The Bible’s immigration policy

The Hebrew Bible mentions obligations to so-called strangers on numerous occasions. The message is pretty much always the same and … Continued

The Hebrew Bible mentions obligations to so-called strangers on numerous occasions. The message is pretty much always the same and perhaps best summed up by the words of Leviticus 19:33-34, When a stranger dwells among you in your land, do not taunt him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt–I am the Lord, your God.

But who that stranger is that deserves such equality and even love is not necessarily a parallel to the millions of people who cross our borders illegally every year. Or perhaps it is. The stranger of the Hebrew Bible is better understood as a resident alien, a non-citizen who agrees to abide by the laws of the community into which he or she has come. To that extent then, many if not most, illegal aliens in this country, would not qualify. On the other hand, there is no mention in the Bible of barriers to entry into the Israelite nation, so perhaps they do.

What seems clear from scripture (that itself a complex claim) is that loose borders or barriers to entry are only reasonable if accompanied by quite strict rules about participation once having arrived in the new community. That means that neither side in the current debate really understands what the Hebrew Bible intended.

Conservatives, generally obsessed with the “inappropriateness of rewarding illegal immigrants with any of the benefits of American life”, miss the fact that how someone came to join the Israelites had no bearing on their status within the community once they arrived. There really was a sense of community as sanctuary – precisely what those taking a hard line on immigration oppose.

Liberals, however, are just as wrong when insisting that biblical hospitality knows no bounds and asks no questions – that it was an unqualified right with no attached obligations. In fact, like all ancient sanctuaries, there were many rules to be followed and norms to be upheld. In other words, entry was open to all, and once in they were treated as equals, but demands were made and failing to meet those demands was grounds for exclusion from the community.

While other biblical texts and traditions could be introduced into the debate on immigration, based on those verses bearing directly on the issue, the path forward is actually pretty clear: how one got here is largely irrelevant, though the obligations that must be assumed in order to stay are significant.

Biblical “immigration policy” was not about maintaining the purity of the community or fear of withholding the benefits of membership, but it was quite clear about the obligations that needed to be met to enjoy the privileges (not rights) of such membership. It would be quite a step forward to see people actually look to that model for guidance instead of simply thumping their Bibles to prove that which they already believe anyway.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • usapdx

    Why should U.S.A. law be held to comply with any religion of the world? We are a nation under GOD,not a religion but of the people, by the people, and for the people. The people are the U.S.A. citzens.

  • areyousaying

    “What seems clear from scripture (that itself a complex claim) is that loose borders or barriers to entry are only reasonable if accompanied by quite strict rules about participation once having arrived in the new community.”What scriptures? I don’t find this in Leviticus 19:33-34, but then again I do not have God’s gift of selecting and interpreting specific scriptures to suit my political beliefs as some others apparently do.

  • PSolus

    “When it comes to biblical ‘immigration policy,’ liberals and conservatives both get it wrong.”Actually, your bible gets it wrong.

  • briankiley

    Thank you for these insightful remarks. I believe you are right to point out that the biblical approach to immigration is somewhere between what conservatives and liberals generally propose.

  • jpfann

    Ludicrous! If anything, the Hebrew Bible shows a people who violated borders and took over through slaughter. Give us a break,Hirschfield, with the high and noble ONE quote from Leviticus. Your determined effort to avoid the predominate message of the Hebrew Bible about immigration, i.e., conquest, is laughable. Besides, looking to the Bible for a “immigration policy” or any other policy is a matter of finding a quote that agrees with what you already believe about the issue. It might produce a Washington Post paycheck and the editorial board’s condescending approval, but it ain’t worth a moment’s notice.

