A Biblical View of Illegal Immigration
A “Thorny” Issue
President Bush is a very able leader. He is a man of character and integrity and by and large, I support most of his programs. The two that are most troublesome to me, however, are his rather excessive spending and his policy on illegal immigration. His guest-worker program is a euphemism for “amnesty.”
I’ve heard the President say the following on more than one occasion: these Mexican immigrants are doing the jobs that Americans won’t do. They pick fruits and vegetables, mow lawns, clean houses, and perform a wide variety and assortment of menial tasks that Americans believe are beneath their dignity.
When I lived in Holland (1975-1985) I read a book on the ethical issue of homosexuality with the (translated) title, Homosexuality: A Thorny Issue. I don’t think any pun was intended. Illegal immigration is such an issue; in fact, I am of the settled disposition that it is among the greatest domestic and homeland security issues we’re facing.
Illegal immigration is not merely thorny, it is very convoluted. Its tentacles reach out far beyond the simple and simplistic notion of having illegal immigrants working in America. Once you begin to examine the issue in more depth, you open a veritable Pandora’s Box of problems and situations.
At one level, some seem to believe that if Americans want the work they won’t do to be done cheaply by illegal aliens, there is no big deal because these illegal immigrants will—sooner or later—transform themselves into Americans—somehow. Not true. In the course of this position paper, I will demonstrate that the opposite is actually, in the majority of the cases, the case.
Of course, I could spend my time railing against the President’s plan and I will do that with my California representatives. But that is not the end of the road for me, for I am one of those incorrigible individuals that believes that you can fight city hall and that your voice makes a difference.
Gradually, I’m seeing that “grass roots” movements can and do make a difference. Edmund Burke said something to the effect that the best way for evil to take over is for good people to do nothing. In the end, I may lose the war, but I’m willing to fight this battle because I’m convinced that the future of this country, the future of my children, and the future of my grandchildren is at stake. I agree wholeheartedly with Victor Hanson who writes, “My main argument…is that the future of the state—and the nation too, as regards the matter of immigration—is entirely in the hands of its current residents. California will become exactly what its people in the present generation choose to make it.”
That being the case, if I love my country, my family, and my First Amendment rights I can do no other than to raise my voice in protest of this evil that portends to destroy much of what is good and right in America, not to mention to bankrupt the country.
There will be a number of issues I will address in the course of this work, but since I am writing as a Christian theologian, the place for me to start the discussion is with the Bible. What, if anything, does the Word of God say about immigration? There is, in fact, a great deal of data in the Old Testament in particular dealing with those called “resident aliens” or “sojourners.” Therefore, we’ll inquire how that concept was viewed in ancient Israel and draw some comparisons and conclusions from these texts. At the same time, we’ll take a look at the New Testament words as well. Though less frequent than in the Old, there are yet instructive texts for us.
Of course, my main goal is to shed light on what the Bible tells us about aliens, our relationship to them, and how they should be treated. We will also be told what obligations aliens have towards the “host” country—in our case, America. In this sense, we’ll ask about the notion of reciprocity between visitor and host.
The Sojourner in the Old Testament
My starting point will be a word study. Even though the Old Testament contains more than one word for “sojourner,” the one that far exceeds the others to describe someone from outside of Israel living among the Israelites is gēr. For those who wish to delve into the Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Sumerian backgrounds I simply refer you to the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Volume 2.
The designation gēr occurs almost 175 times in the Old Testament. For our purposes the legal position of the sojourner is a key concept. According to Kellermann’s article, the sojourner occupied a civil position somewhere in between a native (’ezrach) and a foreigner (nokhrî). He was a kind of tertium quid. The gēr “lives among people who are not his blood relatives, and thus he lacks the protection and the privileges which usually come from blood relationship and place of birth.”
Anyone—any Christian theologian—attempting to draw up a social ethics on illegal aliens must take the previous quotation into account. Since the gēr is an alien, he lacked the protection and privileges that accrued to the native-born citizen. As we shall see, however, the sojourner was afforded many privileges as well, just not full privileges. Moreover, both the sojourner’s status as well as his privileges were dependent on the hospitality of—in this case—the Israelites.
