The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Immigration and Refugees. Read other perspectives here.

Secularists and liberals, both political and religious, are typically loath to consult the Bible when it comes to matters of public policy. So it is somewhat surprising that in the current debate about the status of illegal immigrants, the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is regularly cited in defense of the illegal. Debra Haffner, a minister in the Unitarian Universalist—a denomination not known for taking scripture seriously—offered a critique of the Arizona illegal immigration law in the Washington Post online (May 25, 2010), saying "It's as if the 70 percent of Arizonans who support the law have forgotten the Biblical injunction to 'love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt'." This verse and others like it are frequently quoted in the name of "justice" for the illegal immigrant. A left-wing Christian advocacy group Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which is affiliated with the Sojourners, had this passage on its website: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you" (Leviticus 19:33).

A second area where advocates for illegal immigrants rely on the Bible (whether they know it or not) is the "sanctuary city movement" that defies federal law, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Cities like New York, New Haven, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Denver have declared themselves to be "sanctuary cities" and will not cooperate with federal authorities in matters related to illegal immigrants. Some churches have even permitted their facilities to be so-called sanctuaries for illegals.

As an Old Testament scholar I was first intrigued by the fact that the Bible was even being used in the immigration debate, and yet knew that it was not being read accurately. So I decided to examine carefully the texts of scripture that deal with immigrants. The result of my study was a small book, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (Crossway, 2009). The observations made in this article summarize briefly some observations reached in that book.

The very positive statements about the treatment of strangers in the Bible, some of which have already been quoted, show compassion for the alien in ancient Israel. The defenders of illegal aliens point to such passages as the rationale for rewriting current laws. The problem is that they make a simplistic correlation between the ancient Israelite social law and the modern situation as if the Bible was addressing the same problem. Three important questions must be addressed before one attempts to apply Israelite law to the modern situation: 1) Was there such a thing as territorial sovereignty in 2nd millennium B.C. when these laws originated; 2) Within that socio-legal setting, what was a "stranger," "sojourner," or "immigrant"; and 3) How does one obtain this status?

Regarding the first, the answer is unequivocal. Nations small and large had clearly recognizable borders, typically demarcated by natural features such as rivers, valleys, and mountain ranges, much as they are today. Israel's borders are delineated numerous times in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 15:18-21; Exodus 23:31) as are the details of the twelve tribal territories (Joshua 13-19). Warring Egyptian pharaohs often claimed that they went on campaigns to widen or extend Egypt's borders.

Wars were fought over where boundary lines would be drawn, and forts were strategically placed on frontiers to defend the territory and to monitor movements of pastoralists. Permits akin to the modern visa were issued to people entering another land. In the tomb of Khnumhotep, a governor of central Egypt (from ca. 1865 B.C.), a band of foreign travelers are shown before the governor with a permit or visa, which spells out that there were thirty-seven people from Syria-Canaan. At the key entry points of Egypt, forts would have issued or denied such entry permits (Abraham and Sara's story in Genesis 12:10-16 illustrates this practice). Recent excavations in north Sinai have revealed a pair of such forts at Tell Hebua, located less than two miles east of the Suez Canal. Three miles southeast of the second Hebua fort is Tell el-Borg where I directed excavations between 1999 and 2008. There we uncovered two forts that guarded the road to Egypt between 1450 and 1200 B.C. The ancient Egyptians were very careful about who they allowed into Egypt.