Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

Jan 13, 2017

Bishop Mike Rinehart

The concept of the non-citizen living among us is huge in the Bible; its importance cannot possibly be underestimated. Furthermore, there are very clear guidelines on the treatment of these immigrants.

welcoming-immigrantsWhy is Jesus so concerned about strangers? Is it because he is immersed in the Scriptures? Is it because he himself was once a stranger in a foreign land? Is it because he feels like a visitor in this world?

The NRSV and NIV English Bibles do not use the words “immigrant,” “migrant,” or “sojourner.” The NRSV uses “alien” the most, but also “foreigner” and “stranger.” Combined, the NRSV uses these terms 232 times. The NIV prefers “foreigner,” using it 146 times, but also “stranger” and “alien.”

The Hebrew word for stranger is ger. The Greek word is xenos.

Abraham & Sarah are Immigrants

The first appearance of the word ger is in Genesis 12. A 25-year-old Abram, along with his wife Sarah and brother Lot, leave their family, home (Haran), and country (Ur), and move to Canaan. By verse ten, a famine causes them to travel to Egypt. The NRSV renders Genesis 12:10 as, “Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.”

The words “alien” and “stranger” are mentioned many times in Genesis alone (12:10, 15:13, 18:8, 19:9, 20:1, 21:23, 21:34, 23:4, 26:3, 28:4, 32:4, 35:27, 37:1, 42:7, 47:4).

In Genesis 20:1, we are told that Abraham and Sarah reside at Gerar. The name of the city having the root word for immigrant in it makes it likely that this was a community of immigrants.

Genesis 21:34 says,

Abraham resided as an alien many days in the land of the Philistines.

If we translate ger as “immigrant,” the text reads as follows:

Abraham resided as an immigrant many days in the land of the Philistines.

This would be the most accurate translation given our common use of terms today.

Abram is a ger. He is an immigrant. His entire identity is wrapped up in this.

The Israelites, Immigrants, & the Law

In Genesis 15:13 Abraham is told,

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years…”

Abraham is told that his offspring will be enslaved aliens in Egypt For 400 years. The Israelites are immigrants. They are considered immigrants in Egypt, they will be immigrants in the wilderness, and they will be considered immigrants in Canaan, the promised land. In time, they come to possess the land. If you are born in a country, you are not an immigrant.

Because Abraham and the Israelites are immigrants, it should come as no surprise to us that immigrants hold a special place in the law.

Exodus 22:21 says:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34 makes it clear that immigrants are special. Because the Israelites were once immigrants in the land of Egypt, they are to keep a special place in their heart for immigrants:

The 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 the Lord your God.

In Leviticus 19:10, citizens are told not to go back through their fields to glean what they missed. They are to leave food for the poor and for immigrants:

You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

In fact, they are to intentionally leave an unharvested perimeter around their fields, expressly for the immigrants. Lev. 23:22:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Immigrants are to be allowed to live on your land, because it is God’s land. There’s an interesting passage in Leviticus 25:35 that shows, inadvertently, the special status of immigrants in Hebrew law:

If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens.

It is a testament to the special treatment of immigrants that the Israelites have to be told to treat their relatives as well as the treat immigrants, by allowing them to come and live with them on their land.

The alien is often part of a frequently mentioned triad: the alien, the orphan, and the widow. God has a special concern for these three groups of people. Deuteronomy. 24:17, 10-21 offers these provisions:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.

When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

Deuteronomy 26:12-13 says,

When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments…

In Psalm 94 (3-6) the wicked are those who do not care for the orphan, widow and alien:

O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult?
They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O Lord,
and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the stranger,
they murder the orphan,

God cares about women, children, and aliens, the most vulnerable people in society.

The aliens are given special concern, but there are no special laws for aliens. Exodus 12:49 says,

There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.

Immigrants are expected to obey the laws of the land and are subject to the same penalties as citizens. There are to be no distinctions legally between citizens and immigrants. Immigrants are not deported for breaking the law; they simply must be subjected to the same penalties, including the death penalty when it is called for.

