I was recently challenged with a question about the Bible and immigration, and to answer the challenge, I looked up every occurrence of the words “stranger,” “foreigner,” and “alien” in the Bible. The resulting list was fascinating to read, and in doing so, I discovered the following seven principles about immigration that are taught in Scripture.
1. Israel was forbidden from oppressing immigrants.
The command to not oppress immigrants is one of the most often repeated commands in the Bible. The term “oppress” had the same meaning in Bible times as it does today. It literally means “to press against or weigh down,” and it refers to the practice of intentionally making someone’s life more difficult. In the Bible, this term is almost exclusively associated with things like wages, money, and property (Lev 25:14-17, Deut 24:14-15, Prov 22:22, Hos 12:7, Mic 2:2, Mal 3:5, James 2:6). Thus, when God repeatedly commanded Israel not to oppress immigrants, He was telling them not to make the life of the immigrant more difficult than it already is by weighing him down with financial burdens and restrictions. God intended for the land of Israel to be a place of economic opportunity for immigrants.
2. Israel was commanded to provide food for all the poor immigrants within her border.
God knew that the economic prosperity of Israel would be a huge incentive for the poor of other nations to immigrate to Israel, but instead of trying to prevent their immigration, God put in place a system to help poor immigrants and meet their needs. First, He provided a guarantee that any immigrant who was willing to work would be able to provide food for his family. God essentially required that the Israelites reserve an entire occupational category (gleaning) to be filled solely by the poor and the immigrants. But God didn’t stop with the guarantee of work, He also commanded that the strangers be given food out of the tithe that was collected in Israel. God intended for the people of Israel to welcome all immigrants with open arms even immigrants who would be an economic drain on their society.
3. Immigrants were to be under the same law and have most of the same rights as citizens.
There were very few limits placed on the rights of immigrants in the Bible. For example, an immigrant was not allowed to be king over Israel (Deut 17:15). For the most part, however, immigrants in Israel enjoyed the same rights and privileges as citizens, and God even made provision for immigrants to become naturalized citizens of Israel (Exo 12:48). The idea that immigrants should be treated differently under the law was repugnant to God, and He expressly forbade the Children of Israel from doing so. God intended for all of the immigrants in Israel to receive equal protection under the law.
4. God gives immigrants the same level of care that He gives to orphans and widows.
I don’t know that a more beautiful and endearing promise can be found than the promise that God will be a father to the fatherless (Ps 68:5). God’s commands for His people to care for orphans and widows are a result of the love and care that God Himself has toward those in that situation, and His commands for His people to care for immigrants also come from God’s love and care for those who find themselves living in a foreign country. God intended for all those who follow Him to care for immigrants.
5. Both of the examples of denying entry to immigrants were condemned in the Bible.
I have only found two examples of closed borders in the Bible, and both of them are presented in a negative light. The first was Edom’s refusal to let Israel cross through their land, and God added that offense to the tally of Edom’s eventual punishment. In the second example, God used the closed borders of the Amorites to entice them into battle and destroy them. Israel, on the other hand appears to have had open borders which were crossed often by both enemies and friends. In all of the accounts of individuals and armies entering the nation of Israel, there is not a single record of anyone being challenged by a border patrol or customs official. God has not given any indication that He approves of closed borders.
6. God sees integration and birthright citizenship as a good thing.
God’s ultimate goal in permitting unrestrained immigration in Israel was the salvation of the lost (I Tim 2:4, Isa 45:22). Thus, the full integration of immigrants into the culture of Israel was viewed as a good thing, and the guarantee of birthright citizenship being implied by the phrase in the Law “one that is born in the land” was later explicitly declared to be the desire of God. God intended for immigration to be used as a tool in His efforts to evangelize the lost.
7. There was no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants in Israel.
I obviously don’t have any verses to support this claim, but that’s precisely my point. I have done my best to read every passage of Scripture that references immigrants, and I have not found a single passage that makes a distinction between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants. This discovery reinforces the claim that Israel had open borders, for surely, if God had intended for Israel to place restrictions on immigration, then He would have distinguished between those immigrants who entered in accordance with the law and those who entered in violation of the law. God intended for all immigrants to be treated well regardless of the means by which they entered the land.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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