What precipitated a person in antiquity to leave his native country and become a gēr in Israel? A variety of reasons could be cited, but it appears that three are prominent in the Old Testament: 1. Famine, 2) Military encounters, and 3) Individual distress or bloodguilt.
The singular reason why people would place themselves under the legal protection of foreign neighbors was famine. For example, the book of Ruth opens by explaining why Elimelech moved to Moab: “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons” (Ruth 1:1).
In addition, Elijah lodged with the widow of Zerephath because of a famine (1 Kings 17:20). Elisha sent the Shunammite woman away because of an impending seven year famine (2 Kings 8:1). Isaac remained as a gēr with Abimelech because of a famine (Gen. 26:3). “And Israel’s sojourn in Egypt is traced back to a famine that drove Joseph’s brothers to Egypt” according to Genesis 47:4. Abram and Sarai also went to Egypt due to famine conditions (cf. Gen. 12:10).
The prophet Isaiah reports that citizens of Moab sought refuge in Judah as protected sojourners because of military conflict. Kellermann writes, “It seems likely that a military encounter between the Canaanite inhabitants of Beeroth and the invading Benjaminites is concealed behind the statement in 2 S. 4:3 that the original inhabitants of Beeroth had fled to Gittaim in order to live there as garim.” According to Jeremiah 35:7, the Rechabites lived as garim in Judah in order to maintain their status as nomads.
Individual Distress or Bloodguilt
Kellermann describes this reason for becoming a sojourner in the following manner: Individual distress or bloodguilt “can cause a person to seek protection and help among foreigners as a gēr. Before the centralization of the cult, the Levite also could settle down as a gēr wherever he found a place or person or group where he could practice his profession (cf. Jgs. 17:7,8,9; 19:1,16; also Dt. 16:11,14).”
Since we are attempting to build a biblical case for how to handle illegal aliens at this stage of our study we can drawn some tentative conclusions based on what we’ve just learned. If we are trying to designate legitimate reasons why Mexicans would leave their homeland and migrate to the United States some case might be made based on the above.
For example, it could be argued that since there is no place on the face of God’s green earth that has more food than America, it stands to reason that many—not just Mexicans—want to move here to live. While it cannot be said strictly that Mexico is in the throes of a famine, truly it is a land of the “haves” and the “have nots.” There is a kind of “famine” that confronts the unskilled laborer south of our borders that would “drive” him to come here.
Even though there is no clearly defined just war in Mexico, it’s no secret that it is a very corrupt country, the corruption reaching high levels. Almost anyone and anything can be obtained—for a price. The federales are on the take and crimes can be “fixed” if you have the requisite pesos. I realize this argument is quite a stretch, but at this junction we’re merely trying to garner reasons why people might come to the U.S. Liberal theologians love to stretch the Bible beyond recognition to fulfill their left-wing slightly hidden Socialism, under the guise of the social gospel. I simply anticipating their arguments. So thus far we have two possibilities: a quasi-famine and a corrupt government where might makes right.
Finally, in our day and age of luxury devices it’s not difficult to understand how someone living to the south of us could see the opulence and incredible lifestyle of Americans and want a piece of the action. Who wouldn’t want to improve their lifestyle in an exponential manner? Which would we choose? Would we be satisfied with living in a lean-to in a desolate area of Mexico or would we rather live in California, even if we could never attain to the economic level of the host gringo? It’s all relative anyway.
There is a great deal more to say about the Old Testament concept of gēr, however, that is germane for us to make an informed decision. We will now turn our attention to some more evidence from the Old Testament regarding the sojourner.
The Protected Citizen
The Old Testament describes the rights and privileges of the gēr in a number of texts. In general, “He stands under a patron or the tribe within which he resides. The protection of the patron guarantees the necessary legal security of tenure but also lays upon him an obligation of dependence and service. In distinction from the slave, however, he preserves personal freedom and can work his way up. Yet he has no independent property nor can he ever attain this. He is also exposed to the caprice of his patron.”
