Immigration: A Biblical Perspective

church-entryWhat is God’s Perspective on Immigration?gustave courbet

By Rick Lanser, MDiv

In seeking timeless truths and timely topics, it is always valuable to look at areas which intersects both biblical studies and political issues. Herewith, then, for your consideration is an investigation that attempts to discern God’s perspective on the subject of immigration. All Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

“Illegal Immigration”

It’s best to unambiguously define some terms before continuing. What exactly is “illegal AAAimmigration”? At its simplest, it is the movement of people from one area into another, such that this movement violates laws and regulations in place at any given time at the destination—laws intended to govern such movement and enforced by the political powers holding sway over the area. These laws can change with time, depending on who is in power and whether their governing philosophy has a globalist or nationalist flavor, so they are not set in stone. But regardless of whatever policies are in effect, immigration is always the moving of people from an area of certain characteristics, to another that is distinctly different. For immigration to be an issue, there have to be borders. To have a national identity means having established boundaries which mark the transition from one political entity’s rules and regulations to another’s. Such borders can be either imposed by outside sources—witness how the Great Powers of World War I partitioned up the Middle East into separate nations, with little attention paid to the fact that these borders sometimes artificially lumped together disparate people groups—or they can arise from a recognition that people groups tied together by ethnicity or religion inhabit a certain area rather than another, often constrained by geographic features such as mountains or rivers. But at their root, however they are set up, borders recognize points where political power over an area changes from one source to another. With those definitions in mind, let’s try to discern what light the Word of God can shed on whether borders, together with the imposition of laws that they entail, are justifiable, and if so, how they impact the status of people who move from one area to another.

Borders in the Bible

AADThe early chapters of Genesis tell us about the spread of mankind throughout the world after the Flood. At the dawn of civilization we find the extended clan of Noah’s family, perhaps excepting a few adventurous souls Scripture is silent about, more or less staying together. We know this situation existed because when sufficient time had passed after the Flood for Noah to have taken up sedentary farming and planted a vineyard (Genesis 9:20 ff), all three of Noah’s sons and their families were still living in close proximity; Ham saw his father drunk and naked in his tent, and Shem and Japheth were right there to cover Noah’s inadvertent nakedness. Thus, an indeterminate period of time passed which could have spanned a couple hundred years, before the bulk of humanity moved westward into the plain of Shinar (Gen. 11:2). After the migration into Shinar we see the beginnings of discrete nations. Genesis 10 — which provides an overview of how various people groups were derived from patriarchal progenitors — largely follows chronologically the details discussed later in chapter 11, which focuses on how those nations arose in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel incident. At the time of this great division, God expressed His concern: “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this [building the city and tower, which apparently concentrated the effects of sin in one place] is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). To address this problem, the LORD confused their languages, with the result that He “scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city” (Gen. 11:8). The language used in Genesis 10 informs us that the concept of borders to divide one people’s territory from another existed from the dawn of civilization. For example, verse 19 is very specific: “The territory of the Canaanite extended from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza; as you go toward Sodom and Gomorrah and Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” We also have the LORD specifying the borders of the area which the Israelites were to inhabit in Genesis 15:18-21, and confirmed in detail in Numbersearth 34:1-12—despite the fact that other peoples had gone into the land of Canaan first! What mattered was who God wanted to live there, not merely who had first dibs. (Some generalities might be drawn from this about the settling of the Americas by Europeans, but that’s something for another day…) One more thing to note about borders in the Bible is that, during the Conquest period, the migrating Israelites respected defined borders as they existed at the time. When they came to the territory of the Amorites, they did not simply go tromping into it, but first asked permission to cross: “Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, saying, ‘Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into field or vineyard; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the king’s highway until we have passed through your border’ (Num. 21:21-22). The Israelites thus recognized the reality of national borders at this early point in history, and treated them with respect. Although it is not our purpose here to examine in detail what the New Testament has to say on the subject, we should note in passing the NT teaching on borders confirms they are ordained by God. ., the Apostle Paul specifically affirmed: “and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation…” To wrap up this part of the study, we can affirm from Scripture a few things about borders: (1) that their establishment is sanctioned by God; (2) that outsiders who peaceably cross them are expected to first ask permission; and (3) that to cross them without permission is at least a violation of accepted practice, and at worst tantamount to an act of war. (That’s controversial stuff to much of modern political thought!) But, it is what it is. The primary takeaway is that, biblically speaking, people should not simply cross a border without first getting an okay from the authorities.

