The Strangers Among You

Much ink has been spilled in recent months about the question of immigration and how the complex problems associated with it should be handled. While I make no claim to presenting a solution to the question, I do believe it is important for Christians to look at the matter from a biblical perspective. In seeking a starting point for such a treatment, I have surveyed the passages in the Pentateuch that instruct Israel concerning the appropriate approach to strangers in their midst. We recognize, of course, that the Old Testament civil law was designed for a very different culture than the one in which we live, and that it was also designed for a theocracy, which is hardly our situation, so we should not expect that the laws found in the Old Testament can be directly transplanted into modern American culture. After all, the concept of legal or illegal border crossing did not exist in ancient Israel. We should expect, however, that the principles underlying those laws, which speak to us of God’s view of justice, should be applicable to all cultures in all ages.

The fundamental principle that is cited repeatedly in the Pentateuch concerning the treatment of strangers is that one law applies to all (Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 9:14; Deuteronomy 1:16). Non-Israelites who live among God’s people are to be subject to the same laws as native Israelites. This basic principle is worked out in a variety of ways.

• Strangers in the land are to obey the laws of Israel, including not working on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14), avoiding leaven during Passover (Exodus 12:19), and fasting on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29). They are subject to the same punishment as Israelites for moral violations such as child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), and illicit sex (Leviticus 18:26). They may participate in Israelite religious rites if they submit to circumcision (Exodus 12:48; Numbers 9:14), offer sacrifices properly (Leviticus 17), and undergo the appropriate forms of purification (Numbers 19:10).
• Strangers enjoyed all the benefits of living in Israelite society. They could participate in the celebrations associated with the Feast of Weeks (Deuteronomy 16:11), the Feast of Booths (Deuteronomy 16:14), and the Sabbatical Year (Leviticus 25:6). They had access to the Cities of Refuge should they be responsible for an accidental death (Joshua 20:9).
• The Pentateuch also emphasizes the need to love and care for strangers. The command to love your neighbor as yourself occurs in the context of caring for strangers (Leviticus 19:9-18, 33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19), often accompanied by a reminder that the Israelites themselves were once strangers in Egypt. Strangers are not to be oppressed (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:14, 17), but are to receive aid if they are needy in the form of being permitted to glean in the fields (Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; cf. Ruth) and receiving funds from the tithes collected from Israelites (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:11-13).
• Some differences did exist. Strangers were not expected to keep all the dietary laws; they could eat animals that had died on their own (Deuteronomy 14:21), though they could not eat blood (Numbers 15:14-16). They also were not eligible to serve as priests (Numbers 16:40) or kings (Deuteronomy 17:15). All in all, though, if non-Israelites were willing to live as Israelites among the people of God, they could partake in the covenant with God and all that it implied (Deuteronomy 29:10-15).

While these biblical principles cannot provide all the answers we would like to the vexing problem of immigration, they should serve as a starting point for calm and reasoned discussion from a Christian perspective on a subject that has generated far more heat than light in recent days.