Biblical injunctions regarding aliens in our midst

Biblical injunctions regarding aliens in our midst June 23, 2011

Thanks to my colleague and dean David Garland for compiling the following list of biblical injunctions regarding how God’s people are to treat aliens and strangers among them:

Exodus 22:21 (NRSV)

21 You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9 (NRSV)

9 You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:33 (NRSV)

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.

Leviticus 23:22 (NRSV)

22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 24:22 (NRSV)

22 You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God.

Numbers 15:16 (NRSV)

16 You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.

Deuteronomy 1:16 (NRSV)

16 I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien.

Deuteronomy 24:20-21 (NRSV)

20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

Deuteronomy 27:19 (NRSV)

19 “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!”

Jeremiah 7:4-12 (NRSV)

4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,

6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,

7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

Zechariah 7:10 (NRSV)

10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

Malachi 3:5 (NRSV)

5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

2. We are all aliens.

Psalm 39:12 (NRSV)

12 “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.

Ephesians 2:12 (NRSV)

12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Ephesians 2:19 (NRSV)

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,

1 Peter 1:1-2 (NRSV)

1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,   2 who have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood: May grace and peace be yours in abundance.

1 Peter 2:11-12

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.   12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.

3. Show hospitality to strangers  (a command, not advice)

Romans 12:13 (NRSV)

13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Hebrews 13:2 (NRSV)

2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

1 Peter 3:9 (NRSV)

Be hospitable to one another without complaining.

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  • Tim Reisdorf


    There is no disagreement if you are simply saying that Christians ought to be kind and generous to others (and especially be so to the poor and aliens in our midst). And to a large extent, Christians are known for this. So much so that people flock to our country to take advantage of us. “Free” healthcare, “Free” education, “Free” unemployment benefits, “Free and reduced” food, and on and on. You and I pay for their “free” benefits. Does the Bible call on us to suffer long such behavior? Even more, does the Bible call on us to subsidize (and thus encourage) such behavior?

    I think that our society and its particular rules are ripe for such plundering and people are justifiably outraged at what is happening. It is not that we are mad at any one particular person, but we see that this system is usurping and corrupting and destroying us all – and a large segment of our political leadership is completely unresponsive.

    We are generous – has there ever been a more generous people? Yet this has limits when others presume on our goodness and start robbing us. Encouraging the theft of our treasure and that of our neighbor is hardly virtuous.

    • rogereolson

      What does that have to do with Christians offering humanitarian aid to strangers in their midst who are truly needy–whether here legally or illegally? The discussion here keeps wandering off the one point I have been trying to make: That the recent spate of state laws would seem to criminalize Christian obedience to Scripture. Nothing I have said derogates from laws against illegal immigration.

    • Caravelle

      Does the Bible call on us to suffer long such behavior? Even more, does the Bible call on us to subsidize (and thus encourage) such behavior?

      Yes. Yes it does. Actually.

      You know, all that “if someone asks for your shirt, give them your coat too. If someone hits you, turn the other cheek” stuff. “Give all your possessions to the poor and follow me”.

      We are generous – has there ever been a more generous people?

      That would depend on who “we” are. Are you Danish or Swedish ?

      • Tim Reisdorf


        It is one thing to voluntarily give a gift. It is a completely different thing to have something stolen – and the thief call it a gift. “Stealing” ought not be condoned nor subsidized – or have you forgotten the 10 Commandments. Are they still relevant to you?

        The generosity I’m referring to is the typical American. It stretches credulity, however, to steal something from someone, then claim that they are being generous. Generosity is not forced.

        You seem to quote Jesus concerning “Give all your possessions” as if it were a command to be taken literally for everyone. I’m not in that camp. (How is it you have internet access?)

        It was the experience of the Early Church to suffer a Prophet for a couple days of imposing on hospitality. But if they stayed too long, or asked for money, they were to be considered a False Prophet. Didache 11.

    • Sagrav

      According to a recent poll by the Christian Science Monitor, the US ranks fifth in terms of generosity. Not bad, but we’re not currently the most generous nation in the world.

      Also, from my own personal experience, a lot of Americans treat foreigners like filth. Especially if they come from south of the border and speak Spanish. I had a friend from Mexico who felt that Americans treated her like a “dirty” day worker, and she was just in America to get her degree. Needless to say, when she got it she had no incentive to stay here.

