Refugees: The Great Reversal

Refugees: The Great Reversal February 14, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-08 at 1.09.26 PMWhat’s the most cherished verse of the Bible? For many Christians, it has to be John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It’s so popular that it has season tickets to sporting events. If you watch football, you’ll see it, with its own placard, right there behind the goal post: JOHN 3:16. (I didn’t happen to see it at the Super Bowl, but I bet it was there, in one heck of an expensive seat.)

Today I’ll recommend that Christians memorize another 3:16 verse of the Bible: Exodus 3:16.

Why Exodus 3:16? Because it speaks to the heart of American politics. More important, it shows us the heart of God.

Here’s the background.

God and Moses are in an intense conversation about the plight of ancient Israel, in the course of which God confesses, “I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:6-9).

As if Moses might have missed it, God says a second time, “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me … and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:9-10).

Then a third time, in Exodus 3:16-17, God says it again: “Go … I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into … a land flowing with milk and honey.'”

If repetition is a clue to commitment, then we see deep into God’s heart here.

God sees their misery. God hears their cry. God pays attention!

Third time’s a charm, isn’t it?

Not for everyone. Here’s the kicker–and what’s got me worried.

About 8 chapters and 10 plagues later, it’s not the Israelites who cry out–but the Egyptians. There is “loud wailing throughout Egypt–worse than there has ever been or ever will be again” (Exodus 11:6). That word, wailing, is the same Hebrew word as cry in Exodus 3:7. Only now it’s the Egyptians rather than the Israelites, the powerful rather than the poor, who cry out.

Here’s a transfer of power from the rich to the poor, and a transfer of wailing from the poor to the rich. Let’s call it the great reversal.

The story continues: “Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead” (Exodus 12:30). Wailing? You guessed it. The same Hebrew word as cry in chapter 3.

Again, here’s a transfer of power from the rich to the poor, and a transfer of wailing from the poor to the rich. It’s nothing short of a great reversal.

So what’s got me worried? The state of the refugees, of course. I want God to rescue them and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey.

But I’m worried about us, too, because I know, biblically speaking, what happens to nations on the wrong side of the equation. Nations that fail to pay attention to the miserable, to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” end up, in the biblical economy, as tired and poor themselves.

You see why Exodus 3:16 has me worried? If there is a God–and I am a Christian who believes there is a God–then it may be that America’s refusal to allow even a modest flow of refugees on our shores will prompt a transfer of wailing, a resettlement of misery from the refugees to citizens of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth.

I worry about a great reversal.

This thought is even more unsettling if you believe, as many Christians who oppose refugee resettlement do, that we are God’s chosen nation. The only model for how to act as God’s chosen nation is ancient Israel, God’s original chosen nation. And the main source for knowing about ancient Israel is the Bible.

And the Bible is pretty clear on this point. God heard the cry of slaves who yearned to breathe free. And Egypt? Powerful, wealthy, invincible Egypt? According to the story, according to Exodus, according to the Bible, they learned how to cry.

But while God paid attention to the cry of the miserable, God refuses now to hear the cry of the powerful.

So I’m not at all opposed to John 3:16. I’ve got it memorized. But there are other verses, other parts of the story, other chapters of the Bible worth memorizing.

And Exodus 3:16 is one of them. Exodus 3:16 reminds us that God watches out for the wretched, tempest-tossed. And it cautions us about being on the wrong side of things when God pays attention to the cry of the miserable.

So I worry. What Bible-reading Christian wouldn’t?


Quotations of the Bible are from the King James Version (John 3:16) and the New International Version (Exodus).

The quotation about huddled masses is from the base of the Statue of Liberty.

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