More on immigration and the Bible

Post by Nathan Smith (regular blogger for the site, joined April 2012). See:

From my reading of the Old Testament, it’s quite clear that the Bible supports open borders, full stop. But I should acknowledge that this isn’t the consensus view. Here is an article that claims “The Bible Gives No Sanction to Open Borders.” The author, John Vinson, is in blockquotes, I’m not.

For religionists sympathetic to mass immigration, legal and illegal, Old Testament Bible verses saying “welcome the stranger” and “love the stranger” are the ultimate trump cards and justification for their position. This absolute certitude is ironic when it comes, as it often does, from religious liberals who commonly regard much of the Old Testament as Hebrew mythology, with little authority to command ethical obedience in the modern world. The Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality, for example, carry little weight with these liberals, if indeed they notice them at all.

I don’t think I’m one of the religious liberals Vinson is talking about, but anyway, one can accept that the Bible teaches something and not advocate making that the policy of contemporary states. I think the Old Testament provides a pretty good template for immigration policy, though not one that exactly corresponds to what I’d prescribe. I don’t want us to return to the Mosaic law when it comes to religious freedom (worshipping pagan gods could be punished by death) or slavery (permitted under the Mosaic law, albeit in an ameliorated form), or marriage (polygamy was tolerated).

In contrast, their literalistic embrace of “welcome the stranger” without reference to context or scholarship is characteristic of the uninformed dogmatism they often attribute to fundamentalists and other Christian conservatives. In fairness, this characteristic sometimes is true, but the general tendency of people who take the Bible seriously is to weigh verses carefully from every standpoint of learning and insight.

Yes, as long as you’re not just using that as an excuse to pretend the Bible says what’s convenient for you to have it say.

One who has done so on the pro-stranger verses is biblical scholar and archeologist James K. Hoffmeier. In his book The Immigration CrisisImmigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, Hoffmeier sheds a great deal of light on these verses and the issue of immigration from a biblical perspective. Hoffmeier convincingly argues that Middle Eastern peoples in biblical times controlled their borders and regulated immigration much as countries do today. Among them was ancient Israel.

To understand how Israel’s system worked, Hoffmeier shows, one must understand the meanings of different Hebrew words which English Bibles translate as “stranger,” as well as “foreigner,” and “alien.” The passages that command hospitality, love, and protection toward people so named use the Hebrew word “ger.” The ger, says Hoffmeier, was what today we would call an alien with permanent resident status. The Bible specified that such persons were to enjoy most of the same rights as Israelites, while at the same time requiring that they obey the laws of Israel. But others called stranger, foreigner, and alien did not have these benefits or obligations. The Hebrew words from which they derive are “zar” and “nekar.”

I suppose Hoffmeier knows Hebrew and in that respect has an advantage over me. But I suspect he doesn’t know much about immigration policy if he thinks “Middle Eastern peoples in biblical times controlled their borders and regulated immigration much as countries do today.” Passport regimes are a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Open borders were the norm as recently as the 19th century.

Consequently, the modern day writers who claim that the Bible sanctions illegal immigration, by referencing the pro-stranger passages, are drawing a completely false analogy. The strangers in this context were legally admitted people who agreed to abide by the laws of the land.

The Biblical texts do suggest that resident foreigners were expected to abide by the Mosaic law. That they had “agreed” to do so does not seem to be the case, because some procedure would have to take place whereby they agreed, and no such procedure is discussed in the Mosaic law. And I don’t see how anyone could have read the Book of Judges and suppose that any legal infrastructure existed to “legally admit” people. In the Book of Ruth, it seems clear that she didn’t ask permission, but simply came. Neither rules nor administrative procedures for “legally admitting” people are defined in the law. I haven’t read Hoffmeier’s book, but it seems clear the Biblical ger were neither like modern legal immigrants, who have received permission from a sovereign government, nor like modern undocumented immigrants, whose presence is a violation of the law. They just came, and were expected to abide by the rules.

One of those laws, Hoffmeier observers, was that both the Israelite and the stranger (ger) were to receive decent and appropriate wages for their work. Interestingly, the open border religionists never seem to notice this requirement, as they endorse a policy also favored by cheap labor interests whose goal is to drive wages as low as possible for everyone in our country. Claiming to stand for godliness, these religionists offer little criticism of this greed.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a society where a statement like this can be made without its absurdity being immediately recognized by all readers. Of course, immigrants typically raise their earning power by coming to rich countries. They may lower some natives’ wages, but the poor abroad are much worse off and their interests deserve priority.