The Prophet’s Call for Protection for Immigrants

Given the prominent place the treatment of immigrants has in the law, one can predict the witness of the Hebrew prophets. Consider Jeremiah 7:5–7:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

Jeremiah says to the King of Judah (22:1-5):

Thus says the Lord: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the Lord, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become desolation.

Land is to be shared. Ezekiel 47:22-23:

You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the Lord God.

Zechariah 7:8-10:

The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

Immigrants take priority even to the last book of the Hebrew Bible. Malachi 3:5 says:

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

This may seem like a growing list of quotes, but this is only a small sample of the many passages.

Immigrants & Refugees in the New Testament

In the opening chapters of the New Testament, Mary, Joseph, and their child Jesus become refugees. In Matthew 2, Herod’s violent persecution causes them to flee into Egypt. It is not until after the death of Herod that they return. Like many refugees today, Jesus and his family had to leave their country because it was not safe.

In Luke’s infancy narrative, Mary and Joseph are not immigrants, but they are strangers. Mary is so pregnant she is about to burst. They desperately need a place to stay, but there is no room in the inn. This represents a subtle message about the hospitality Jesus himself encountered.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of time. The Son of God divides the nations into sheep and goats. The sheep on the right inherit the kingdom, while the goats on the left are cast into the eternal fire. What determines who is who? Jesus says,

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my God, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Preachers tend to treat this text often focus on feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, but miss one of the most critical themes of the Old Testament: welcoming strangers (xenoi).

Jesus’s concern about strangers pervades his teaching. He tells the story of a Samaritan foreigner who renders aid to a stranger who has been beaten by thieves and left for dead along the road. The teachers not only love for the stranger but also even love for the enemy, the hostile stranger. Matthew 6:46–47:

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

Hospitality to strangers is a sacred duty. It is serious business for Jesus.

Theoxany: Antiquity is filled with stories of divine visitors who come in disguised as strangers (xenoi) to see how they will be treated by mortals. For example, Zeus and Hermes tested a village’s practice of hospitality. Those who received them were rewarded. Those who did not were punished. Genesis 19 and Judges 19 are of this genre. Theoxany came to mean treating all strangers as divine, just in case they were. It was a mythological way of expressing the importance of hospitality.

Hebrews 13:2 says,

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

Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers. You might be entertaining Angels or even perhaps Jesus himself. We are encouraged to view strangers as divine visitors. How you treat strangers says something about your character and your internal moral compass.


The treatment of strangers in general, and immigrants in particular, is hardly a minor theme in the Bible. It is woven throughout, from the beginning of the Bible to the end, as a sacred duty.

It would be absurd to assume that the letter of the Old Testament law should be applied as is today, but the spirit of the law is crystal clear. God loves immigrants. God cares for the most vulnerable. This care is central to the Judeo-Christian ethic.

We can support this moral imperative personally and socially. Socially you can advocate for laws that treat immigrants justly. The vast majority of immigrants come into the country legally, seeking a new life, fleeing violence, or poverty. Many are kept out because of visa backlogs and draconian laws. Others are forced to leave when their visas expire. Support laws that welcome immigrants and refugees with no criminal record. Hire immigrants. Be kind.

Dispel the myths that people pass around about immigrants. Immigrants have a lower incidence of crime. They are hard working. They start new businesses that create jobs. They pay taxes. Correct the fiction. Join a synod team that works to share information and work for change.

learn-more-about-refugeesOn a personal level, there are many things you can do. Adopt a refugee. The world is in a refugee crisis right now. There are more displaced people than there have been in the world since World War II. People tend to be afraid of anything they don’t know or understand. Be a Good Samaritan. Reach out to the stranger in the ditch. Contact Refugee Services of Texas or Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and ask how you can help.

free-wheels-houstonDonate a bike. Christ the King church member Bill Mintz started a non-profit that fixes up bikes and gives them to refugees – Free Wheels Houston. Got a bike you’re not using?

Engage in the spiritual practice of hospitality by welcoming strangers into your home. Befriend an immigrant. Invite them for dinner. Tell your stories and share your faith. Listen to their stories and try to understand their faith. You will be blessed in ways that you cannot imagine. You may entertain angels unaware.