  • seasail

    Here we go again with Leviticus. That book should be torn out of the bible and thrown away. Leviticus condones slavery, stoning, death by a thousand ways and that fool Laura spews her homophobe filth out quoting it. When are you religious jerks going to realize that you are 100% responsible for the worlds problems. I we got rid of the religious hate and RELIGION we would be so much better off. Here is some of the stupit s*** in the bible.1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?5. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

  • haveaheart

    I’d like to know where the comment I made yesterday has gone.It was in no way inflammatory, and it was more polite than several of the posts above. There was no reason to remove it.WaPo “On Faith” editors: Can you explain this please?

  • redrider26p

    The basic rule is that no one has the right to be in any country other than his own without the valid approval of that country’s authorities. That’s why all countries have immigration control.What happens when you leave the country? You have to show your passport to gain admittance when you return. So why should aliens get a free pass to come and go as they desire?

  • datdamwuf2

    seasail that was brilliant, I have nothing to add really except that I did curse my parents as a teenager so someone should put me to death as well (also required per Leviticus).

  • battleground51

    Are there no limits to the lengths the Washington Post will not go to with this illegal immigration thing?The WaPo will not rest until America becomes Meximerica and the official language is Spanish, it seems.America has no moral obligation to be the dumping ground for Mexico’s unwanted humanity. That is exactly how Calderon and his cronies think of America. That’s why he does not want us to enforce our own laws. Obama is one of Calderon’s cronies now. Americans seem to be innocent pawns in their evil game.

  • slim2

    If the Old Testament is to be our guide in how we view and treat illegal immigration, would its pronouncements on how we should deal with homosexuals be equally as valid? Jesus was quite clear with his disdain of those who would use and twist scripture to make political points by calling such people “vipers” and “children of their father, the devil”.

  • lartfromabove

    “The stranger of the Hebrew Bible is better understood as a resident alien, a non-citizen who agrees to abide by the laws of the community into which he or she has come.”That’s exactly the situation today’s immigrants want. The only law they can’t follow is the law specifically designed to exclude them. That’s a problem with the law, not the immigrants. This editorialist’s comment here is both untrue and unchristian, and even contradicts the very biblical passage he cites. These right-wing nutjobs seem to have no knowledge of the Gospels. I don’t know why WaPo keeps allowing the bigots to use the religion comment to spew their hate.

  • spidermean2

    Let an illegal immigrant live in your house or in your backyard if you want them. Let’s stop the leftist hypocrisy.

  • JFredMugs

    Who gives a about the jew bible decent hard working people are Christians.

  • jonswitzer

    Sir, you have clarified Biblical teaching on this issue brilliantly and succintly. Most conservatives are labeled anti-immigrant when they simply reject the current “non-policy” on immigration which encourages immigrants to enjoy the benefits of our society with NO obligation to participate in its responsibilities. Conservatives are deeply resentful that liberals label them as hateful for wanting to maintain the freedom under law heritage of the nation. Then liberals turn around and call conservatives uncompassionate. No wonder the conservative existential exasperation. Require immigrants to share responsibility under law for the freedoms of our nation and this conservative will no longer be anti-immigration. Stop teaching our children that our nation’s liberal free market, free speech, free religion example is the bane of the world’s existence and this conservative’s fear of “losing” our nation will abate in a timely fashion. Until then, I’m sure caricatures will continue to be applied which cynically use slander and deception to pursue political goals. Great article and a huge help to genuine debate on immigration.

  • jonswitzer

    Answer a fool according to his folly and you will be like him yourself. Do not answer a fool according to his folly and he will be wise in his own eyes.Can’t win with a fool. A halter for the donkey and a whip for the horse and a rod for the backs of fools.When a wise man goes to court with a fool, the fool rages and scoffs and there is no peace. The ability of posters here to take scripture out of context for the sake of mockery is truly impressive.

  • adrienne_najjar

    The post needs to get rid of this “On Faith” nonsense.

