Lessons from the Bible about Immigration

Lessons from the Bible about Immigration July 25, 2019

Here’s a passage I have not seen enter discussions about U.S. immigration policy and the circumstances at the Mexican-U.S. border — 1 Samuel 25.

Nabal was a figure whom someone might use to instruct Christians on how not to treat immigrants. This is part of the story of Saul’s efforts to kill David, a plan that turned David and his men into refugees. After the death of Samuel comes this story:

4 David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep. 5 So David sent ten young men. And David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal and greet him in my name. 6 And thus you shall greet him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. 7 I hear that you have shearers. Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing all the time they were in Carmel. 8 Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your eyes, for we come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’”

9 When David’s young men came, they said all this to Nabal in the name of David, and then they waited. 10 And Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters. 11 Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” 12 So David’s young men turned away and came back and told him all this.

Those inclined to oppose President Trump’s policies might well link Nabal’s selfishness to America’s current immigration policy.

That’s one possible lesson.

But here comes another. How are Christians, as many of those those from Central America claim to be, seeking asylum or permanent residency, supposed to react to Americans who may be as selfish as Nabal? Is David a model for Christian conduct?

13 And David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And every man of them strapped on his sword. David also strapped on his sword. And about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.

David, who refused the opportunity to kill King Saul (in self-defense as it were) in 1 Sam 24, here decides that Nabal, his family, and his workers deserve death for failing to show hospitality.

Thanks to Nabal’s wife, Abigail, David does not go through this his plan for retaliation:

18 Then Abigail made haste and took two hundred loaves and two skins of wine and five sheep already prepared and five seahs[a] of parched grain and a hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on donkeys. 19 And she said to her young men, “Go on before me; behold, I come after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 20 And as she rode on the donkey and came down under cover of the mountain, behold, David and his men came down toward her, and she met them. 21 Now David had said, “Surely in vain have I guarded all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him, and he has returned me evil for good. 22 God do so to the enemies of David[b] and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”

23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. 24 She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. 25 Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal[c] is his name, and folly is with him. But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. 26 Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand, now then let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. 27 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. 28 Please forgive the trespass of your servant.

Abigail’s intervention saved her life and satisfied David.

32 And David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! 33 Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand! 34 For as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there had not been left to Nabal so much as one male.” 35 Then David received from her hand what she had brought him. And he said to her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have obeyed your voice, and I have granted your petition.”

But is this story a good one for thinking about immigration? David seems to say that if Abigail had not pleaded with him and brought food with her, he would have slaughtered Nabal and company. In other words, does the Bible justify Christian immigrants taking justice into their own hands with those who refuse to grant them admission to the U.S.?

Those who look to Scripture for immigration policy have in this text ideas and expectations that run directly counter to modern notions of civility and to contemporary sensibilities about entering a foreign country.

Christians may want to remember that the Bible’s politics, understandings of the state, immigrants, residents, and government policy are far removed from the nation whose dollar bill asserts, “new order for the ages” (novos ordo seclorum).


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