The Old Testament on Immigration

It goes without saying that a passport regime such as we have today is unbiblical, in the sense that nothing like it is endorsed by either the Old or the New Testaments. Comprehensive control of entry and exit was not something states typically aspired to or even, I think, conceived of, before the 20th century. Such things weren’t around to endorse, or for that matter, to denounce. I would like to know the precise history of passport regimes and border controls better than I do, but I think I know it well enough to say that at least as far as controlling all points of entry is concerned, the migration policies of America in the 19th century (when no attempt at comprehensive control was made) were roughly typical, whereas 20th-century passport control (unfortunately universal today, at least as an aspiration of sovereign governments) is anomalous. In that lame sense, it would hardly be necessary to read the Bible to deduce that it supports open borders.

Critics would be right to find this argument unpersuasive. While past societies did not have comprehensive passport controls, they also lacked the fluid, prosperous economies, social tolerance, legal respect for rights, and general nonviolence that prevails in the democracies of the contemporary West. So while immigrants might enter a Greek polis or the Persian or Egyptian or Roman Empires without being prevented by the state, once there, they would be less safe from private violence, and might have trouble making a living, or integrating socially with the host society. There were no, or at most few, borders in the modern sense of invisible lines slicing up the world’s land which it was illegal for humans qua humans to cross without permission. But one’s rights and physical safety usually depended on being embedded in a physical kin-group or city-state, on having people who, so to speak, “got your back.” Migration wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t safe either.

It is in this context which the Biblical texts on this topic in Deuteronomy must be read. We could deduce that foreigners could come and reside in Israel physically, as a side-effect of the lack of a passport regime before modern times, but this is also amply confirmed by the Biblical texts, which routinely refer to “resident foreigners” and explain how they should be treated. But the Law of Moses also insists that resident foreigners be treated justly and fairly. Minutemen, e-Verify, and deportations are practices clearly forbidden by the Law of Moses. A textual study may start with verses like these:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. (Leviticus 19:33)

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless   of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:17)

The emphatic tone of these statements suggests that the Hebrews were subject to many of the same temptations that Americans, Europeans, and others are today, namely, to mistreat outsiders, who are away from their own people, outnumbered, with no one who’s “got their back.” That seems to be why here, as in many other places, the foreigner is grouped together with the fatherless and the widow as a specially protected class. And even stronger:

And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Not only do not mistreat them: love them! What this means in practice will depend on the situation, but it seems to imply that natives shouldn’t refuse to invite immigrants to parties, or exclude them from civil society groups, that sort of thing. Interestingly, American society does OK in that respect: once they arrive, I think immigrants tend not to find it that difficult to integrate socially, and don’t face a whole lot of discrimination or exclusivist attitudes.

God loves them too, as this wonderful verse asserts:

He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:18)

Part of the point here is that God being on the side of the resident foreigner should make the Hebrews afraid to mistreat them. The Law also drives the point home by mentioning specific nations:

Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you.   Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country. (Deuteronomy 23:7)

Many passages refer to foreigners in order to say that the rules which are being imposed on Israel– Sabbath regulations, for example– also apply to them. Since some of these rules are what we would now consider religious, this doesn’t fit perfectly with our modern ideas of religious tolerance. On the other hand, it makes it clear that resident foreigners were a recognized class, not an anomaly, and they also enjoyed many, at least, of the rights of the Israelite people. Thus:

A foreigner residing among you is also to celebrate the Lord’s Passover in accordance with its rules and regulations. You must have the same regulations for both the foreigner and the native-born. (Numbers 9:14)

And:

The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord. (Numbers 15:15)

And:

And I charged your judges at that time, “Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you. (Deuteronomy 1:16)

And:

Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:12)

And:

Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. (Deuteronomy 16:14)

The last two imply that foreigners should be able to share in the upsides of the national life of Israel, as well as in its duties. That said, there do seem to be some differences in the treatment of foreigners, particularly when it comes to economics. For example:

