Sojourners Among the Hebrews vs. Illegal Immigrants in America

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”  — Leviticus 19:33-34 (ESV)

I don’t have to tell you how controversial an issue the whole illegal immigrants thing is. I mean, what is the compassionate thing to do, while still protecting U.S. citizens and making sure that our laws are respected and upheld? Should we deport millions of people? Do we care if we break up families? How does all this jibe with our founding principles? Etc.

Then there is the biblical angle. Christians want to do the right thing, according to God’s teaching. Loving our neighbor and all that. Even those who don’t normally hold the Bible — especially the Old Testament — in high regard suddenly become Bible thumpers, when they find a verse or passage that they think supports their position. In particular, those who are pro-open borders and amnesty quote the above passage (and others) to “prove” that the Bible is on their side — at least, on this issue. But, is it?

Is there a parallel between the ancient Hebrew nation and present-day America? Even if so, is it appropriate to apply God’s covenant instructions for Israel to the current situation in the U.S.? In a recent article for the Religion News Service (RNS), Dr. James K. Hoffmeier, professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and author of The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, weighed in.

“This wonderful passage has nothing to do with illegal immigrants in America…. Old Testament laws were primarily intended to promote an orderly society for a nation — ancient Israel. Simplistic application of 3,000-year-old laws to American society is ill-advised until one thoroughly understands what was meant by “stranger” in this verse. The Bible is not “a living breathing document” that can mean whatever one wants it to say.

Regarding the Hebrew Scripture’s instructions on the “stranger,” two fundamental questions must be answered: What is a “stranger,” and how did people obtain that status?

The relevant Hebrew word is [transliterated] “ger,” variously rendered in different English translations of the Bible as “stranger,” “sojourner,” “alien” and more recently as “foreigner.” The [last] is quite misleading because there are other Hebrew terms for foreigner — for example, “nekhar,” or one who is passing through another country and not seeking residence. “Zar” is another Hebrew term rendered “foreigner,” but it has a more hostile nuance: a squatter or an enemy. The “ger” alone has obtained legal status to live in a different country and might be seen as a foreigner who has become a “protected citizen.””

In case anyone is curious, I checked over 30 current English translations (and a couple older ones) to see which ones use which term in the Leviticus passage: “stranger” is used by ASV, AMP, ESV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NLV, RSV, VOICE, WEB; “sojourner” is used by YLT, CLV; “alien” is used by CSB, ISV, LEB, NABRE, NRSV, REB; “foreigner” is used by CJB, CEV, GW, GNT, HCSB, MEV, MSG, NCV, NET, NIV, NLT; “outsider” is used by the TLV; “immigrants” is used by the CEB.

“How did people become legal aliens (gers) in another country? The classic example is when Jacob’s family went to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan. They asked Pharaoh for permission:

And they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were” … “We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. And now, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is before you. Settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land. Let them settle in the land of Goshen” (Genesis 47:3-6).

No less authority than the king of Egypt granted this permission. This means that the Hebrews, though foreigners, obtained legal status in Egypt; they were gers.

“Joseph Presenting His Father and Brothers” – by François Boucher

In biblical law the distinction between the alien or stranger (ger) and the foreigner (nekhar) is striking. The ger in Israel could receive social assistance such as the right to glean in the fields (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22) and resources from the tithes (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). The ger and citizen were to be paid alike (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

None of these benefits was available to the nekhar (the foreigner without legal status) in biblical law. Charging interest to fellow Israelites or ger was prohibited, but the foreigner (nekhar) was fair game (Deuteronomy 23:20). These passages show that aliens or strangers received all the benefits and protections of a citizen, whereas the foreigner (nekhar) did not. The reason is that the ger had legal status; they were, so to speak, documented!

It is wrong, therefore, to confuse these two sociological categories of foreigners and then to use Scripture regarding the ger as if it applied to immigrants of today who enter the country illegally. I would argue that if one wants to apply biblical passages regarding the ger to our context, green card holders would better correspond. They need protections so as not to be abused and exploited as we have unfortunately seen. Old Testament law simply does not address how people in the U.S. illegally should be treated.

My intention here is not to discourage utilizing biblical principles to shape public policy and law, but to call out the abuse of Scripture and to urge that it first be read carefully and contextually before emotionally satisfying, but simplistic and inaccurate, interpretations are applied to 21st-century American issues. Certainly Christians should not be made to feel guilty by the exploitation of Scripture by social justice activists who seek to advance a particular political agenda.”

Dr. Hoffmeier makes some much-needed distinctions, and I’m glad I came across his article. If the supporters of open borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants insist on making a biblical argument, they are going to have to do much better. (I, for one, don’t think they have a legitimate case, though.)

We seem to have many nekhars — and, unfortunately, more than a few zars — in the U.S. that are posing as gers or insisting that they be treated as such, and we cannot allow this to continue. Our new President agrees, and I pray that he, his administration, and our Congress use both wisdom and compassion in how they undertake to stem the flow of illegals and properly deal with those already here.

P.S.  Here is another article from Hoffmeier that I came across shortly before going to press. He addresses some of the above, as well as a little more on Moses, plus re sanctuary cities.

P.P.S.  On a related note, if you or someone you know is freaking out about Trump’s new executive order re refugees, etc., check out this article to get past the hysteria.


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