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.

Mary’s Praise and Social Concerns

Living in God’s kingdom here and now has both spiritual and earthly dimensions. The latter deals especially with social justice. Both of these are found in Mary’s response when Elizabeth told her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Mary replied, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….The mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

Of God she said, “His mercy is for those who fear him.” For those who don’t:

  • He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
  • He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.
  • He has lifted up the lowly.
  • He has filled the hungry with good things.
  • He has sent the rich away empty.

Mary concludes that God “has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy.” Luke 2:39-55.

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

God’s Kingdom & Secular Government

Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This raises the question of what is the nature of God’s kingdom on earth.

In thinking about this in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we can be certain that God’s kingdom isn’t a political domain ruled by an earthly monarch. Jesus made this clear in the wilderness when he rejected the devil’s offer to rule over all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8-10). For his disciples Jesus contrasted Gentile rulers who exercise authority by ordering people around with a different approach: “Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:42-45).

Rather God’s kingdom on earth is a way of life based upon experiencing God’s presence in daily living, in loving both neighbor and enemy, by practicing forgiveness, offering mercy, seeking justice, and acting as peacemaker.

That is not to say that role of government is inconsequential. In the founding documents of American democracy the Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted to secure the rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution specifies the following purposes: “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.”

Accordingly we can use our governments as instruments for achieving features of God’s kingdom on earth including freedom of association, equal rights before the law, social and economic justice for all. We can remember that in Jesus’ allegory of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), it is nations who gathered before the judgment throne. They are judged by how well they have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers (read immigrants), clothed the naked, taken care of the sick, and visited prisoners. Given emphasis upon mercy throughout the Bible, we can add restorative justice as another concern. We can also recognize the importance of freedom with a biblical heritage going back to Moses appearance before Pharaoh demanding, “Let my people go!”

Thus, although God’s kingdom on earth isn’t a political domain as such, our governments have relevance in advancing the cause of God’s kingdom.

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

Showing Mercy to Adversaries

An important expression of mercy is showing forbearance to our adversaries. This follows Jesus’ teaching, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). As we want God to have mercy on us for our transgressions, we should also show mercy to persons who have offended us.

When we offer mercy in this manner, we recognize the wisdom of Portia’s speech in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene I):

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes:

It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

We can add Jesus’ beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Refugees and Immigrants in Scripture

The holy scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam contain many writings related to refugees and immigrants. They are worth considering in our day and age.

The Gospel of Matthew tells how Jesus began life as a refugee when his parents took him to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod (Matthew 2:13-15).

Abraham, spiritual forefather of the three major monotheistic religions, emigrated from Haran to Canaan. 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).

Although the Hebrew people generally prospered in Canaan, on occasion Abraham and Isaac had to temporarily relocate their families because of drought and famine (Genesis 12:10-20; 26:1-6). Jacob’s family followed Joseph to Egypt (Genesis 42:1-46:7) where they stayed for 430 years (Exodus 12:40).

Then Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in a mass migration that took forty years to reach what they considered to be 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).

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).

People in the United States, Europe, and other places that are receiving an inflow of refugees and immigrants should ponder and apply these religious teachings.

For more quotations see Biblical References to Immigrants and Refugees.

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