Biblical Perspectives on Refugees and Immigrants

President Trump’s ban on certain refugees and immigrants has raised this concern to a high level of public consciousness. Our discussion can be informed by considering biblical perspectives on this issue.

In the Bible individuals and groups become refugees and immigrants for a variety of reasons: their own misconduct, desire for better living conditions, adverse circumstance such as drought and famine, fleeing from tyranny. And the Bible tells about persons who receive strangers and meet their needs. In these varied situations the most common response to refugees and immigrants can be summarized in one word: kindness.

The first refugees in the Bible were Adam and Eve. The LORD God expelled them from the Garden of Eden because they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Nevertheless, he allowed them to farm fertile land outside the garden (Genesis 3:1-24).

The next refugee was their son Cain, who out of jealousy killed his younger brother Abel. Thereupon the LORD condemned Cain to become a roaming nomad. But when Cain expressed concern for his life, the LORD, showing compassion, put a sign on him so that no one would assault him and allowed him to settle in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Genesis 4:1-16).

The three founding patriarchs of the Hebrew people—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—were each an immigrant at one or more times in their lives.

Abram, son of Terah, was born in Ur. The family moved to Haran. From there Abram took his family to Canaan, a journey of approximately 450 miles (Genesis 12:1-9). Later when famine struck the land, they migrated temporarily to Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). Upon return Abram made a covenant with the LORD and became known as Abraham (Genesis 17:1-8).

In a story told both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Qur’an, one day three strangers appeared at Abraham’s tent. He offered them shelter, food, and drink. They turned out to be angels in disguise. They told Abraham that his wife Sarah, childless in old age, would bare a son (Genesis 18:1-15; Qur’an 4.36-37; 11:70-73).

Two of the strangers went next to Sodom to the home of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot took them in, fed them, and protected them from men of Sodom, who wanted to gang rape them. The angels warned Lot to flee Sodom before the Lord destroyed the city with fire and brimstone (Genesis 19:1-23; Qur’an 11.76-81).

The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament summarizes this experience in a single verse: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

Abraham’s son Isaac married Rebekah, who gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. Famine struck the land and Isaac’s family migrated to Gerar in the land of the Philistines to find fertile fields and then moved to Beer-sheba (Genesis 26:1-5, 23-25).

Esau was born first, but through trickery Jacob acquired his birthright (Genesis 25:18-7-34). Disguising himself as Esau, Jacob obtained Isaac’s blessing (Genesis 27:1-29). To escape Esau’s wrath Jacob migrated to his mother’s brother Laban in Haran (Genesis 27: 41-28:9) There Jacob acquired two wives and eleven sons. After many years he decided to return to the land of his ancestors. He sent word ahead to Esau, who came out to meet him with 400 men. But instead of attacking, Esau greeted Jacob enthusiastically. Jacob exclaimed, “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (Genesis 32:1-33:10).

Jacob wasn’t done traveling. Drought and famine came again to Canaan. So Jacob’s family migrated to Egypt. They were preceded by Jacob’s son Joseph who his brothers had sold into slavery. In Egypt Joseph became a close adviser to the pharaoh because of his ability to interpret dreams. In this manner Joseph foresaw the need to store grain during seven years of bounteous crops that would proceed seven years of drought. Jacob’s household came and settled in the land of Goshen (Genesis 41:1-47:12).

In these various ways migration was a common practice for the Hebrew people under the patriarchs.

After a while a new pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph came to power in Egypt and enslaved the Israelites. Four centuries later Moses emerged as their leader and led them out of Egypt.  In a mass migration that took forty years they reached Canaan, the Promised Land.

Several times along the way Moses had to remind his people, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, for you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). Also translated “sojourner”, “stranger”, “foreigner”, “resident alien”. He also instructed them, “Any immigrant who lives among you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens” (Leviticus 19:34).

Thereafter the Israelites were told to care for widows, orphans, the poor, and immigrants. For instance, allow them to glean for grain, to pick up fallen grapes and olives (Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:20-21). The prophet Zechariah warned the people, “Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor” (Zechariah 7:10).

Jesus picked up this message in his Allegory of the Last Judgment. When the nations appear before the Son of Man for judgment, the place of honor goes to those who have served “the least of these”. They include those who have welcomed strangers along with those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited prisoners (Matthew 25: 31-46).

And the Qur’an advises, “Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbor who is of kin, and to the neighbor who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveler” (Qur’an 4.36).

And we should remember that Jesus himself was a refugee as a baby. After magi told King Herod that they were seeking the newborn king of the Jews, Herod ordered death for all boys two years old and younger. Warned in a dream, Jesus’ parents took him to Egypt to escape from Herod. They stayed there until Herod died and then went to Galilee and settled in Nazareth (Matthew 2:1-23). Matthew provides no details about their stay in Egypt, but we can imagine that somebody took them in and provided shelter, food, and clothing. Jesus took his first steps and said his first words as a child refugee. He arrived in Nazareth as an immigrant.

In these many ways the Bible counsels us to welcome refugees and immigrants and care for them.

Howard W. Hallman is author of Living in God’s Kingdom: Here and Now, available from Amazon.


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