Haitians at the southern border. Afghan resettlement. Mexican families. Caravans from Central America. Syrian refugees. Governors as far north as Alaska demanding meetings to address the ‘unenforced borders’ of America. How to think and respond to people coming to the United States of America is never far from the media’s headlines.  Research suggests that many who identify as Christian may be the least willing to accept refugees from anywhere—unless they are already Christians like them, and sometimes not even then! The opposition to welcoming people seeking asylum is particularly strong among self-identified White Evangelicals and Catholics, with a majority believing the United States should accept even fewer of those seeking asylum than it does now.[1]

This is a peculiar position for groups that so often and so explicitly justify their views based on ‘what the Bible says.’ What is odd? Animosity toward migrants is nearly impossible to support from the Bible, a collection of texts largely written by migrants to other migrants, very often to explore the experience of migration. To put the finest possible point on it, there would be very few Bible stories, and no Bible, if it were not for stories about migrants, and about them seeking and receiving asylum.

ARoll Call of Migrants. Consider this unusual summary of the central figures in Genesis: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Abraham migrates to Canaan from Mesopotamia (Gen 12:1-10). Immediately upon arrival (Gen 12:10), famine forces Abraham to flee to Egypt. To survive, Abraham instructs his wife Sarah to lie about their relationship so that Sarah’s sexual availability can provide and protect (like so many female involuntary migrants) for their family. With a tremendous dose of providential protection, Abraham and Sarah’s ploy, though predictably not well received by the Egyptians, enables them to survive their time as refugees and to return to Canaan wealthier than they left (Gen 12:17-20). Abraham’s son Isaac also faces famine (Gen 26:1). Rather than leave Canaan, Isaac drifts about within its borders, residing in various places to survive. Like father, like son: Isaac and his wife Rebekah employ the same tactic, hiding the true nature of their relationship. Their hosts are not pleased either, but, yet again, they emerge wealthier than they entered. Isaac’s son Jacob grows up in Canaan, but spends twenty years seeking asylum with his family in Mesopotamia to avoid the aggression of his brother Esau (Gen 27:41–28:9). While there, Jacob must battle for his rights because his Uncle Laban, despite providing him protection, holds immense power over him (Gen 30:25-43). Just as with contemporary asylum seekers, Jacob treads carefully with Laban for fear that he might be returned to the dangerous situation he fled. Jacob finally gains his independence, and when he returns to Canaan, finds a transformed, unrecognizable society. Esau, who now seeks to reconcile with Jacob instead of killing him, exemplifies how much has changed in Jacob’s absence (Gen 33:1-17). Jacob goes through the experience of reverse culture shock—something familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few months away from home. Finally, there is the well-known story of Joseph. Precocious and irreverent to his brothers, the youngest son of Jacob is sold into slavery in Egypt. Joseph rises from the pit to be Pharaoh’s most trusted official, at which point a famine forces the remainder of his family to flee to Egypt, unwittingly arranging their reunion.

Throughout Genesis, these ancestors of Israel are referred to as gerim, a Hebrew term translated ‘sojourner’ or ‘resident alien’ that connotes transitory residence, difference from the host population, and limited legal protection. There are many ways this story corresponds to contemporary society. For instance, one can categorize Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph in terms used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Abraham begins as a voluntary migrant, but then lives in Egypt as an environmentally induced, externally displaced person; Isaac is born to immigrant parents, and he subsequently becomes an environmentally induced, internally displaced person; Jacob is a third generation migrant, who involuntarily migrates to seek asylum, before eventually repatriating by choice; Joseph is a trafficked person placed in slave labor that reunites with his family, who come to him as environmentally induced, externally displaced people. All these figures are involuntary migrants.

Uniquely in the ancient world, the legal texts in the Old Testament often instruct the community to treat migrants as equals. For example, Leviticus commands the people to leave part of the harvest for ‘the poor and the gēr’ to gather (Lev 23:22). Moreover, Leviticus states

‘When a stranger (gēr) resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’

Leviticus 19:33-34

Exodus expresses a similar sentiment twice (Exod 22:20; 23:9), with all three texts grounding this attitude in Israel’s experience living as a gēr in Egypt. Perhaps it is no coincidence that instructions predicated on the experience in Egypt appear to match the openness towards foreigners advocated in Genesis. Of course, Leviticus and Exodus cast a vision for how this looks among the powerful host community, rather than in the minority immigrant group.

