Tag Archives: John Vinson

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. Continue reading More on immigration and the Bible