The Old Testament on Immigration: Follow-Up

My post The Old Testament on Immigration was discussed at Reddit. Briefly. Here’s the initial comment:

This is filled with inaccuracies about OT law. One example:

“In walking through the grainfields (which were certainly not their own since Jesus was a traveling preacher), and picking heads of grain while they passed, Jesus and the apostles were doing what was allowed by the Law.”

The act of gathering on the Sabbath is explicitly forbidden in the OT. Numbers 15:32-26

OK, I admit the wording was an error here, and I’ve put an update in the original post to reflect that. What I meant, and I think it’s quite clear from the next sentence, is that what Jesus and the apostles were doing was allowed by the Law, except for the fact that they were doing it on the Sabbath. Of course, this particular “inaccuracy,” if that is what it is, has no bearing on the topic of the post. That people were allowed, under the old Law, not only to walk through one another’s grain fields, but even to pluck heads or pick fruit by hand while doing so, is a striking contrast with modern property law, and is relevant to immigration since it relates to issues about physical movement through land, and suggests (as do many other verses) that nothing comparable to modern immigration restrictions was or would have been countenanced by the Law of Moses. Sabbath regulations are quite a separate question.

I am tempted to say that if a reader who claims to have found “multiple inaccuracies” can offer nothing less trivial than this, he (or she) is bluffing, and I’m even more convinced of the argument of the post than I was before. But no, I shouldn’t go there. I’m not an expert in the Law of Moses, which I’ve found off-putting for much of my life. I’ve read the New Testament much more than the Old, despite its being so much shorter. My Old Testament post was based on some Google searching and reading chapter by chapter, here and there. I haven’t read the entire Mosaic Law from beginning to end, let alone studied it closely. So I could certainly be wrong, and would be grateful to anyone who can explain why. I would be glad to hear of the “multiple inaccuracies,” and to see if they would force me to modify my position, probably not on open borders per se, but on the Mosaic Law’s attitude to open borders. Certainly I have been given no reason to do so yet.

Someone else read the post and wrote to me about it privately. I hope he won’t mind my quoting his letter (if so, I’ll remove it, and I’ll leave him anonymous for now but will be glad to put his name if he wishes it):

[Removed, on second thought, for lack of permission from the person who wrote this to me.]

My reply:

Very interesting, thank you. I don’t know Hebrew and it’s possible that there’s just no way for me to get the exact shades of meaning, but I have read much of the Pentateuch in English translation (not all, I’m sorry to say, perhaps not even half, but a good deal). Could you point to any texts that make this clear? I did kind of get the sense of what you mention… that is, that resident foreigners were subject to the Law to the extent that they were like observant Jews… but there were some texts that seem to point the other way, for example:

Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to the foreigner residing in any of your towns, and they may eat it, or you may sell it to any other foreigner. But you are a people holy to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 14:21)

In this case, it seems clear that “the foreigner residing in any of your towns” are allowed to eat what observant Jews are not—which would make them, it seems, not the same as observant Jews. Or is this a different word for “foreigner” here, in the Hebrew? In that case, perhaps there are two statuses, say resident convert foreigner versus resident foreigner who just lives there because he lives there, and why not, and anyone by what right would you kick him out? I would also ask whether the term convert is anachronistic—or at least, whether what the word “convert” means to me, as a Christian, would be anachronistic as applied to Old Testament Judaism. The Jews of Old Testament times had a definite marker of who was “in” and who was “out”—circumcision—but by its nature that can only apply to females, so it’s not clear what it would mean in the story of Ruth. Anyway, very interesting, you’ve provoked me to take a closer look sometime.

Of course, the larger point is that this correspondent’s version of what the Mosaic Law claims doesn’t really undermine the case for open borders at all. Suppose the US were to implement a policy saying that anyone can come to the US, as long as they agree to abide by US laws and participate in national festivals like fireworks on the 4th of July. Surely that would qualify as advocating open borders! It seems to me, then, that ancient Israel did allow foreigners simply to enter without impediment, and they were not even completely bound by the rules of Israel, but there may have been some scope to convert to Judaism, a process akin to naturalization (though here I’m less sure). All the verses about “resident aliens” do seem to cross-apply directly to a modern case for open borders. Indeed, I don’t see how I can escape the conclusion that the Old Testament advocates an even stronger form of open borders than I do. And of course I only covered a small part of the Old Testament. Here’s another perhaps relevant passage:

2: 1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

2In the last days

the mountain  of the Lord’s temple will be established     as the highest of the mountains;it will be exalted  above the hills,     and all nations will stream to it.

3 Many peoples  will come and say,

“Come, let us go   up to the mountain   of the Lord,     to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways,     so that we may walk in his paths.” The law   will go out from Zion,     the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He will judge  between the nations     and will settle disputes  for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares     and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation,     nor will they train for war anymore.

5 Come, descendants of Jacob,     let us walk in the light  of the Lord. (Isaiah 2:1-5)

So the prophet Isaiah envisions a future in which “all nations will stream to” the mountain of the Lord, which seems to mean Jerusalem; many peoples are exhorting one another to go there, in order to walk in the ways of the Lord. Admittedly, this is a prophecy for a vaguely envisioned and distant future, but that doesn’t seem to help all that much. Isaiah clearly regards this as desirable. What would Isaiah’s attitude be towards a policy that, when the nations resolved to come to Israel and learn its ways, set up passport controls that prevented them from coming? Can there be any doubt that he would regard such a policy as intolerable?

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

2 thoughts on “The Old Testament on Immigration: Follow-Up”

  1. Hello! I am glad to see a response to my comment (first one dealt with here). You say

    ” is that what Jesus and the apostles were doing was allowed by the Law, except for the fact that they were doing it on the Sabbath”

    That is correct. But it actually means something in Jewish law that it was being done on the Sabbath. There are plenty of other examples of things that have appropriate times. Sex is a good example. Sex outside of marriage is considered not so good. Sex within marriage is awesome, theologically and literally. 😉 But you are not going to point out only the second instance and say sex should always be had at anytime. I also would not call one of the ten commandments “trivial”.

    I am not going to reread the original at length, but ideas presented on interest, meat, and who is allowed in a religious/Jewish controlled Israel are off by varying degrees.

    Thank you.

  2. re: “But it actually means something in Jewish law that it was being done on the Sabbath.”

    Sure, but it’s irrelevant to the topic of the post. The point of mentioning Jesus and the apostles eating heads of grain from a field was that this feature of the Mosaic Law was still normative in New Testament times. Of course the dispute over the Sabbath was a serious one. Jesus held that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and rejected the inhumane and incoherent extremes to which Sabbath observance had been taken. Form had displaced substance. But no one seems to have objected to what Jesus and the apostles did on the property rights grounds which we would think of today. The point under dispute was not trivial, but your objection was trivial, or if you prefer, irrelevant, inessential, a distraction, failing to get to the heart of the matter. Never mind interest and meat; are there Biblical verses which would suggest a sharply different view from the one I have outlined on the question of “who is allowed in a religious/Jewish controlled Israel?”

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