The Immigrant in Hebrew Law

The Immigrant in Hebrew Law November 20, 2017

To what extent can we apply the Bible’s teachings on loving the immigrant to today’s illegal aliens? How comparable is the Hebrew ger (“immigrant, sojourner, resident alien”) to today’s immigrant?

Immigrants at Austrian-German Border
Refugees at the Austrian-German border, September 2015. Photo: Eweht. Creative Commons License Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International, via Wikimedia Commons.

Who exactly are the gerim? The best book on this subject is Christiana van Houten’s The Alien in Israelite Law. The Israelites were “aliens” in Egypt, as were the Patriarchs in Canaan. In Moses’ law, the alien is a non-Israelite, as made clear by the roadkill law in Deuteronomy 14:21a: the Israelite must obey the kosher law, but may give the meat to an alien or sell it to a rich foreigner.

The alien is to receive the same generosity as the widow and the orphan. The triennial tithe and the first fruits are given to the alien and to others in need. God declares that leftover crops “belong” to the alien and the poor. Yet in Leviticus 25:47, a Hebrew may sell himself to an alien, which means that some of them were not poor.

The ger was not a full citizen. There is no evidence that the ger could hold land in Israel, or participate in legal matters. The ger and the citizen remain rigidly distinguished. A ger can become a citizen only by conversion, i.e. circumcision. The ger may celebrate the Feasts of Weeks and Sukkoth, but has neither the right nor the obligation to celebrate Passover, since he/she did not come out of Egypt.

But the ger was obligated to avoid offenses that would bring down God’s wrath on the whole community. This includes breaking the Sabbath, consumption of blood (Leviticus 17:10), sacrifice to Molech (Leviticus 20:2), and blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16).

The alien can cry out to God (Deuteronomy 24:15) and expect to be heard. But because aliens cannot claim legal rights in court, they must depend on others to defend them, because they are not “insiders.” That’s why God issues the blanket command not to torment or pressure the alien, who is powerless, whether rich or poor (Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:33, Deuteronomy 23:16).

One theme that comes through loud and clear as we examine the 93 uses of ger in the Hebrew Bible is that the ger must obey the law. In Deuteronomy 31:12, the alien “shall learn to fear YHWH your God and observe diligently all the words of this law.” In Leviticus 18:26, neither citizen nor alien shall do “any of these abominations” listed in this chapter. Several times Moses’ law insists, “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen” (Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:15-16; 15:29). And in Numbers 15:30, we are told, “Whoever acts defiantly, whether native or alien, reviles YHWH, and shall be cut off from their people,” meaning, they shall be expelled or deported, as I have argued in my dissertation “Cut Off From (One’s) People.” (To cross our modern border without legal permission can hardly be an accident, and is almost always an act of deliberate defiance.)

Much of the substance of the immigration debate hangs on the meaning of the verb in the command “oppress” in the command not to “oppress” the ger.  The pro-illegal-immigration crowd wants to define oppression as broadly as possible. But the language, in context, does not permit us to equate oppression with enforcement of legitimate laws. While it is true that many immigrants in ancient Israel may have been fugitives from punishment elsewhere, the only non-extradition clause found in the Torah is for runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15-16), not for murderers or even for political refugees. There is no obligation in the Torah to protect any immigrant other than runaway slaves from being deported to their country of origin for crimes they have committed.

In cases where the Hebrew verb ‘ashaq is used (Deuteronomy 24:14), the NRSV correctly translates the verb as referring to “extortion.” In other words, Israel is forbidden to practice the exploitation of immigrants that prevailed in virtually all surrounding cultures at that time (similar to today’s treatment of illegals by smugglers, or by employers who exploit the immigration status of their workers with threats to deport them if they complain of unjust working conditions). The causative form of the verb yanah (Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:33) conveys a similar meaning: to exploit or mistreat by rip-off. This is a far cry from claiming that “oppression” means enforcing modern immigration law. To claim that illegal immigrants have an inalienable right to be here in America, based on Scripture, is a stretch far beyond what the meaning of ger will allow.

The real issue is not our willingness to welcome the immigrant. Let’s make it easier to immigrate legally. The one thing we have a right to expect is that immigrants obey the law. We are told these are just good, upstanding, law-abiding people who have broken only one unjust law. But if a person willfully breaks our immigration laws, they are much more likely to break our traffic laws (Why do I need a license? Why can’t I drive drunk?), our tax laws (why pay them?), and our criminal laws (armed robbery, murder – try and stop me!).

Those who appeal to Joseph and Mary’s refugee status forget why they ever went to Bethlehem: they were obeying an inconvenient law they could have easily blown off. And they fled to Egypt for reasons already permitted under current immigration law: to escape the murder of their child. Joseph and Mary are models of the law-abiding immigrant, not the illegal immigrant.

We should have immigration laws like Mexico’s, which are far stricter than Arizona’s. Former Mexican President Calderon admitted to Wolf Blitzer on CNN on May 19, 2010 that all immigrants to Mexico must undergo background checks, show proper papers if they are suspected of being in Mexico illegally, are forbidden to work without permission, and will be deported if caught. The truth is that our immigration laws are already far more generous than those of other countries who criticize us.

The illegal immigrant has been compared to the person who breaks into your home, then claims that they have the right to stay, then claims that we must provide their living. Readers may judge for themselves whether the comparison fits.

One of the curses on a nation that abandons YHWH (Deuteronomy 28:43) is that “the ger among you shall rise higher and higher, while you shall sink lower and lower.” When illegal aliens have grown so powerful that they have created a double standard that allows them immunity from laws which the rest of us have to obey, we might want to think deeply about what is happening to us, and why.

Cuban refugees seeking asylum in America. Photo: Adrian Olguin. Source: U.S. Department of Defense. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, the issue of illegal immigration makes it harder for us to focus on ministering to those who immigrate legally. Yes, we are called to share the love and Good News of Jesus Christ with them! Jesus commanded us to go to the ends of the earth to do so; now, he has brought the ends of the earth to us! And recent conversions of large numbers of Muslims in Finland ( give us a glimpse of what can happen when we welcome the immigrant in our midst.

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