Be sure to appoint   over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites.   Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. (Deuteronomy 17:15)

This injunction is reminiscent of the US Constitution’s requirement that the president be a born American citizen. Also:

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)

And:

You may require payment from a foreigner,   but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. (Deuteronomy 15:3)

And:

You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a fellow Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess. (Deuteronomy 23:20)

The injunction that foreigners should face the same laws as the Israelites themselves actually represents a rather purer form of open borders than what I advocate in Principles of a Free Society. In that book, I advocate the creation of a regime of migration taxes that would be used to finance transfers to natives. This is a way to ensure that relatively less-skilled or low-income Americans won’t be harmed by an open borders policy. But it would be interesting to know how some apparent contradictions here would be reconciled by an ancient Hebrew lawyer or by someone today who knows the Bible better than I do, and it might provide openings for my policy to be consistent with the Bible. Alternatively, the Biblical model could be an ideal towards which my policy could serve as a stepping-stone.

The injunctions about meat and interest may be regarded as handicapping or as favoring the foreigner, depending on your point of view. The Bible seems generally to regard it as an injury to lend someone money at interest. A modern economist would tend to take the opposite view, that the foreigners would be better off having the option of borrowing at interest. Foreigners would seem to benefit from gifts of already-dead meat.

Property rights in the Law of Moses are somewhat looser than in the modern West, as may be seen in this verse:

If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain. (Deuteronomy 23:24)

When I read this, my heart filled with amazed gratitude for the wisdom of God’s law. Living in the Central Valley of California, this regulation hits close to home. There are orchards and vineyards all over the place, and I recently lived in a house that was only a five-minute walk from vineyards and orchards. When the oranges were in season, I really felt the urge to pick them. I didn’t do so, because it would have been stealing, but it often crossed mind that that particular arrangement of property rights was very inefficient, because if I didn’t pick an orange, it would be harvested and shipped to a grocery store and sit on the shelves and checked out and stored in some home and eventually eaten, having incurred costs and lost freshness in the meantime. The Law of Moses strikes a shrewd balance between the incentives and transactions costs, allowing just enough foraging to be efficient, without undermining work incentives much. The foraging rules from the Law of Moses still held in Jesus’s times, as these verses prove:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain   and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-2)

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 (UPDATE: I should have added “except for the fact that they were doing it on the Sabbath”). The Pharisees knew this, and objected, not on the ground that Jesus and the apostles were violating property rights, but on the ground that they were laboring on the Sabbath. But I’ve digressed a bit.

The relevant point here for us is that if the Law allows you to forage in another person’s field or vineyard, clearly merely walking in another person’s field or vineyard is fine. This is consistent with the argument I made in Principles of a Free Society, that property originates in appropriation from the commons through labor, but that appropriation is limited by need and does not extend to superfluities, so that physical exclusion from one’s property is not justified to the extent that it is superfluous to the use to which the property is put. I applied this most importantly in my theory of streets, which are bundles of non-overlapping transit rights and from which no one has a right to exclude anyone else (see Vipul Naik’s summary of my theory of streets here). But I suggested that it might even be illicit for a farmer to exclude random strangers from his fields or vineyards, if society in general became so honest that prevention of stealing became an implausible motive for such exclusion. In the society envisioned by the Law of Moses, freedom of mobility extends to walking through the fields and vineyards of others.

But the Law of Moses not only protects the rights of resident foreigners; it also establishes a kind of informal social safety net, as shown in these verses:

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it.   Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless   you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time.   Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

Again, I am struck by the wisdom of this. It is a form of redistribution, or poor-relief, but without bureaucracy: it is done through private social norms. I do not know whether this rule of not fully harvesting one’s crops would have been regarded as legally enforceable or not. I would guess not, in which case this is redistribution by moral suasion, of which libertarians might fully approve. It is a social safety net without the state. It makes labor easier for the husbandman, of course: what he does not gather, is presumably the hardest to gather. The protected classes, “the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow” as usual, get to gather the leftovers of the harvest: a poor existence, no doubt, but something better than starvation. Leviticus, by the way, makes the same point:

Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen.   Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.   I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:10)

One more point. The Law commands:

If a slave has taken refuge   with you, do not hand them over to their master. Let them live among you wherever they like and in whatever town they choose. Do not oppress them. (Deuteronomy 23:15)

In my view, this has a direct application today. Slavery exists today, and escaped slaves who take refuge in free countries should not be forced to return. But also, totalitarianism reduces its subjects to a state closely resembling slavery. So it is unbiblical to make refugees from totalitarianism return home. There are shameful episodes in the history of the democracies, in which Soviet citizens were sent home against their will to be massacred by Stalin, or Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were forbidden entry into US ports.

So much for the Law of Moses. I must say that I did not read most of these passages before I wrote Principles of a Free Society, and I did not expect to discover that the Law of Moses supports my open borders position quite so thoroughly. I don’t think see how there can be much doubt that the Bible is overwhelmingly on the side of an open borders view similar to that of Principles, and inconsistent with the passport regimes of modern states. I do not quite regard the Bible as “inspired” in the same sense that some people do: it is too complex a text for that. There are Bible passages to which I cannot easily give a meaning that I would wish to assent to. But these passages are certainly not among them. In this case, to find such a weight of Biblical confirmation for the views that I arrived at, by laborious consideration of the demands of justice and the beest way that policy can foster human happiness, is an edifying surprise.

But did the Law really describe the society of ancient Israel? Very imperfectly, at best. The Old Testament prophets are full of eloquent condemnations of Israel for violating the Law and being unfaithful to their covenant with God. But the Book of Ruth sheds light on how the practice of immigration in Biblical times worked. It tells the story of how an Israelite couple, Elimelek and Naomi, left Israel during a famine and settled in Moab, where her sons married. Both her husband and her sons died, the famine ended, and Naomi planned to return to Israel. And she urged her daughters to go to their homes, since they had no husbands now. One of them, Orpah, did, but the other, Ruth, clung to her, saying:

“Don’t urge me to leave you   or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go,   and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people   and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely,   if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

We see here central themes of Ruth: (a) the love between the two women, but also (b) the process of adoption into the people of Israel. Ruth and Naomi arrive in Israel at the time of the barley harvest. Then:

Now Naomi had a relative  on her husband’s side, a man of standing  from the clan of Elimelek,  whose name was Boaz.

And Ruth the Moabite  said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain  behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor. ”

Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters.  As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek.

Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you! ”

“The Lord bless you!” they answered.

Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, “Who does that young woman belong to?”

The overseer replied, “She is the Moabite   who came back from Moab with Naomi. She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves  behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest  in the shelter.”

So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”

At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground.  She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me —a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:1-10)

From this passage one can discern what the custom is. Naomi and Ruth “glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.” The harvesters are following the practice described in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, not going over the field a second time, but leaving the leftovers for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow– such as Naomi and Ruth. Boaz turns out to be a relative of Naomi’s, but it is not on this ground that she is allowed to gather, as the phrase “as it turned out” indicates: she didn’t know beforehand whose leftover grain she was gathering. Nor, obviously, did Boaz know her and give her permission based on the kin-relationship: he has to ask who she is, after he sees her gathering. And Boaz assumes that Ruth will go from field to field. In short, the implicit social context for this story is similar to that described by the Law of Moses. Since the Book of Ruth is quite a different kind of text from the books where the Law is expounded, this is a sort of independent confirmation that the Law did roughly describe Israel’s practice.

Since Ruth goes on to marry Boaz, joins the Israelite nation and is one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, the Book of Ruth may be read as an illustration of immigration in the Israel of Biblical times. In this respect at least, Biblical Israel was a more enlightened society than the contemporary United States.

