, explicitly or implicitly? (3) We must always consider the heart of the immigrant and put ourselves in their shoes. (4)  Jealousy, resentment, and suspicion of the immigrant should be foreign to our mindset and words.  (5) A nation or state governed by these principles will be viewed by the nations as hospitable to immigrants by word, deed, and law.

In the coming posts, I hope to further attempt some modern applications of these principles and answer some other issues:

  • What inalienable rights have immigrants been endowed with by their Creator?
  • What justice is “due” the immigrant at the borders of our country (or the “gates” of our cities)?
  • Do immigrants at the border have rights? For instance, is it a just to cause an immigrant to wait twenty years after application before he can lawfully enter our borders?
  • What is a just criteria for screening immigrants at the border?
  • Does the principles hereinabove require an open-borders policy?
  • Do our policies implicitly allow or encourage the maltreatment and exploitation of immigrants in the workplace or on the farm?
  • Should we be a “sanctuary” for immigrants?
  • What justice is due “illegal” immigrants?”
  • What would a federal immigration policy look like that was informed by these principles?
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