Immigrants in the Bible

evening crossThat last statement immediately turns our thoughts to the controversial subject of illegal immigration. Immigration involves not merely moving from one area to another, but also entails the crossing of a border by people into a foreign land. Although English translations of the Old Testament—for brevity’s sake, we will limit our discussion to the OT—do not use the specific word “immigrant” to describe such people, their existence was recognized as early as the days of Abraham and Moses. Several different Hebrew terms affirm the reality that, from earliest times, people often lived in a land they were not born into. These words are variously translated “sojourners,” “strangers,” “foreigners,” and “aliens.” (No, ‘aliens’ does not refer to extraterrestrial beings!) Let’s look at the key terms lying behind these words, and see if we can draw some general conclusions about their significance, if any, to understanding how God views immigrants and how we should deal with them.

The Sojourner

The first term to look at is the Hebrew word גֵּר, ger (Strong’s Concordance H1616), which occurs 92 times. A slightly dated (1979) copy of the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (BDB) informs us that ger is a noun derived from the closely related verb גּוּר, guwr (Strong’s H1481), used 194 times, which has the primary meaning of “sojourn,” to “dwell for a (definite or indefinite) time, dwell as a new-comer…without original rights.” The “original rights” stipulation is to be understood as rights belonging to a full-fledged citizen of the land, rights which can be inherited from the parents. These rights (and obligations!) of Israelite citizens are dealt with in intricate detail in the precepts laid down in the Pentateuch. The thing to take away here is that the “stranger”—the word most commonly used to render the term—is someone who is not a native of the land, yet nevertheless is granted rights on a par with the native. We see the concept of the ger extant as early as the time of Abraham. When Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (Hebron) in the land of Canaan, Abraham besought the native sons of Heth for a burial place thus: “I am a stranger (ger) and a sojourner (תֹּשָׁבֵי, towshab, Strong’s H8453, used 15 times) among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (Gen. 23:4). Abraham and those with him all recognized his status as not being native to the land, and this is reaffirmed by the distinction between him and the Hethites noted in 23:12: “And Abraham bowed before the people of the land(emphasis added). He was not one of them, irrespective of the fact that he had lived among them for many years and had become, as the Hethites themselves testified, “a mighty prince among us” (23:6). He had all the privileges of a native, yet was not one. As an aside, the word rendered “sojourner” in the above verse is towshab rather than the more frequent guwr, the difference being, according to BDB, that it represented a sojourn of a more temporary and dependent kind than the ger (see Leviticus 22:10 and 25:6 for other examples of this term). It may have been used in Genesis 23:4 because Abraham’s stay specifically among the sons of Heth may only have been a relatively brief part of his total sojourn in the land of Canaan. Similarly, we can jump ahead to Genesis 47:4-6, which relates the story of the entry of Jacob and his clan into Egypt during the time of Joseph:

They said to Pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn (guwr) in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. Now, therefore, please let your servants live in the land of Goshen.” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is at your disposal; settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land, let them live in the land of Goshen; and if you know any capable men among them, then put them in charge of my livestock.” Then Joseph brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.

There are a few things we can derive from this passage. First, the Israelites describe what they wish to do: “sojourn” in the land of Egypt. They want to live there, but the duration of the stay in unclear. They next describe why: “the famine is severe in the land of Canaan.” Reading between the lines, it seems the best modern English word to describe the status of Jacob and his sons would be “refugees,” immigrants driven into another country due to flight from unlivable conditions in their homeland. Next, we see that they formally request of the highest authority, Pharaoh, permission to live in his foreign land: “please let your servants live in the land of Goshen.” Finally, we see that this permission is granted, although with a responsibility laid on the sojourners: the able men among them are to be put to work minding Pharaoh’s livestock—a government work program, if you will. (Of course, by the time of Moses that program’s stipulations had gotten pretty onerous…) Putting together the hints in just these two passages, we conclude that the dominant characteristics of the ger, “sojourner,” make this person roughly equivalent to a modern-day refugee—a legal immigrant who has received official government sanction to cross the border and take up residence in another land, with all the normal rights and privileges thereto.

