Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible by Michael Coogan

In many respects the Bible is a series of variations on the theme of exile. From Adam and Eve leaving Eden to the Judeans being deported to Babylonia and beyond, many biblical characters experienced being refugees. The paradigm examples are Jacob and his offspring. Jacob fled Canaan, first to Aram because of fear for his life, God renaming him Israel along the way, and then to Egypt because of a famine. Several generations later, his descendants, “the sons of Israel,” escaped from slavery and threats of genocide in Egypt because of what the Bible describes as divine initiative. That divine initiative then becomes a model for the Israelites’ treatment of those in similar situations.

Who are the “strangers” whom God loves?

According to Deuteronomy, God “loves the strangers” (10:18). In biblical law, “strangers” (Hebrew gerim) are grouped with others who are vulnerable, especially the poor and the fatherless and widows, who have no male protectors. Different translations of the underlying Hebrew word make their vulnerability clear: sojourners, aliens, resident aliens, immigrants. At the same time, these different translations reveal a problem: biblical legal terminology does not always exactly correspond to modern terminology. In the Bible, strangers are individuals, both non-Israelites and Israelites, who, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, live somewhere else than in their own territory and who are therefore at risk. The category thus includes those we would call immigrants, refugees, exiles, displaced persons, undocumented aliens, and temporary residents.

Among biblical persons explicitly or implicitly identified with the status of strangers are: the ancestors of Israel both in Canaan and in Egypt; Moses in the land of Midian; Elimelech, Naomi, and Ruth herself; Judeans in Babylonia and in Egypt after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE; and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Egypt. The reasons for that status were often the same as today: war, famine, persecution, fear for one’s life, or seeking a better life.

Jacob, his extended family, and the first several generations of his descendants are perhaps the most prominent examples of strangers in the Bible, because their stories reverberate throughout its pages. According to Deuteronomy, when the Israelites present their offerings at the harvest Festival of Weeks, they are to recite a summary of the ancestral migration to Egypt, the exodus from Egypt, and the entry into the promised land (Deut 26:5-9). This “little historical creed,” as it has been called, summarizes most of the narrative of the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua.

Why should the ancient Israelites love strangers?

The little historical creed describes Jacob as a “wandering Aramean” who went down to Egypt; like the word for strangers, the Hebrew word translated “wandering” can also mean lost, perishing, perhaps even starving. That was the condition in which Jacob’s descendants ended up in Egypt and from which God rescued them and brought them into the “land flowing with milk and honey.”

That divine action provides a model for the Israelites: “You shall also love strangers, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). Over and over in the Bible, the Israelites’ experiences in Egypt serve as motivation for how they are to treat those who find themselves in similar circumstances, especially strangers, whom they are to love as they love themselves and whose heart they know (see Lev 19:34; Exod 23:9).

Moreover, Israelites recognized that they too were essentially strangers. The land to which God brought them after the exodus was not originally theirs. It belonged to others (Gen 15:18-21) and ultimately to God: according to one source, God said to the Israelites, “The land is mine; you are but strangers resident with me” (Lev 25:23, NJPS).

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that at present there are more than twenty-five million refugees and more than forty-one million internally displaced persons worldwide, numbers that have increased yearly. All of these are strangers in the biblical sense, and because, as Joel Baden has observed, for both Jews and Christians “the Exodus story did not end with the departure from Egypt,” they all deserve to be loved.

Michael Coogan, "Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible", n.p. [cited 20 Oct 2020]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/immigrants-and-refugees-in-the-bible

Contributors

Michael Coogan

Michael Coogan
Director of Publications , Harvard Semitic Museum

Michael Coogan is Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Stonehill College. His most recent book is God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity, and the Myth of Divine Chosenness (Beacon Press, 2019).

Deuteronomy presents God’s actions in freeing the oppressed as a model for human conduct and directs the people of Israel to remember their history as immigrants and refugees, so that they treat refugees with the same care God showed them.

Did you know…?

  • Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were strangers all of their lives.
  • Israelites could be strangers even in Israel, if they lived in another tribe’s territory (for example, Judg 19:16).
  • In Israel, strangers could celebrate Passover and were included, along with slaves, as deserving rest on the Sabbath (Exod 20:10).
  • Divine visitors could also be considered strangers (Heb 13:2, referring to Gen 19:1-3).
  • Even God can metaphorically be described as a stranger with regard to Israel (Jer 14:8).
  • This year, the United States will admit fewer than 18,000 of the more than 25,000,000 refugees worldwide; from 1980 to 2017, the average had been 98,000 annually.
  • In 2018, the United States admitted seventy refugees for every million inhabitants; in Canada it was ten times that.

Ancient lower Mesopotamia, which for much of the second and first millenniums was the under the control of an empire centered in Babylon.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

foreigners

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

first five books of the Bible

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Deut 26:5-9

5you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number ... View more

Deut 10:19

19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Lev 19:34

34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am ... View more

Exod 23:9

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

Gen 15:18-21

18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrate ... View more

Lev 25:23

23The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.

Judg 19:16







1In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to himself a concubi ... View more

Exod 20:10

10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or ... View more

Heb 13:2

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

Gen 19:1-3

1The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face ... View more

Jer 14:8

8O hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler turning aside for the night?

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