On the issue of legal immigration, while it is clear that Israel allowed a fair number of aliens to reside within her borders, the distinction between Israelites and the stranger (ger) evidently remained generation after generation. One such distinction was that strangers couldn’t hold legal title to land. Hoffmeier cites Ruth, a woman of Moab, as an example of an alien who was completely assimilated into Israel. This, however, didn’t seem to be a general rule, which means that Israel was not a prototype for the mass immigration Melting Pot model of America.

I’ll have to check the “strangers couldn’t hold legal title to land” claim, I wasn’t aware of that. It probably needs context, e.g., I don’t think ancient Israel exactly had a free market in land. As far as the “generation after generation,” was that because resident foreigners couldn’t assimilate, or didn’t want to. And anyway, what’s the evidence? Why the claim that Ruth’s case “didn’t seem to be a general rule?” It’s true that the Bible has a lot of characters who are identified as some foreign nationality, e.g., Uriah the Hittite. That might suggest a lack of assimilation, or it might not.

Supporting open borders isn’t the same as supporting the Melting Pot. One might say that identities should be fairly permanent and not be readily mixed or abandoned, but that people should be able to move. The prima facie meaning of the Old Testament verses I’ve read, however, seems perfectly consistent with a melting pot model.

Going to the New Testament, Hoffmeier discusses a scripture that open border advocates often cite, Matthew 25: 31-45. In them Christ welcomes people into his heavenly kingdom because “I was a stranger, and you invited me in.” When they ask when they did that, he replies, “. . . to the extent you did it to these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.” This means, say the open border religionists, that one must admit and embrace every foreigner who chooses to enter one’s country.

The fallacy here is that this scripture addresses personal ethics, not national policies, as salvation is a personal issue. The Old Testament, on which Christ based his ministry, did not—as we have seen—command Israel to have open borders. The phrase “brothers of mine,” Hoffmeier notes, always refers to fellow Christians, not the world at large, so the matter is one of private benevolence among believers. Further, he points out, the word translated brothers, adelphoi, may specifically refer to disciples sent on evangelistic missions. And finally, though not mentioned by Hoffmeier, the Greek word xenos, translated as stranger, does not necessarily mean a foreigner. Another meaning is guest. Clearly the message of Matthew 25 is not related to the present day issue of immigration.

It’s true that Matthew 25 is first and foremost about personal ethics. The New Testament doesn’t deal with politics much. But surely personal ethics can’t be cleanly separated from politics. Suppose I’m a German churchgoer in the Third Reich. If I’m charitable to Jews as a matter of personal ethics, but actively support Hitler and his policy of exterminating the Jews, am I somehow saved from guilt by the difference between personal ethics and politics? Surely not. It seems obvious that Christian ethics should inform the Christian’s behavior both in his private dealings and in his exercise of public authority, if he has some, whether as a voter, a bureaucrat, an elected official, a king, or whatever. Can one seriously maintain that a Christian ought to “welcome the stranger” by practicing hospitality to undocumented immigrants in his own home, but that it is no violation of Christ’s command to vote for the deportation of the same stranger? Nor does it help Vinson’s argument to restrict “brothers of mine” to fellow Christians, for many undocumented immigrants are fellow Christians. But even if that is the right reading of Matthew 25, plenty of other New Testament passages make it clear that the Christian is bound to love everyone, not just fellow Christians. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). And there’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. The message of Matthew 25 clearly is related to the present day issue of immigration.

Hoffmeier makes his case quite well, but a useful addition might have been a discussion of the general topic of nationality from a biblical perspective. The underlying premise of many open border advocates, religious and nonreligious, is that nations shouldn’t regulate immigration, because — first and foremost — nations shouldn’t exist as sovereign entities, if indeed they should exist at all. These advocates maintain that all men would live in peace if merged together under a one world government.

History, however, offers little justification for this globalist vision. Professor R.J. Rummel calculates that the numbers of mass murders conducted under single governments during the twentieth century, the most bloody of all centuries, exceeded by six times the numbers killed in wars among nations. Certainly, a global government would have to be authoritarian, if not totalitarian, to hold all the diverse peoples of the earth together. Unrestrained world-wide oppression and the leveling of humanity to the lowest common level could easily follow from such a concentration of power.

A lot of issues are being conflated here. One can favor open borders and the nation-state. For that, the late 19th century provides a template. One could also favor a political role for nations but oppose sovereignty, preferring governments whose powers are somewhat vague and hedged about by ideologies and accretions of custom of one sort or another. One could favor a weak regime of global governance with more robust jurisdictions, though still with limited powers, sometimes overlapping, underneath. Of course the mass murders of the 20th century were invariably conducted by national governments of one kind or another, certainly not by globalists.