It appears from 2 Chronicles 15:9 that a number of sojourners had fled from the northern kingdom and were enjoying “protected citizen” status in Judah. Moreover, 2 Chronicles 30:25 “mentions North Israelite protected citizens in Judah as participants in Hezekiah’s Passover festival.”
A number of texts in the Old Testament connect the gēr to widows and orphans, giving them special attention in Israel’s life as a covenant community. In addition, Deuteronomy 24:14 seems to ascribe to the gēr the status of “day laborer,” at first glance much like the migrant workers today. The Israelite was commanded by God not to oppress hired servants whether Israelites or sojourners. In Exodus, the sojourner is mentioned by himself as one who should not be oppressed (cf. Ex. 22:21; 23:9). The Israelites are to be kind and loving towards the gēr remembering that they had been oppressed in Egypt. Therefore, they should be cognizant of the baneful nature of being a sojourner and being treated badly (Deut. 10:19). In texts such as Leviticus 19:34 where the Hebrew word, gerim is used to describe the Israelites it appears that gerim is almost synonymous with the word “slave,” given the oppression of God’s people in Egypt.
The gēr was allowed to glean in the fields of Israel as well as participant in the tithe every three years. He was also granted the right of fair trials (Deut. 1:16; 24:17; 27:19) and participated in various Israelite feasts (Deut. 16:11, 14). Kellermann also points out, “According to Dt. 14:21, the gēr can eat or sell a carcass without blame; but according to Lev. 17:15, he is told to submit to the rites of cleansing if he has eaten a carcass.” Precisely because the sojourner is linked with the widow and orphan, he is the recipient of God’s love, receiving food and clothing from him (cf. Deut. 10:18).
Rights and Responsibilities
Even though the sojourner is afforded many privileges as a protected citizen in Israel, the Old Testament makes it equally clear that there are responsibilities attached to the status of protected citizen as well as limitations to what a sojourner can do or be. At the head of the list of responsibilities is the sojourner’s responsibility to keep the Sabbath law (Ex. 20:10; 23:12). This onus is placed upon the protected citizen in light of the fact that he is considered—either as an individual or in a group of sojourners—to have cut the ties with his former country and attached himself to Israel.
A text such as Genesis 19:9 implies that a gēr is considered unsuitable to be a judge. The difficulty with this text lies precisely in determining whether, generally speaking, a sojourner is undesirable as a judge or whether Sodom had degenerated to such a point that their rejection of Lot was a result of their depravity and wickedness. What is clear, however, is that in Deuteronomy 28:15-46, where curses and punishments are declared to Israel for disobeying God, one of the curses is that if Israel disobeys the gēr will rise higher and higher and the Israelite will sink lower and lower (cf. Deut. 28:43). In short, when the protected citizen begins to rise above the Israelites, the social order is turned upside down. This is perhaps the reason that protected citizens are mentioned in terms of their employment, which was to assist the Israelites (cf. Deut. 29:10-11).
The Protected Citizen as a Proselyte to Judaism
Another key concept of the protected citizen/sojourner in the Old Testament is that he was considered a proselyte. This status of protected citizen required “separation from every non-Jew.” We shall return to this all-important aspect shortly. For the present, however, it is instructive to mention that the sojourner’s status in Israel as a protected citizen demanded he cut his ties with his country of origin.
In Leviticus 20:2 we are told that both Israelite and sojourner who sacrifices his children to Molech must receive the death penalty. This is an indication of how attached the sojourner was to Israel: Israel’s laws concerning the Sabbath as well as his family life applied to him.
Liberal theologians have often cited the prophets as those who had a great deal to say about caring for the sojourner. Much of the building of the foundation of the social gospel reverts to the prophets. Indeed, the prophets do speak to a disobedient people of God about their many sins and transgressions. But Kellermann is correct when he writes, “It is surprising that the gēr plays a very subordinate role in prophetic preaching. Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, do not deal with the problem of the protected citizen in any detail.”