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

21 thoughts on “The Old Testament on Immigration”

  1. It strikes me that in Ruth’s story, the overseer said she did ask permission before entering the field. Presumably, if anyone could walk through anyone else’s fields, she wouldn’t have asked. That may reflect social expectations in her native Moab, rather than in Biblical Israel, but I also notice that Boaz asked his overseer who she was, rather than asking her directly. Boaz expected the overseer to know who was in his fields. She was still let into the field, but even after she was watched, and the overseer was able to tell Boaz she had only rested once all day.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but this seems to reflect a society where borders are open, but monitored. Immigrants can freely enter the society, but they’re watched once they arrive.

    1. You’ve done some good close reading of the story. It is very difficult to know, when we are reading closely, how much weight to put on our observations and speculations. I tend to believe the writers of much of the Old (and New) Testament were very cognizant of the weight that would be put on various elements of their stories and thus crafted them carefully to convey those things they felt were important to future audiences, particularly Hebrew audiences. If Biblical scholars are right in assuming that most or all of the Old Testament was compiled and probably highly edited in the post-exilic period, then it is even more likely that small elements in stories like this were devised with literary skills equal to any practiced today. All that said, I still think the author’s contention that Hebrew society was envisioned as one that was accepting of the “foreigner” in their midst. No doubt reality fell far short of the ideal, the sad result of human nature.

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  3. No, I don’t think Ruth does ask. At least, the text doesn’t seem to say so. She asks Naomi, but Naomi isn’t the owner of any fields. Rather, Naomi is her mother-in-law and companion. Nor is it clear that Boaz assumes the overseer knows who she is. He is curious, and it can’t hurt to ask. The overseer might have said “I don’t know.” Nor does Boaz’s curiosity seem to reflect a proprietor’s desire to know who is in his fields. Rather, he is struck by Ruth’s beauty, as the rest of the story makes clear. (They marry.) I think it seems like just what the Mosaic Law suggests, namely, that Ruth has a right to be there without asking anyone’s leave, because that was the nature of property rights in agricultural land.

    1. In the overseer’s response, he says, “She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters,’” although in the actual narrative she just enters the field, and only later is it implied that she talked to anyone. I think it could be interpreted either way.

      Of course, at this point she’s already crossed what today we would consider the border, without any hassle at all. The situation clearly was a lot closer to open borders than anything we have today.

  4. I thought I replied to this long ago. Yes, you’re right, I missed that. It seems to me like it’s a little bit like when someone asks, “Do you mind if I smoke?” in a public place. They have a right to smoke there, but it might irritate others, so they ask permission. Asking permission is “supererogatory.”

  5. In all the biblical passages you quote, the actual word is NOT “foreigner”. In the original greek version of the OT the term used is “proselyte”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proselyte

    A proselyte is simply a convert to Judaism, as explained in Exodus 12.48:
    “If a proselyte shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.”

    Thus, a proselyte is one who converts to Judaism, follow the jewish customs and rituals and undergoes circumcision. A proselyte is a person VASTLY DIFFERENT from an immigrant in any moderrn sense.

    1. I don’t have the means at hand to check this out but surely the Septuagint did not translate Exodus 33:21 as “Do not mistreat or oppress a PROSELYTE, for you were PROSELYTES in Egypt.” That would have made no sense at all. There were undoubtedly cases where strangers did chose to follow Hebrew religious customs and would correctly have been called proselytes but not in most of the instances in which the Hebrews were admonished to care for the stranger in their midst.

  6. I think the word in the original Hebrew translates as – alien (40), aliens (11), foreigners (1), immigrants (1), sojourner (5), sojourners (2), stranger (25), stranger’s (1), strangers (6).

  7. This is a joke. Because the Bible tells you how to treat foreigners it supports open borders?

    I can see why your articles are rarely shared.

    When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the sons of Israel.

    Don’t cheat your neighbor by moving the ancient boundary markers; don’t take the land of defenseless orphans.

    Cursed be he that removeth thy neighbor’s landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen

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