A worldwide authority, in any case, goes squarely against the biblical view, from Genesis to Revelation, that the division of mankind into nations is a fundamental facet of God’s order. Indeed, Acts 17:26-27 states that God set boundaries among nations so that they would seek after him. And indeed, in this situation, tyranny is limited and checked, and the particular genius of different peoples is allowed to flourish.

Significantly, the Bible seems to predict that men in rebellion against God, toward the end of this age, will seek to create a world-wide financial and political power, described as Babylon the Great in the book of Revelation. Suggesting the rise of this godless tyranny, the Old Testament Book Isaiah (14:12) states that it is Lucifer who weakens the nations.

I partly agree with this, though I’d stress that while nations or tribes of some kind seem to go back as long as history remembers, nation-states are a modern innovation, and so can’t be regarded as a “fundamental facet of God’s order.” By all means let “the particular genius of different peoples… flourish.” But they don’t have to be segregated from one another to do so. On the contrary, they might flourish more if they’re permitted to move and mingle. Also, it’s worth recalling that the confusion of tongues and the division of mankind into nations was a punishment for sinfully building the Tower of Babel, and that the phrase “the nations” or “the Gentiles” is usually used negatively in the Old Testament. These are among the many objections that could be made to an insistence that the Bible endorses nationalism. But the main point is that a humanity of many nations need not be a humanity of closed borders.

The ideology of globalism is a powerful force in the modern world. Already we see the merging of nations in the European Union, and in the proposed North American Union in our hemisphere. The proponents of globalism are unanimous in their advocacy of mass migration, pretty much irrespective of national laws. For those who take the Bible seriously, the globalist movement should raise profound concern.

Again, many strange conflations here. The European Union isn’t exactly “globalist”: it’s promoting European integration, and if anything seems rather unfavorable to a dissolving Europe in a global melting pot. The European Union certainly doesn’t have (external) open borders!

It’s frustrating that people make bad arguments like this and miss the point. Articles like this certainly don’t give me much reason to question or even qualify my view that the Bible supports open borders. I get the sense that the author has decided in advance what he wants the Bible to say and is determined to read that into it. That said, I should probably read Hoffmeier’s book at some point.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

5 thoughts on “More on immigration and the Bible”

  1. You say “I’ll have to check the “strangers couldn’t hold legal title to land” claim”. According to Leviticus 25:8–34, no-one could hold legal title to land, in the modern, Western sense, where property in land is taken to confer a perpetual interest in that location, which can be permanently sold. See especially verse 23: “The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me.”

    Essentially, God was to give Israelites 50-year leases on His land. Anyone who fell on hard times could sell the remainder of their current lease, but they couldn’t profit by permanently alienating the family land from their descendants, who would receive their own 50-year lease in due course.

    The passage leaves some things unclear, such as what happens when someone has lots of children: Do the children all receive small allocations of land? Does the oldest receive the whole of the parents’ land? If so, do the younger ones get new allocations of land, or are they left landless, or dependent on the oldest?

    But one thing not made clear in the passage — whether immigrants are given allocations of land — seems to be clarified in a passage already quoted by John Lee: Ezekiel 47:21–23: “Divide the land within these boundaries among the tribes of Israel. Distribute the land as an allotment for yourselves and for the foreigners who have joined you and are raising their families among you. They will be like native-born Israelites to you and will receive an allotment among the tribes. These foreigners are to be given land within the territory of the tribe with whom they now live. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!”

  2. Also, I’m no expert in Hebrew, but there are tools. Regarding ger, zar (or, as Strong’s seems to transliterate it, zuwr), and nekar, I’m willing to believe that they have different nuances of meaning, but the implication that the distinction is between legal (ger) and illegal (zuwr, nekar) foreigners doesn’t seem tenable.

    For example, zuwr and nekar appear to be the words used in Isaiah 61:5:
    “Strangers will shepherd your flocks;
        foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.” (NIVUK)
    And nekar is also apparently used in Isaiah 56:
    “Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord say,
        ‘The Lord will never let me be part of his people.’

    “I will also bless the foreigners who commit themselves to the Lord,
        who serve him and love his name,
    who worship him and do not desecrate the Sabbath day of rest,
        and who hold fast to my covenant.
    I will bring them to my holy mountain of Jerusalem
        and will fill them with joy in my house of prayer.
    I will accept their burnt offerings and sacrifices,
        because my Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
    For the Sovereign Lord,
        who brings back the outcasts of Israel, says:
    I will bring others, too,
        besides my people Israel.” (NLT)

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