Description Versus Prescription

Before we continue, I think it is important to make an observation about how we apply certain passages in the Bible to modern situations such as the immigration debate. In our study of Scripture, most of us want to know not merely what happened in the distant past in the outworking of salvation history, but more particularly what affects us in the here-and-now: what God prescribes for us. We seek to lay hold of the lasting principles and specific stipulations that transcend times and cultures. We want Him to reveal His ongoing will to us so that, in doing it, we can rejoice in knowing that He is pleased to bless us and our efforts. The above passages from Genesis just reviewed, however, are descriptions of what the actors did in the situation they found themselves in, rather than prescriptions from God which we can affirm with high confidence as applying to all times and cultures. Because no “thus saith the LORD” is invoked, we cannot confidently assert that what Abraham or Jacob experienced presents us with lasting principles we should follow. We may sense there are universal principles exhibited here, since the LORD was clearly superintending over the affairs of men in bringing the nation of Israel into Egypt as part of His plan to bring the Messiah into the world, but we cannot prove that based only on these passages. To confidently know that something is the will of God for us today, we must look for declarative statements of that Divine will. These we find later in the Pentateuch, after Moses is given God’s instructions for His people Israel. Before this, we find other intimations of what God looks for in Genesis and Exodus, but that’s all they are—intimations that give us a sense of where God is going. But in the laws of God given to Moses, we have express warrant for finding lasting principles. Exodus 12:48, for example, tells us, “But if a stranger (ger) sojourns (guwr) with you, and celebrates the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land…” (emphasis added). Similarly, Exodus 12:49: “The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger (ger) who sojourns (guwr) among you.” Finally, we have Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger (ger) who resides (guwr) with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens (ger) in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God ” (emphasis added). To summarize on this aspect, the clear biblical teaching is that there is a particular kind of immigrant or sojourner who has taken a vested interest in the land he moved to and is willing to assimilate into it, has official sanction to live there, and in return has rights on a par with the native. A legal immigrant, if you will. These teachings may have specific application to the nation of Israel, but due to their prescriptive nature, there appear to be timeless general principles about how people should relate to each other that can be drawn out.

The Foreigner

Another key term is נָכְרִי, nokriy (Strong’s H5237), found 47 times. It appears to carry a rather negative connotation when contrasted with the ger. Among the English words used to render it are “stranger,” “strange,” “alien” and “foreigner.” “Sojourner,” with the many positive connotations it carries, is never used to translate nokriy. Although Abraham recognized that he lived in a foreign land, he never called himself a “foreigner,” nor did Jacob. The word is used for someone who has a lower status than the ger. One example is seen in Genesis 31:14-15: “Rachel and Leah said to him, ‘Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners (nokriy)? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price.” There is a very obvious disrespect for the nokriy exhibited in that dialogue. Further, we find in Scripture that the ger is to be treated better than the nokriy: “You shall not eat anything which dies of itself. You may give it to the alien (ger) who is in your town, so that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner (nokriy), for you are a holy people to the LORD your God…” (Dt. 14:21). The ger, the alien “sojourner” among the Israelites, is treated better in that he receives at no cost what the “foreigner” has to pay for.

One more passage shows that the foreigner has further financial disadvantages: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts. This is the manner of remission: every creditor shall release what he has loaned to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother, because the LORD’s remission has been proclaimed. From a foreigner (nokriy) you may exact it, but your hand shall release whatever of yours is with your brother” (Dt. 15:1-3, emphasis added). It is noteworthy that the ger is not mentioned for such treatment. It is the same way in Dt. 23:20-21, where the charging of interest on loans is discussed: “You shall not charge interest to your countrymen: interest on money, food, or anything that may be loaned at interest. You may charge interest to a foreigner (nokriy), but to your countrymen you shall not charge interest, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land which you are about to enter to possess” (emphasis added). Looking over the characteristics of the nokriy, it is not perfectly clear what his essential difference is from the ger, because Scripture does not explicitly spell it out. He is treated differently…but why? I suspect the answer ties into having a homeland to return to if need be, so his allegiance to his adopted land is not wholehearted. The ger does not see himself as having this fallback option, either due to oppressive circumstances in his homeland or powerfully motivated choice (Abraham does not seem to have been obligated to leave Ur of the Chaldees for any reason other than God laying it on his heart); the nokriy, however, does have such a fallback. The ger is all-in and has a commensurate loyalty to the adopted land, while the nokriy apparently has a more temporary outlook and perhaps a quite selfish perspective—“what’s in it for ME?” This contrasts with the attitude epitomized by Ruth the Moabitess, expressed in these memorable words to her mother-in-law Naomi in Ruth 1:16-17:

Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the LORD do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.

Truly, for Ruth there was no turning back. So, perhaps the “foreigner” in the Bible is best understood as someone who does not intend to be a full participant in the life and culture of the foreign country in which he resides, to fully identify with it. I am not sure we can perfectly equate the nokriy with one who today is labeled an illegal (or at least undocumented) immigrant, but it is at least fair to say that both have a “what’s in it for me?” attitude, so they warrant being treated differently from the ger. Being unwilling to follow the customs and regulations put in place by the authorities on the other side of the border has practical effects. And one last observation: in the Bible, people apparently knew who were the ger or nokriy, otherwise it would not be possible to treat the individuals appropriately as their status deserved, or to identify them with different, mutually exclusive terms. This strongly implies that government policies should not purposely shield the public from knowing if one is an immigrant of either class.

