Borders and Immigration in the Bible

Julius-Schnorr-von-Carolsfeld--Ruth-im-Feld-des-BoazjpgThe question of borders and immigration is a hot topic in our country at the moment. We have politicians, talk show hosts, bloggers, and every day citizens freely offering their opinions on the issues. How are we to make sense of these things? I propose that the starting place for thinking wisely about borders and immigration is the Bible. In fact, the Bible is the starting place for thinking wisely about anything. The Word of God speaks with absolute authority on every subject.

First of all, what does the Bible say about borders? Basically the Bible assumes a respect and defense of national borders. When we think of the Bible and the way people traveled from place to place, it is easy to assume the issue of borders was not a big deal. That is not true.

For example, in Deuteronomy chapter 1 we are given very specific descriptions of the borders of the Amorites and Canaanites. In chapter 2 the borders of Edom and Moab are clearly delineated. We also see that the Israelites were expected to respect those borders. So the Scriptures indicate that countries not only have the right but also the responsibility to establish secure borders.

We also see that countries have the right and responsibility to determine who can enter their  land and under what circumstances. In Numbers 20, the Israelites asked for permission to pass through the land of Edom. The Edomites refused so Israel went another way.

In Genesis 12 we are told that Abraham traveled into Egypt and was seeking to become a resident there. At one of the border check points he lied about the fact that Sarah was his wife. Things went well until the Pharaoh found out that Abraham had lied to him about Sarah. At that point Abraham was deported and had to return to Canaan.

Second. What can we learn about immigration from the Bible? The first thing we need to note is that there are two different Hebrew words used to describe people of other nations who came into Israel. The word “gwr” is used over 160 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated as “alien” or “stranger”. The other word is “nekhar”. This word is usually translated as “foreigner” or “sojourner”. These words refer to two different categories of people and it is very important to understand the difference.

“Gwr” refers to a resident alien who has legally become a permanent citizen in a different country from their own. Abraham described himself with this word. He immigrated from the land of Ur and ultimately settled in the land of Canaan. When his wife Sarah died, he wanted to purchase  some property in which he could bury her. In speaking to the Hittites, the people he lived near, he said, “I am an alien (gwr) and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” (Genesis 23:4) Abraham was saying that he was a resident alien. He had taken up permanent residence in Canaan.

This term for “alien” would be equivalent to what we understand as a foreigner who has gone through the legal process to become a permanent citizen in another country. The new country has now become his home. The Israelites are exhorted to make sure they treat legal immigrants with respect.

They should not be treated in an inferior way. They should not be taken advantage of. Israel is often reminded that they too were aliens in Egypt. They migrated to Egypt and became resident aliens–legal citizens. But of course they were ultimately enslaved. They were to remember this and never mistreat resident aliens like they were mistreated.

The other term, “nekhar”, also speaks of foreigners but it refers to those who are temporarily traveling in a foreign country or are there on business. These people are not citizens of the country in which they are traveling. They are there for a specific time and a specific purpose. This would be similar to getting a visa to be in another country.

If we are to understand, what the Bible has to say about this issue it is important that we keep these two categories straight. Take Leviticus 19:33-34 for example. “When a stranger (gwr) resides with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger (gwr) who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” When you realize the word that is being used for “stranger” is the word that speaks of a person who is a foreigner, but has gone through the legal process to become a citizen, it greatly affects how you read the passage. It is a warning not to treat these immigrant citizens in a prejudicial way. They have the rights and privileges of a citizen because that is what they are. It is not saying that any person who comes across the border is to be treated as if they were a citizen.

Borders and immigration has become a very complex and difficult subject in our country and there is obviously much more that could be said here. But, just like any other issue, if we are to address these things wisely, we need make sure that our policies and our actions are based on Biblical wisdom.