      I think that Roger’s quotes just illustrate that God (in both New and Old Testaments) is not very fond of the mistreatment and harassment of foreigners. This nation (and most other nations) has a history of such mistreatment. Just look at our past treatment of Italian, Irish, Japanese, and Chinese immigrants. Now the same vicious cycle has started up with the Latino community.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        “A lot of Americans treat foreigners like filth.”
        While that is not my experience, I have no reason to doubt you. I think people out to treat others with love and kindness. Did you assume that just because I disagree with theft that I have such poor behavior as you describe? The two are not associated.

        It is worse than you have described. Even before the founding of the country, there were kidnapping gangs set up in England to take children (free British) and haul them to the colonies to work the tobacco and sugar cane plantations. They took prisoners and out-of-favor politicians and did the same. There was no end to their shameful conduct. Evil people will exploit anyone they can.

        Concerning the poll, my point was not an exact statistic. My point was that Americans have historically been very generous – and have showed that in many ways – to people far away in foreign lands.

    • Richard Hershberger

      It is a sad, though unsurprising, commentary that the very first response to this post was an explanation of why those passages could not possibly to us. I am always struck by how the most literal-minded legalist–when talking about rules for other people–so often turns into a fuzzy moral relativist willing to go to any length to find a soft and easy interpretation of scripture–when the rules apply to himself.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Name calling is not worthy of this board. I’m surprised Roger let it through.

        “Show hospitality to strangers”. “Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.” What in my statements makes you think I would set aside any of these?

        Listen, sir. I have taken homeless into my home for a place to sleep – and have been robbed. What lessons should I draw? I’ve given baby food and supplies to a beggar begging for money to feed his child. He turned around and brought it back to the store for cash. Your presumptions on me are misplaced.

        The focus on my post is on theft. Would you encourage the theft of your own treasure? Do you lock the doors of your house when you leave? or your car? If so, you are enforcing borders on your generosity and saying “I am unwilling to suffer anyone just taking what they want”. Why would you not allow others to set their boundaries as well? or shall we do away with all borders?

    • McDuff

      “Does the Bible call on us to suffer long such behavior?”

      Yes. Emphatically, explicitly, and repeatedly, the Bible calls for the Christian not to identify with the state, but with the needy and the oppressed.

      Your American citizenship is meaningless. Your position in the Kingdom of Heaven is secured not by birth or by legal status but by whether you feed the hungry.

      The Samaritan was not a fellow citizen of the robbed man, yet he was the hero of the parable. Jesus never said “whatever you do for the least of these, provided that you first check that they are in possession of the correct credentials, you do for me.”

      The constant bleating of Christians who feel the need to reject the explicit teachings of Christ because it doesn’t comfort them to always be on the same side as the underdog is offensive. It is the sound of pharisees and goats. Truly, would you stand before Jesus and say “I would have fed the poor, but they were from another country”? Would you? For shame.

  • Steven Seipke

    Thank You for sharing these injunctions.

  • K Gray

    Many of these verses are cited in the resolution “On Immigration and the Gospel” which the Southern Baptist Convention passed at their meeting in Phoenix last week.

  • Dr. Olson — As a first-time commenter, I want to first thank you for your book, “Arminian Theology.” It has been very helpful to me in clarifying what Arminians actually believe versus the straw man arguments put up by Calvinists. The irenic tone of the book and absence of straw man arguments against Calvinism was also very refreshing. I call myself a “non-Calvinist” rather than an Arminian because of all the baggage that term has taken on due to its misuse by (mostly) Calvinist writers. It’s nice to see the term defended and properly defined.

    As for the post at hand, I was wondering what do you think of this logic, which I hear often from my Christian friends:

    If we want to be compassionate to the strangers and aliens of our world today, those law-abiding foreigners who desperately want to come to America and are patiently awaiting their turn, we need to be certain they don’t get squeezed out unfairly by those who broke the law and pushed ahead of them in line.

    We shouldn’t be mean to those lawbreakers either. We shouldn’t mistreat them. We should even forgive them. But they have to leave.