Odds and Ends

A few miscellaneous observations came out of this study which don’t neatly fit into the above headings, but do apply to a big-picture view of immigration policies. The references that follow are from the NASB, the takeaways are my off-the-cuff comments… Leviticus 25:23: “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens (ger) and sojourners (towshab) with Me.” TAKEAWAY: In God’s eyes, whether for a longer or shorter time, we are ALL reckoned as immigrants into His domain. We enter His promised land not by inheritance, but individually. God has no grandchildren who inherit His Kingdom privileges, but they must be individually granted by the King. Leviticus 25:35: “Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger (ger) or a sojourner (towshab), that he may live with you.” TAKEAWAY: This gives explicit biblical warrant for some form of governmental safety net for those who are legal immigrants, regardless of how recently they came. Note that the nokriy is not included in this privilege. Numbers 15:16: “There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien (ger) who sojourns (guwr) with you.” TAKEAWAY: Justice is not to be a respecter of persons or immigration status. Numbers 35:15: “These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien (ger) and for the sojourner (towshab) among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.” TAKEAWAY: “Cities of refuge” apply only to those guilty of an accidental capital crime, regardless of whether they are natives or immigrants. Cities of refuge are not just designed to shield immigrants. Interestingly, the nokriy is not mentioned as eligible for this privilege. Deuteronomy 10:18-19: “He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien (ger) by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien (ger), for you were aliens (ger) in the land of Egypt.” TAKEAWAY: A just society will provide the basics of life to immigrants just as to other economically disadvantaged people. Deuteronomy 24:19: “When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien (ger), for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” TAKEAWAY: Again, we should willingly exercise charity toward the economically disadvantaged, including immigrants. 2 Chronicles 2:17-18: “Solomon numbered all the aliens (ger) who were in the land of Israel, following the census which his father David had taken; and 153,600 were found. He appointed 70,000 of them to carry loads and 80,000 to quarry stones in the mountains and 3,600 supervisors to make the people work.” TAKEAWAY: Although this passage is descriptive rather than prescriptive, here we find biblical warrant for identifying and keeping track of numbers of immigrants, rather than shielding them from being documented. As well, it offers justification for governmental work programs to help immigrants get established in their new land. Ezekiel 47:22: “You shall divide it by lot for an inheritance among yourselves and among the aliens (ger) who stay (guwr) in your midst, who bring forth sons in your midst. And they shall be to you as the native-born among the sons of Israel; they shall be allotted an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel” (emphasis added). TAKEAWAY: The children of immigrants born in the country will be reckoned as citizens from birth. Note that this is not applied to the nokriy, so seeking biblical sanction here for so-called “anchor babies” is dubious. Ezekiel 47:23: “And in the tribe with which the alien (ger) stays (guwr), there you shall give him his inheritance,” declares the Lord GOD.” TAKEAWAY: Immigrants can become landowners where they live and work. It is extremely pertinent to observe that in all of the positive prescriptions just given, the recipient is invariably the ger, not the nokriy! Simply crossing a border does not, as far as Scripture is concerned, entitle an immigrant to certain rights and privileges. Something more is expected of the one who will be given a full social safety net…manifested loyalty and fealty, demonstrated by respect for and submission to the regulations and laws of the land.


The basic message we get from this study is that there are two basic kinds of immigrants in Scripture: the ger who, though not natives of a nation, have all the rights and privileges of the native citizens; and the nokriy, who have a second-class status because they are unwilling to take the steps the fully privileged immigrants were. In addition, it is clear that a great majority of the passages dealing with the ger are of a prescriptive nature, being based on explicit instructions from God. It is thus safe to view them as being of enduring pertinence for basing policy decisions on. Regarding those termed the nokriy, it is clear that although they, like the ger, have crossed a country’s border, they are distinct and separate from the ger in terms of the rights and privileges they are granted. That they are not mentioned in many passages where the rights of the ger are clearly delineated strongly implies that, in God’s sight, they do not warrant receiving these privileges. This study thus offers biblical support—i.e., God’s sanction—for policies which preferentially give immigrants who show a willingness to do what it takes to integrate into and fully participate in the life of a society, rights and privileges which do not accrue to those who do not. The claim that it is unjust or unloving to withhold any privileges from those unwilling to do certain things appears to be a gross misapplication of “social justice.” The Apostle Paul said, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). This principle can easily be seen to apply to immigration issues. Privileges come to those who do what it takes to warrant them, a truism that applies to a biblical perspective on immigration as well as to so many other things in life.

And it should be added that, since the Church is to obey the civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-8), Christians should not be advocating people from foreign nations to break laws when they attempt to cross into another country. We who claim to be the Lord’s children have an obligation not only to follow His principles ourselves, but to encourage others to do the same. Since the loving God we serve is not wishy-washy but has definite opinions about how we should live, we should make every effort to line up our opinions and policies with His.


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