Kellermann’s statement is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the above-mentioned prophets are quite vociferous “about oppression of the weak” all the while lamenting “antisocial behavior.” There are, however, some traces in Jeremiah where he reminds his people that the gēr is to be treated with respect (cf. Jer. 7:6; 22:3). Ezekiel mentions that the sojourner has equal rights and religious responsibilities along with the native Israelite (Ezek. 14:7). This reflects what we have already learned from Exodus 23:12.
In light of the fact that the New Testament Church is no theocracy, it is somewhat difficult, if not impossible, to draw parallel lines from the Old Testament concept of the gēr to the New Testament society. It never ceases to amaze me how liberal theologians, who dissect the Bible and add as many as four separate and distinct “Isaiahs,” have no problem drawing connecting lines from the Old Testament experience to our current society.
The whole question of theonomy is complex, but irrespective of how you think about that issue, it should be clearly evident that a one-to-one relationship between the Old Testament teaching on the sojourner and the current illegal immigrant situation is impossible.
What we have seen in this section does, however, give us some biblical truth that we must take into consideration if we are do justice to a Christian solution to illegal immigration. In telegraphic style, here is what we have seen:
First, the sojourner was not allowed to own any property in the Old Testament context.
Second, by implication he was not to be a judge, which would translate into any position of authority in decision-making matters in the Old Testament.
Third, as one somewhat disenfranchised and uprooted the sojourner is grouped with the widows and orphans.
Fourth, Israel is to treat sojourners with love and respect, recalling their oppression in Egypt.
Fifth, sojourners were allowed to glean in Israel’s fields and to participate in the three year tithe. As an aside, this privilege simply does not translate into America’s welfare program. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discern that if it were the case that sojourners were given a “handout” every three years they had to do some industrial strength planning to make everything last. There is still something to be said for a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out.”
Sixth, the sojourner was required to keep Israel’s both civil and religious laws. Therefore, if we desire to make some kind of an attempt to correlate ancient Israel’s demands for humane treatment of aliens, it would seem consistent to insist that “sojourners” in America abide by the law of the land.
Seventh, the sojourner was regarded as a proselyte. This last concept is of a great magnitude and since we might not be fully acquainted with what a proselyte was in Israel and the New Testament it will behoove us to spend some time spelling this out in more detail.
The Biblical Concept of the Proselyte
Kuhn’s article in the TDNT is instructive in many ways, not the least of which is what he says about the sojourner. He writes, “The acceptance of the גֵּר (gēr) into the religious fellowship by P is chiefly determined by thought of holiness and purity of the chosen people. This demands full differentiation from all foreigners.” In ancient Israel this concept could not be fully realized for resident aliens, but they were accepted into the religious fellowship nonetheless.
What, then, was the status of the proselyte in the New Testament? Almost ironically, the word προσήλυτος (prosēlutos) occurs a mere four times in the New Testament. The first occurrence is found in Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees who try to win one proselyte but make him more fit for hell (Matt. 23:15). In Acts 2:11 proselytes are mentioned next to Jews as those present at the first Christian Pentecost. Acts 6:5, Nicolaus is mentioned as a proselyte of Antioch. Finally, in Acts 13:43 we read of the tōn seboménōn prosēlútōn, which seems to be a technical term for those who attended the synagogue worship, but did not “buy in” to the total Jewish life and lifestyle. These people were proselytes who were “God fearers.”
The bottom line on this designation is that “contemporary Jewish usage differentiated sharply between προσήλυτοι (prosēlutoi) who had become Jews by circumcision and the σεβόμενοι τόν θεόν (sebómenoi tón theón) who in spite of their personal piety were still Gentiles according to Jewish estimation.”
At this point, we have enough information to draw some conclusions about the Old and New Testament data. In the above section it became clear that the notion of proselyte or sojourner in the New Testament does not really give us a lot of insight into the question of illegal aliens.