    They haven’t been invited. They are not our guests. They are not just strangers; they are trespassers. They need to go back home and get in line like everyone else waiting to enter our country lawfully.

    • rogereolson

      I agree with the condition that there be some kind of amnesty program for those who have been here a long time and proven themselves good “citizens” (without formal citizenship). I think that especially for the children who have grown up here. Nothing I’ve said here or anywhere else is against laws forbidding illegal immigration.

  • Toby

    This land you shall divide for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. (Ezek. 47: 21-22)

  • Andrew

    I think that an undue love of order and “authority” often lends itself to the oppression of people who are not like everyone else–effectively “alien”.

    I think this is one of Christianity’s (as it is expressed today) weak points.

  • Roger, you make this too easy. The only aliens allowed to dwell in Israel were those willing to abide under the law.

    • rogereolson

      You miss the point again. My point is NOT that the Bible requires us to legalize the status of everyone who crosses our borders for whatever reason. My point is that the Bible requires us to treat foreigners in our midst, whoever they are, justly and with compassion.

  • Rob

    I don’t know all the details of the laws in question because there is significant variation from state to state, but I would think that laws against housing illegal aliens would ultimately protect them from abuse. People coming here illegally are vulnerable to crime and abuse because they don’t want to go to the police and they are generally alone.
    But more generally, people who come here illegally are desperate people and Americans take advantage of them. We should not be encouraging Americans to capitalize off of their desperate condition just so we can have cheap maids or cheaper housing. I think those biblical injunctions would rule out consigning people to lowly jobs merely because they are desperate.

    • rogereolson

      That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about Christians giving emergency shelter to homeless illegal immigrants who otherwise might be sleeping under bridges. That might not happen often, but I don’t like laws that even imply it might be illegal.

      • Rob

        I guess I think in that situation Christians should just be willing to break the law. There is something similar in Orlando with an ordinance against feeding homeless people. In the case of illegal aliens, and I know this is cynical, I just suspect that most people sheltering them are doing so for personal economic benefit and not out of Christian charity.

        • rogereolson

          Yes, Christians should practice civil disobedience with regard to laws criminalizing Christian behavior (e.g., feeding a hungry illegal alien). My argument is that in the states passing these laws most of the legislators and voters consider themselves Christians. So why don’t they put exemptions in their laws for Christians feeding hungry and sheltering homeless illegal immigrants? Maybe I’m giving them too much credit for intelligence. It reminds me of the denomination I grew up in. My uncle was president of the denomination and supported a binding resolution that all abortion is murder. I asked him about ectopic pregnancies. He had never heard of them. When I explained it to him he rejected my exception on the grounds that it is so rare. Huh? In the denomination, whether it would enforce it or not, a woman having an ectopic pregnancy ended by surgery would be considered by the denomination a murderer. I couldn’t get him to agree that maybe the denomination should be a little more nuanced in such statements. He just brushed my argument aside as overly intellectual. But is it really too much to ask state legislators to think about Christian charity and not criminalize it when they are writing laws?

        • K Gray

          Rob, if you’ve followed these threads you probably see that there are specific exemptions in most of these laws for providing emergency-type shelter. As an example, many churches in my area opened their doors to “whosoever came” during two hurricanes. I was the check-in desk person for my church, and we took everyone who came as long as there was room. Color, language, background, etc. were the last things on anyone’s mind. The Christian community will go on doing what it has done through the past 50 years that these proscriptions against transport/shelter/harbor have been in place.

          And yes, often what oppresses the alien among us is transport and/or longer-term shelter that is actually profiteering: deceiving, cheating and even enslaving people who come to this country. That’s why the federal laws, and most state laws mimicking them, are written to criminalize knowing, intentional transport/shelter of people in furtherance of their illegal presence in this country, and contain exceptions for many kinds of emergency and short-term aid, as well as for food and medical care.

          • rogereolson

            I think you yourself posted the federal law’s exemption which applied only to government regulated aid organizations–not to individuals or churches. If you are claiming that the state laws we are discussing do include such exemptions, please post them here and provide documentation where we can see them.

  • I see that the true aliens our the true Sons of God,waiting for the LORD JESUS CHRIST to come for them.

  • This a great list; clearly God loves and cares for aliens, legal or illegal.