There are, it is important to observe, statements recommending caution towards migrants in some places. Though Exodus calls for equal treatment of the gēr, elsewhere it excludes foreigners (nokrî) from the Passover (Exod 12:43). Leviticus specifies that no animal from a foreigner can be sacrificed to God (Lev 22:25). Some texts even justify different treatment of the foreigner in the repayment of debts and in the loaning of money (Deut 15:3; 23:21). While these texts do allow for drawing distinctions between fellow citizen and foreigner—especially in religious practice—they do not in any way suggest the exclusion, rejection, or mistreatment of foreigners. It is possible these differing attitudes are related to distinctions between groups of migrants, with the gēr representing someone who has assimilated to the host culture more than the nokrî. These texts underscore that even in the ancient world dealing with migrants was no simple issue. And yet, they never advocate the absolutely closed borders, negative rhetoric, and fearful responses to migrants of the sort one now finds so common in the media—and in churches.

What about David? The youngest son in a family of eight boys, David lives as a shepherd in rural Judah. His life changes abruptly when the prophet Samuel arrives in Bethlehem and anoints him as the successor to King Saul. Subsequently, David proves himself a fearless soldier in his fight with the Philistine hero Goliath and through his daring incursion to kill 200 Philistines as a bride price for Saul’s daughter Michal. David joins the royal family as Saul’s son-in-law and serves as mindfulness guru to the emotionally unstable king. David develops a deep bond with Jonathan, heir to the throne.  All is not well. Saul grows paranoid about David’s aspirations so that he encourages his confidants to kill David. Jonathan, however, informs David of the threat, which enables David to escape harm. Nonetheless, David ‘has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group’ that compels him ‘to flee’.[2]

David first seeks safety within Judah. Helped by his well-connected associates—Michal, his wife; Jonathan, his brother-in-law; Samuel, his political patron; and Ahimelech, priest at Nob—David survives as an internally displaced involuntary migrant for some time. Imminently under threat still, he departs Judah in search of refuge outside Saul’s jurisdiction.

David selects Gath as a destination. This city in the Philistine heartland located on the major travel route along the Mediterranean coast represents both a logical and illogical destination. Urban, adjacent to a major transportation network, multicultural, Gath could allow a migrant to settle and to integrate successfully without attracting attention. The transportation connections also offer the chance for further migration to destinations south (e.g., Egypt) or north (e.g., Damascus, or even into Mesopotamia). Nevertheless, Gath is the city of Goliath, David’s most famous military conquest. David cannot be anonymous here—and he is almost immediately recognized so that his presence is reported to King Achish.

King Achish of Gath in time judges that granting David asylum is a reasonable risk. Achish settles David in Ziklag, making him a legal refugee. To a large extent, Achish reaps rewards for doing so: David faithfully supports Achish, and even agrees to fight with the Philistines against Saul. Lingering suspicions among the Philistine military leaders persist, and they will not permit David to join them. The ensuing battle, which David does not join, results in Saul’s death. When David returns to Judah, the threat on his life from Saul ended, the asylum seeker and refugee finds warm acceptance from his fellow Judahites, who anoint him king over them.

One could go on; indeed, a further catalogue of the books of the Old Testament that either deal explicitly with migration or are responses to that experience would include 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, many Psalms, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel… well, you get the point.

The New Testament is equally marked by migration. It is now familiar for people to say, ‘Jesus was a refugee.’ In fact, with Christmas on the horizon, you can put it in pen in your calendar that such rhetoric will appear a week or two after the Christmas decorations are in Target.

This characterization of Jesus foregrounds the depiction of the holy family fleeing Herod’s aggression by seeking safety in Egypt (Matt 2:13-15). It is crucial to note that in this passage the Gospel of Matthew emphasizes not the personal experience of Jesus of Nazareth per se, but how Jesus shares this experience with his Israelite ancestors.[3] Jesus doesn’t just sympathize with the involuntary migrants, he identifies with them. Jesus exemplifies empathy for the displaced and marginalized, suggesting that the Christian call to be conformed to Christ must include this feature to some degree as well.

Still, more reflection should be given to this simplistic rhetoric about Jesus as refugee. There are further, important similarities between Jesus and another category of migrants: gypsies, or Roma as they are known throughout Europe. Defined as ‘a member of a traditionally itinerant people living by itinerant trade,’ gypsies evoke much of what we know about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a man who travelled from town to town, living on the support of people who valued his teaching, even declaring that ‘[f]oxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matt 8:20; cf. Luke 9:58). It is true that the ‘itinerant’ religious leader is a well-attested figure in antiquity, and one who enjoyed cultural acceptance in ancient Judaism. It is nevertheless notable that Jesus of Nazareth’s lifestyle resembles the perennial movements and cultural marginalization so common among the involuntarily displaced instead of a settled lifestyle common among those empowered to make judgments about how to treat them. The central figure of Christianity lived as a marginal, mobile person, depending on the willingness of those living more secure, settled lives to welcome him.

