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The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate

The Israelites were well aware of the need to respect territorial sovereignty. After the exodus from Egypt, Moses and the Hebrews lived a nomadic existence for forty years in Sinai, a territory under no nation's sovereignty. As such the Hebrews could move freely and required no permission. But when they left Sinai, they needed to pass through Edom in southern Jordan, and permission of the host nation was necessary, as Numbers 20:14-21 reports:

Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: "Thus says your brother Israel … here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King's Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory." But Edom said to him, "You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you." And the people of Israel said to him, "We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more." 20But he said, "You shall not pass through." And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him.

Despite the diplomatic niceties and offering to compensate the Edomites, the Israelites were denied passage. Furthermore, Edom sent out their army to make sure the Israelites did not enter their territory. It is clear: foreigners had to obtain a permit to enter another land. Violating warnings of trespassing could result in war!

Secondly, what about the "stranger" or "alien"? The Bible is not "a living breathing document" that can mean whatever you want it to say. This question must be answered contextually and based on what the key words actually meant when written before we apply what that might mean in our own times. The word "stranger" in the above cited passages is Hebrew ger, and is translated variously in English versions, "stranger" (KJV, NASB, JB), "sojourner" (RSV, ESV), "alien" (NEB, NIV, NJB, NRSV) and "foreigner" (TNIV, NLT). These differences create tremendous confusion. Ger occurs in the Old Testament more than eighty times as a noun and an equal number as a verb (gwr), which typically means "to sojourn" or "live as an alien." More recent English translations (e.g. TNIV & NLT) use the word "foreigner" for ger, which is imprecise and misleading because there are other Hebrew terms for "foreigner," namely nekhar and zar. The distinction between these two terms and ger is that while all three are foreigners who might enter another country, the ger had obtained legal status.

There are several episodes in the Bible that illustrate how a foreigner became a ger. The individual or party had to receive permission from the appropriate authority in that particular culture. Perhaps the best-known story has to do with the Children of Israel entering Egypt. In the book of Genesis, we are told of how during a time of famine in Canaan, the sons of Jacob did the natural thing under the circumstances—go to Egypt where the Nile kept the land fertile. Even though their brother Joseph was a high-ranking official, they felt compelled to ask Pharaoh for permission:

And they said to Pharaoh, "Your servants are shepherds, as our fathers were." They said to Pharaoh, "We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants' flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. And now, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen." Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is before you. Settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land. Let them settle in the land of Goshen" (Genesis 47:3-6).

Notice that they declare their intention "to sojourn" (gwr) and deferentially they ask "please let your servant dwell in the land of Goshen." No less authority than the king of Egypt granted this permission. This means that the Hebrews, though foreigners, were residing in Egypt as legal residents, gers.

A second story illustrates how an invitation to a foreigner to reside in a foreign land resulted in Moses becoming a "sojourner," "stranger," or "alien." After Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster, he fled Egypt, crossed Sinai, and ended up in Midian (most likely in northeastern Arabia). At a well he met the daughters of Jethro, the local priest, who had come to water his flocks. When they were harassed by other shepherds, Moses intervened and then helped in watering, so that they were able to return from their chore earlier than normal. So their father asked:

8/10/2016 4:00:00 AM
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