Immigration Lessons from the Bible

| Past,Present

We in the United States remain in a season of partisan contention, angst, uncertainty, resistance, divisiveness, and a recent government shutdown. One of the major issues of disagreement between our political parties is that of the “dreamers,” those young people brought to the US illegally as children by their parents, and the Obama-era measure put into effect to protect them (DACA). The issues of immigration – legal and illegal – and border security are intimately intertwined with that of DACA. Because Judaism and Christianity have been such important factors in our nation’s history, and because people of faith, especially those on the Christian right, contend that their faith informs their politics, it might be useful to see how our Jewish and Christian ancestors viewed immigrants and refugees.

In the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, author Robert R. Cargill, the magazine’s new editor, provides an excellent overview of the nature of the ancient Holy Land – by whatever name it has gone by – as “a land of migration and immigration.” This is supported in many ways by archaeological excavations. The theology follows the facts, for both Israelites and the early Christians: because they were migrants, immigrants and “strangers in a strange land,” they in turn are obligated to treat strangers, aliens, and other vulnerable people with great compassion. This is what their Lord commands.

Author Cargill cites several passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament that illustrate the facts and the theological imperative.

  • Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
  • Ezekiel 47:21-23: “So you shall divide this land among you according to the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the Lord God.”
  • Ruth 2:11-12, the story of Ruth, a young woman from Moab and the great-grandmother of David and an ancestor of Jesus. Ruth went with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem, forsaking her own people after the death of her own husband. A relative of Naomi named Boaz showed compassion to Ruth. “But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’”
  • Luke 10:30-37: In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows how the Samaritan – a member of a hated group at the time – was the hero of the story: he, not the more socially acceptable priest or Levite, was the one who showed compassion on the man who had been beaten and robbed.
  • Matthew 25:31-46: In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God will be inherited by, among others, those who welcome the stranger.

Donald Trump has frequently blamed, insulted, raged against, and mocked immigrants, and Republicans have rarely championed the rights of immigrants, even though they have usually not taken such extreme stances as Trump’s. Notwithstanding that Trump and his cronies have immigrant backgrounds themselves, they make the argument that immigrants from certain backgrounds or countries are more dangerous or lazy or unproductive than those from other countries, completely ignoring the facts:

  • “Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born.”
  • “The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. was lower in 2015 than it was at the end of the Great Recession in 2009.”
  • Between 1992 and 2011, “approximately 24% of all entrepreneurs [in US businesses] . . . were immigrants – an outsized proportion given that immigrants comprise only about 15% of the population.”

Many Christian Fundamentalists, including conservative lawmakers, know the Bible very well and often memorize key passages. Yet they often hold the hardest line on immigration: “amnesty” is a bad word; any bill that might protect illegal immigrants in any way is anti-American and dangerous; even legal immigration is now seen as needing sharp reduction. An insidious Trump campaign ad currently airing asserts that the Democrats will be complicit in any murders committed by illegal aliens.

I would challenge Christian Fundamentalists to meditate on the Bible passages noted above in light of the facts about immigration. I would also challenge them to analyze their own fears about immigrants and people unlike themselves. Finally, I would challenge Fundamentalists to put themselves in immigrants’ shoes: what would it feel like to be Ruth, following Naomi, who left everything familiar behind to seek a better life in a new land? How would they want to be treated in their new home? How would they want their children and other loved ones treated?

In my opinion, the bottom line for Christian Fundamentalists, who take their everyday marching orders from the Bible, is this: if your God loves the alien, the stranger, the immigrant, will you?


Cargill, Robert R. “Migration and Immigration in Ancient Israel,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 44, No. 1 (January/February 2018) 24-34.