It would seem that common sense would prevail, however, and we would continue to take notice of the word illegal in the phrase “illegal immigrant.” The complexity of the matter is complicated by virtue of the fact that the proselyte or sojourner in the biblical context has a clear biblical component.Within the New Testament Church situation, we no longer have a theocracy as Israel did where the state and religion were one. The state, therefore, is not interested whether the illegal aliens are “people of faith,” but if they are illegal. In addition, the Christian, in particular, has a responsibility of obeying the state, unless, of course, the state requires the Christian to violate biblical principles. In the case of illegal immigration, the state is laying no unbiblical imposition on us.
 Victor Davis Hanson, Mexifornia, (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003), p. xv.
 G. Johannes Botterweck & Helmer Ringgren, (eds.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, (John T. Willis, [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp.439-440.
 Ibid., 442.
 Ibid., 443. Comp. Karl Kuhn’s article in Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VI, (Geoffrey Bromiley [ed. & trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 728.
 Kellermann, TDOT, 443.
 Ibid. 443-444.
 Kuhn, TDNT, 728. Comp. Ernst Jenni & Claus Westermann, Theologisches Handwörterbuch zum Alten Testament, Bd. I, (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1978), p. 410, “Der gēr verfügt nicht über sämtliche Rechte eines Israeliten, u.a. besitzt er kein Land (nach Ez 47,22 wird diese Einschränkung im zukünftigern Israel aufgehoben sein). Er steht im allgemeinen im Dienst eines Israeliten, der sein Herr und Beschützer ist (Dtn 24,14). In der Regel ist der gēr arm (vgl. Aber Lev 25,47) und wird daher den ‘wirtschaftlich Schwachen’ zugezählt, die wie die Witwen und Waisen Anspruch auf Hilfe haben.”
 Kellermann, TDOT, 445.
 Jenni & Westermann, THAT, 410.
 Kellermann, TDOT, 449, “The Israelites are commanded to treat the protected citizen kindly (Dt. 10:19; cf. Ex. 22:20; 23:9), because they know what it is to be a gēr, (nephesh hagger, ‘the soul [heart] of a stranger’).” Kellermann continues and makes this important point: “Since the Israelites were foreigners in Egypt (Dt. 23:8; 26:5, Isa. 52:4; Ps. 105:23; 1 Ch. 16:19), they have the responsibility of extending the law of loving their neighbor as themselves (Lev. 19:18) to the gēr: ‘The protected citizen who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were protected citizens (gerim) in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God’ (Lev. 19:34).”
 Comp. Deut. 24:19-21; 14:29; 26:12.
 Kellermann, TDOT, 445.
 Comp. Jenni/Westermann, THAT, 410, “Der gēr, allein oder in einer Gruppe, hat sein Vaterland infolge politischer, wirtschaftlicher oder anderer Umstände verlassen und sucht Schutz in einem andern Gemeinwesen…”
 Ibid., 411, “Es hat daher nichts Erstaunliches an sich, daß die LXX den hebr. Begriff meist mit προσήλυτος übersetzt und den gēr als Proselyten im technischen Sinne versteht…”
 Kuhn, TDNT, 729.
 Kellermann, TDOT, 447, “The regulations concerning sacrifice in Lev. 1-7 do not explicitly mention the gēr. This may be because to some extent the laws come from an early period when the gēr, if he was an immigrant foreigner, was not allowed to participate in the cult. However, when the gēr is mentioned in connection with the treatment of the quality of a sacrifice in Lev. 22:17-33, and when Nu. 15, in supplements to the regulations concerning sacrifice (Nu. 15:14,15 [twice], 16,26,29,30) explicitly states that the gēr has the same rights as the native, and that the expiatory power of the sin-offering is also given to the gēr who lives in the midst of the whole community of the Israelites, again it is quite clear that in late strata of P the gēr is the fully integrated proselyte.” Note: You can forget all the higher critical “P” nonsense and catch the rest of Kellermann’s argument!
 Ibid., Comp. Zech. 7:10 & Mal. 3:5.
 Kellermann, TDOT, 447 mentions that this text in Ezekiel points to the casuistic laws encountered in the Holiness Code (Lev. 17:8, 10, 13; 20:2; 22:18).
 Kuhn, TDNT, 730. Italics mine. Again, forget all the higher critical P stuff.
 Ibid., 743.
 Ibid., 744.