“Thou shall neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
– Exodus 22:21
For some, including Rev. Robert H. Stewart, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, that verse in Exodus tells us pretty much all we need to know about national borders, immigration policy and the controversy over Barack Obama’s threat to use executive orders to provide 30 million green cards to illegal aliens living in the U.S.
Father Stewart told his flock it’s time to look upon those spilling over into the U.S. from across the southern border with compassion. And who could argue with compassion and mercy?
It’s always good when people consider the moral implications of public policy. So the Bible is a good place to start exploring the right and wrong of immigration laws. But seizing on one or two out-of-context verses in the Bible does not make for the kind of comprehensive moral case you would expect of those urging “comprehensive immigration reform.”
The Bible actually has a lot of say about national borders, foreigners, citizenship and the law.
For starters, I challenge anyone to check an exhaustive online or offline concordance for the word “border” or “borders” to get an appreciation of how many times God’s Word references these terms. While not all of them are relevant to our discussion, I count 169 references, most of them making the point that God really cares about them. Is that surprising? He cares about boundaries between nations. In fact, it is God Himself who invented nation-states back in Genesis 11.
Why did He do it?
It seems He scattered the world’s population and created the diverse languages in an effort to subvert man’s efforts to unite in a global kingdom under a false universal religion. Keep in mind, this took place before God created the nation of Israel.
Interestingly, one of the prime motivations of those behind the promotion of borderless societies is this very same notion of regional government and global government and the breakdown of nationalism.
What was wrong at the time of the Tower of Babel remains wrong today. That should be clear to anyone and everyone whose standard of morality is the Bible.
Remember the Tower of Babel story? It seems there was a man named Nimrod who attempted to set up the first world government and the first false religion.
After the Flood, God decreed that man should scatter across the whole earth and be fruitful and multiply. But, about 100 years later, a large contingent of men, under the leadership of Nimrod, whose very name means “let us revolt or rebel,” decided they would settle in Shinar and build a tower to make a name for themselves.
God foiled this plan by scattering them around the world and creating new languages among the new nations that were thus established.
Make no mistake about it: Nation-states are an invention of the Creator – a deliberately chosen device to serve His purposes.
That’s what we’re told in Acts 17:26-27: That God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord.”
The purpose of nation-states seems to be to restrain Satan’s efforts at creating his kingdom on earth. That will happen eventually – only when God Himself permits it in His timing, as shown in Revelation 17:17: “For God hath put in their hearts to fulfill his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.” But nation-states serve another purpose as well – to be God’s instruments on earth for meting out justice and providing protection for the people (Deuteronomy 17:14-17).
Ultimately, the political debate about borders and illegal immigration is a debate about national sovereignty. You have heard it said that if we don’t have borders, we don’t have countries. It’s really true – especially when two countries very different from one another in language, culture and economy share a 2,000-mile border as do Mexico and the U.S. But, as the Bible shows, it’s not just a political issue, it’s a moral issue – it’s an issue, ultimately, of right and wrong.
But, first, what about those selective biblical citations used by apologists for illegal immigration?
There’s much more to consider.
I have prepared two previous “Bible study” commentaries on this topic for those who want the complete picture:
Countless Bible studies have been conducted in America in recent years using some familiar citations about “strangers” and “aliens” and applying them to our current controversy. Let’s take a look at those – in context.
There are many more like Exodus 22:21.
- Leviticus 19:33-34: “And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
- Exodus 23:9: “Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
- Deuteronomy 10:19: “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Some churches and synagogues have stopped right there after reading that last verse and decided they know all they need to know about their duty as Christians and Jews to illegal aliens.
“We’re supposed to treat them just like one born among us, according to the Bible,” they proclaim. “That means amnesty. It means all the benefits of citizenship.”
But is that true? Is that what the Bible is actually teaching – or is there some nuance that is being lost in the translation?
You can develop some really bad theology – not to mention politics and morality – by reading the Bible out of context, by not fully understanding what is being said to whom and about whom.
Strangers that sojourn with you or live with you do not equate with illegal aliens. In fact, the corollary here, in each and every case, is that the children of Israel were “strangers” in Egypt. That’s why they were to treat their own “strangers” well, because they knew what it is like to be “strangers” in a foreign land.
Clearly, then, what it means to be a “stranger” is to be a foreigner. In the case of the children of Israel in Egypt, they were invited and, at first anyway, were honored guests. Later, they would be oppressed by a generation who “knew not Joseph.” But they were certainly not trespassers. They were certainly not in Egypt illegally. They were certainly not breaking the laws of the land by being in Egypt. In fact, they were commanded not to offend their hosts in any way (Genesis 46:28-34).
So, we must conclude that “stranger” does not equal “illegal alien.” Even when the term “alien” is used in the Bible, it seems to have the exact same meaning as “stranger.”
God loves the stranger, we’re told. You should, too. They should be treated with respect and dignity. They should not be mistreated. That’s the clear message of the Bible – treat law-abiding foreigners and aliens with love and compassion.
But the aliens and strangers of the Bible were expected to obey the Hebrew laws, though they were exempt from some. They were also treated differently than the children of Israel in that they could not own property; they could be bought as slaves and charged interest on loans.
Only if these aliens and strangers were fully converted to the covenant could they be landowners, partake of the Passover and be fully integrated into the nation of Israel.
In other words, even though the aliens and strangers of the Bible were not illegal aliens, they were still expected to fully assimilate into the Hebrew religion and culture before they could receive all the blessings and all the responsibility of full citizenship.
Is there a moral lesson for us to learn right there? You bet there is.
Further, keep in mind these godly instructions were meant not just for the governing authorities in Israel – the judges and kings – but, more importantly, for the people. These were personal instructions. And they are clearly good instructions for us all today.
If we want to be compassionate to the strangers and aliens of our world today, those law-abiding foreigners who desperately want to come to America and are patiently awaiting their turn, we need to be certain they don’t get squeezed out unfairly by those who break the law and push ahead of them in line. And we should expect them to fully assimilate into our national culture.
We shouldn’t be mean to those lawbreakers, either. We shouldn’t mistreat them. We should even forgive them. But they have to leave.
They haven’t been invited. They are not our guests. They are not just strangers; they are trespassers. They are victimizing others through their presence – namely American citizens and foreigners who are trying to immigrate to the U.S. legally. They need to go back home and get in line like others waiting to enter our country lawfully. They need to follow the rules.
Let me conclude with one last relevant verse – Deuteronomy 27:17: “Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen.”
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