This experience played an important role in Jesus’ teaching—something clear in perhaps his most famous parable. Closely related to the Jewish community that focused its religious life on Jerusalem, the Samaritans worshipped the same God in Samaria. To those loyal to Jerusalem, this was a heinous perversion of their beliefs and practices. More than any other ‘enemy,’ the Samaritans represented a threat residing just on the other side of a ‘porous’ border. How did Jesus handle this situation? To begin, he did not avoid Samaria; according to the Gospel of John, Jesus travelled through Samaria, voluntarily stopping in one of its towns to converse with a woman of ‘ill repute’ and to stay for two days among its people (John 4:1-42). Furthermore, when Jesus had to explain the greatest commandments of Judaism—to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27; commands taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18)—he selected a Samaritan as his paradigmatic example of faithfulness.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is so familiar that the story has lost some of its most radical features. Astonishing as it would have been to Jesus’ audience that the Samaritan helped the man from Jerusalem, it would have pushed the bounds of believability to imagine that Samaritan taking the injured man to the inn where he leaves this Jerusalemite to recover (Luke 10:34-35). Why? Well, what would those Jews think was the cause of this Jewish man’s injuries: bad luck or the hated Samaritan who brought his badly injured body into the building? The parable describes an ancient equivalent to a gang member carrying an injured member of his rival gang into a public place where his rivals congregate. This parable seeks to underscore not just that the Samaritan helps someone unlike him but goes so far as to place himself in imminent danger to ensure the injured, abandoned, helpless man finds haven. The parable summons us to love those people—especially those people—who we think might threaten our community.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, writing on this command to love, observed that:

The Hebrew Bible contains the great command, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18), and this has often been taken as the basis of biblical morality. But it is not: it is only part of it. The Jewish sages noted that on only one occasion does the Hebrew Bible command us to love our neighbour, but in thirty-seven places it commands us to love the stranger.[4]

Jewish and Christian traditions both go to great lengths to teach the necessity of providing care to those outside the community who, in very many cases, present a threat to that which one’s own community holds sacred.

There is an unmissable disjunction between what the texts in the Bible say on this point and the too-common Christian rhetoric that is simply selfish, meanspirited, antagonistic, and fearful towards refugees and those seeking asylum.  Such language and sentiments simply have no place—especially when they veer into the territory of placing a ‘religion’ test on those who are welcomed.

Other passages in the New Testament reinforce this perspective by defining the Christian community itself in migratory terms. 1 Peter opens by referring to its audience, a collection of Christian groups in Asia Minor, as exiles or refugees (1 Pet 1:1). This manner of address indicates that the earliest Christian communities understood themselves in this way, or at least regarded it as a reasonable metaphor for their experience. Similarly, Hebrews 11 describes its paragons of faith by recalling that they ‘confess that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth’ (Heb 11:13).

This overview shows that the Bible speaks extensively about migration. In most cases, the texts speak from the perspective of the migrant, though there are important statements in the Old Testament legal material about how host communities should respond. As shown, while the texts allow for host communities to make some distinctions between themselves and outsiders, they offer no rationale for widespread rejection of immigrants or hostility against them—no matter their race or ethnicity.

If more space was available, it would be possible to explore the earliest audiences for all these texts, and to show that they are—for both the Old Testament and New Testament books—by and large migrants too. To illustrate this, it was possible to note that the New Testament feels comfortable characterizing the Christian life by analogy to the experience of migration.

For Christians, Jesus is the center of the biblical story, history, and life itself. Even there—perhaps, above all else there—one sees a human being who must seek asylum, live as a refugee, and remain mobile throughout his life so that he must depend on the welcome and care of those living settled lives.

None of this provides an easy one-to-one correlation to the United States’ immigration policy and enforcement procedures. Developing policy with attention to the Bible is never so straightforward. Nations do have the ability and even right to control their borders.  And nations should care for their own citizens.  How to balance those concerns with the concern for the immigrant and refugee are complex contemporary questions that require a great deal of thought and should draw on much knowledge one cannot gain from the Bible. And yet, the principles one can draw from the Bible and the moral framework it supports run entirely counter to the views being expressed more and more widely in some Christian circles.  Hatred, racism, and unkindness have no place in the Christian lexicon.

In short, if there is a rationale for anti-immigrant rhetoric and antagonism, it is most definitely not based on the Bible.

[1] From the Public Discourse and Ethics Survey, wave 7, February 2021, conducted by Dr Samuel Perry (University of Oklahoma) and Dr Josh Grubbs (Bowling Green State University).

[2] https://www.unhcr.org/uk/what-is-a-refugee.html, accessed on 14 Jan 2020.

[3] For further background on this passage, see Markus Bockmuehl, This Jesus (London: T&T Clark, 1994), pp. 34-36

[4] Jonathan Sacks, Faith in the Future (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997), p. 78.

Rev. Dr. Casey Strine is the Senior Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield and also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

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