  • ozma1

    As a retired Texas police officer of over 30 years experience, I would offer that there is no “solving” the reality of people from Central America and Mexico crossing our southern border illegally. As a practical matter, you can’t build enough walls, post enough guards or enforce enough laws to stop this movement of people.What we can and should do is manage the reality that we have. Doing so begins by putting illegal immigration into perspective which does not include the fear-mongering claims made by nativists of America being “fundamentally changed”. Illegal immigration is a problem, both for citizens and non-citizens. Hysteria and hatred aren’t helpful in dealing with the problem.

  • rclab

    I can’t imagine what life must be for so many of you that go through your lives with so much hate in your hearts for other human beings. I can’t imagine what you expect to get out of life when you want to surround yourselves only this those who think just like you, look just like you, talk like you and act just like you. You are not building walls to keep others out, but rather are building walls that keep you in. Sad.

  • DoctorWhom

    The Book of Leviticus says that we must treat strangers in our land as though they were born among us (Lev. 19:33-34). It also says that we may buy their children as slaves (Lev. 25:45). Who still wants to accept Leviticus as the proper guide to these things?

  • segeny

    “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”Caesar has laid down the immigration law. Obey it.

  • igsoper

    What I get from this article is the bible can be interpreted any way you you want.

  • Chops2

    igsoper:Took the words right out of my mouth.If you can actually speak to god then just ask him. Scriptural argument over……..

  • farnaz_mansouri2

    Well, well. What do we have here. But some of the christians, adherents of the Religion of Hate. And where do they get their hate from? Let us begin with their Nutty Testament, starting with matthew.Matthew# Those who bear bad fruit will be cut down and burned “with unquenchable fire.” 3:10, 12# Jesus strongly approves of the law and the prophets. He hasn’t the slightest objection to the cruelties of the Old Testament. 5:17# Jesus recommends that to avoid sin we cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes. This advice is given immediately after he says that anyone who looks with lust at any women commits adultery. 5:29-30# Jesus says that most people will go to hell. 7:13-14# Those who fail to bear “good fruit” will be “hewn down, and cast into the fire.” 7:19# “The children of the kingdom [the Jews] shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 8:12# Jesus tells a man who had just lost his father: “Let the dead bury the dead.” 8:21# Jesus sends some devils into a herd of pigs, causing them to run off a cliff and drown in the waters below. 8:32# Cities that neither “receive” the disciples nor “hear” their words will be destroyed by God. It will be worse for them than for Sodom and Gomorrah. And you know what God supposedly did to those poor folks (see Gen.19:24). 10:14-15# Families will be torn apart because of Jesus (this is one of the few “prophecies” in the Bible that has actually come true). “Brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.” 10:21# Jesus says that we should fear God who is willing and “able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” 10:28# Jesus says that he has come to destroy families by making family members hate each other. He has “come not to send peace, but a sword.” 10:34-36# Jesus condemns entire cities to dreadful deaths and to the eternal torment of hell because they didn’t care for his preaching. 11:20-24# Jesus will send his angels to gather up “all that offend” and they “shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” 13:41-42, 50# Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for not washing his hands before eating. He defends himself by attacking them for not killing disobedient children according to the commandment: “He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.” (See Ex.21:15, Lev.20:9, Dt.21:18-21) So, does Jesus think that children who curse their parents should be killed? It sure sounds like it. 15:4-7Continues

  • rcvinson64

    The Bible supports slavery. Let’s bring back that institution. Stop quoting ancient writings. You can make them mean anything that you want.

  • miklskon

    Thank You so much for your column and insights into this scriptural mandate regarding the “strangers” among us.

  • cprferry

    “”Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”Maybe not applicable in this case, but let’s be clear about rendering to Caesar. Many things Caesar rules upon are not Caesar’s alone, or only granted to them with expectations by the Creator. So Caesar’s authority is not ultimate or endless, only God’s authority is. When Caesar imposes laws, as its prone to do, that take from God or impedes on the free exercise of man to give what rightfully belongs to God, then Caesar acts with unjust authority.

  • true-soldier