Jocelyn Downey writes: In the mid-2000s, James Hoffmeier, probably most known for his archaeological work in Sinai and his writings on the Exodus, weighed into the discussion on immigration by producing a book seeking to examine the Biblical view on the rights and responsibilities of migrants as well as, in broad terms, the duty of care of those receiving them. The result was The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, Crossway Books Wheaton Illinois, 2009. As he notes,
This book is not meant to be the final word from the Bible on the subject of immigration and plight of illegal aliens.
However, this book provides some extremely useful thoughts on building up a biblical picture of immigration and how we, as Christians, should respond.
Boundaries and migration
After providing a survey of methodological approaches to examining a Biblical view of immigration, Hoffmeier notes the foundational importance of the Torah throughout Israelite history in providing a focus for justice, and outlines the importance given to national boundaries and migration in the second and third millennia BC, citing Egyptians sources across this period outlining their national concern to maintain strong borders. Migration was widespread in the Ancient Near East but national boundaries were recognized – and looking at material in the Torah, we are informed of the importance given to boundary markers in Scripture (e.g. Deut 27.17) and the practice of the wandering Israelites, who would seek permission to cross territories (e.g. Num 20.16–21).
Examining the Hebrew terms used of migrants, Hoffmeier notes that Abraham is referred to as ger in relation to his migration to Canaan (often translated ‘sojourner’, ‘foreigner’, or ‘alien’), a term also applied to the Israelites in Egypt and resident foreigners amongst the Israelite community. Sometimes coupled with the word toshav (resident) Hoffmeir distinguishes ger from nekhar and zar, synonymous terms for ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger,’ and argues that ger toshav (and variants thereof) should be translated, ‘resident alien.’ The term is found translated into Greek as prosyletos (and as xenoi, parepidemoi and parokesen in Gen 23:4 and 47:4) and implied legally recognized status not implied by nekhar or zar.
Resident alien, foreigner, and exile
According to Hoffmeier, the absence of the use of ger (or its root verb, gwr) for the Israelites during the Sinai wanderings (or in Mesopotamian exile, where they are instead called ‘exiles’ (golah/goluth) emphasizes the distinction between native citizen, foreigner and legal resident. Reinforcing the distinguishing force of ger, this term is used of the legal residents that form part of the Israelite community, and who enjoy the benefits and protections of the community (e.g. Exod 22:1/23:9, Deut 10:19), while the nekhar/zar do not have such benefits (Lev 25: 35ff; Deut 15:3). Gerim were included in the religious life of the community, being invited to give sacrifices to the Lord, could participate in Passover, and were also held responsible under the law in the same manner that the Israelites were (Exod 12:49). Hoffmeier notes that the principles underpinning the treatment of aliens in the community reaches back to humanity’s creation in the image of God in Genesis 1.27 and stands in sharp contrast to other ancient near eastern law codes, such as those found in Mesopotamia, where aliens were not a legally protected group.
The book offers a brief survey of the community of aliens within Israelite history, from Moses’ wife, Zipporah, to the inclusion of the Kenites following an (initially refused) offer in Numbers 10, then on to Ruth (who referred to herself as ‘foreigner’/’nokheriah’), the case of an Amalekite serving in the Israelite army in 2 Sam 1, who is a ‘ger’ (vs13) and the role of gerim in the construction of the Temple.
Refugees and sanctuary
In the closing chapters, Hoffmeier examines material in the New Testament, briefly recalling Jesus’ child refugee status in Matthew 1 and the scattered and transnational nature of Christians in the first century where they saw themselves as aliens in the world and citizens of the Kingdom of God.
For Hoffmeier, it is Christian responsibility to submit to authorities (Romans 13) and he offers a critique of the practice of giving sanctuary to illegal aliens in churches and cities, tracing its roots to the establishing of sanctuary cities in the Torah (Exod 21:12-14) and commenting that ‘sanctuary was never intended as a place to avoid the law but to allow the law to take its proper course.’
Whatever your view of immigration, this book is a useful addition to the discussion, and offers a number of interpretations of Scriptural texts that are worth chewing through – whether it is the exclusive understanding of ‘brothers’ in Matthew 25:40 (as followers of Jesus, not the poor in general), his discussion of the Hebrew terminology which distinguishes between recognised ‘resident aliens’ and foreigners, or his survey of the inclusion of foreigners in Israelite history.
By probing the Biblical languages, culture, and events from which the discussions of immigration arise, Hoffmeier urges people to avoid simplistic views of immigration based on contemporary contexts overlaid onto modern translations. The argument that Biblical texts advocate open borders between nations is strongly challenged and, while there has been some push-back against Hoffmeier’s narrow interpretation of ‘ger’, it is nevertheless clear that ger is a distinguishable term from general terms for foreigner and embraces people with a high degree of assimilation within their resident population. We cannot simply apply ‘ger’ onto the language of ‘immigrant’ carte-blanche.
(For an example of push-back, see Carroll R., M. Daniel. “Aliens, Immigration, and Refugees.” In Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, edited by Joel B. Green, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Rebekah Miles, and Allen Verhey, 53–58. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.)
Dr Jocelyn Downey initially developed a career as an immunologist in the UK, US and Asia. He returned to student life to study theology and become ordained. He currently works with Mission Without Borders and serves as consultant in ongoing science projects.