Some people may think that immigration is a problem of contemporary times and that the Bible has nothing to say about the matter, but that’s not so. Scripture gives us principles we can follow in all kinds of situations though the details differ from those described in the pages of Holy Writ. When it comes to immigration, though, the people who lived in Bible times dealt with immigration much as we know it today.
True, a national identity wasn’t as defined as it has become. No one carried passports and there were no border crossings, no visas to procure, no inspections or laws about what you could and could not bring with you into the new country where you planned to settle down. Still, people left one city or people group and migrated to another.
Abraham, for example, left Ur of the Chaldeans and traveled to Haran where they settled for a time. God then directed Abram, as he was called at the time, to go to the land of Canaan:
Now the LORD said to Abram,
Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1-3)
Abraham lived a fairly nomadic life, but eventually his descendants more or less settled down—until a famine spurred them to seek a place where they could find food and water. Consequently, when his grandson, Jacob and all 75 of his clan made their way to Egypt during the seven year famine, the trip was not unheard of.
Staying for four hundred years—now that was the anomaly.
Of course, Moses himself was an immigrant even before he led the Israelite exodus. He had fled Egypt where he’d been born and raised, and lived in the land of Midian.
But even after the people of Israel escaped from Egypt and returned to their homeland, drove out the inhabitants, and settled in to build a national existence, people still immigrated.
Ruth, for instance, came from the country of Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi. Why? Because Naomi, her husband, and two sons had gone to Moab during another famine. One of the sons married Ruth, but died some years later. So Ruth immigrated to Israel.
She, a “foreigner,” ended up marrying Boaz, then gave birth to Obed, who was King David’s grandfather.
David himself did some immigrating. While he was on the run from King Saul, he spent time with the Moabites, more than once with the Philistines, and perhaps with others.
The question isn’t, did people immigrate in Bible times as much as it is, what did God say about immigrants?
In Abraham’s case, He directed him to migrate. Circumstances played a big part in others leaving home and going elsewhere, but regardless of the reasons for leaving, for going, God identified those who were separated from their homeland in order to follow Him just like He did orphans and widows, the poor and the needy. They were vulnerable and therefore God expected His people to protect them and care for them.
In fact when Ezekiel prophesied regarding God’s judgment of His people, the ill treatment of immigrants—sojourners—is one of Israel’s sins:
The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice. I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before me for the land, but I found no one. (Ezekiel 22:29-30; emphasis added)
Sojourners, then, were not to be oppressed.
But the Law spelled out in Leviticus indicates there was more than just not mistreating them:
‘Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. (Lev. 25:35; emphasis added)
Putting aside the point of this passage, which was to instruct how a poor person was to be treated, it’s clear that the sojourner was to be taken care of, at least until they were in a place to take care of themselves (see Lev. 25:47).
One last point: Scripture seems to make a distinction between the sojourner and the stranger who was living as an alien among them. This latter individual was not to be granted access to the temple. On the other hand sojourners were expected to keep the Sabbath and had access to the cities of refuge just like the people of Israel.
What can we conclude about immigration today, based on what the Bible says?
1. Sometimes immigration is necessary; sometimes it’s God directed.
2. Immigrants who want to leave their culture and be included with the people of God are welcome.
3. Immigrants are to obey the laws of the land.
4. The citizens of the land to which immigrants come, are not to oppress them
5. The citizens of the land to which immigrants come, should do what they can to help them with their transition.
Of course the US is not synonymous with “the people of God.” But I think we can extrapolate from the second principle that people who want to make their home in a new country, are welcome. They demonstrate their intention by learning and living according to the values of the country to which they’ve come. That’s what Ruth did.
We could wait a long time for our US Congress to reach an agreement on immigration policy. I personally think Christians who love God’s word should not wait. We should take it upon ourselves to follow God’s direction. We should be welcoming to those who have come to the US legally due to circumstances that necessitated their leaving home. We should help them to learn our laws and culture. We should do what we can to help them while they’re trying to get on their feet. We should do all we can to see that they aren’t oppressed.
In short, Christians shouldn’t ignore immigrants or assume the worst about a person who is new to our country. We should actually thank God for the opportunity to be a missionary without leaving home!