The immigrant in the Hebrew Bible

Open letter

The immigrant in the Hebrew Bible

Open letter by Tom Hobson, May 28, 2010

Hobson has a Ph D in Biblical Exegesis, Concordia Seminary, St Louis, MO 


Allow me to enter the debate about the use of our English word “immigrant” to translate the Hebrew Bible term ger.  As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I would agree that “immigrant” is just as good a translation of the word ger as the NRSV’s “resident alien.”  I do object, however, to the dogmatic use of Hebrew Bible commands to protect the immigrant from oppression, unless we are willing to also accept (on the same terms) the commands to execute homosexuals and to destroy all idolatrous objects and places of worship, since all of these come in the same package.  Such an approach lacks credibility.  So let’s be careful about how much automatic authority we grant to commands in the Hebrew Bible.


Let’s correct one common misunderstanding.  The ger was not a full citizen.  There is no evidence that the ger could hold land in Israel, or participate in jurisprudence.  The ger and the citizen remain rigidly distinguished.  A ger can become a citizen only by conversion, i.e. circumcision.  The ger has neither the right nor the obligation to celebrate Passover.  But the ger was obligated to avoid offenses that would bring down God’s wrath on the whole community.  This includes breaking the Sabbath, consumption of leaven during Passover (Exod 12:19) or of blood (Lev 17:10), sacrifice to Molech (Lev 20:2), and blasphemy (Lev 24:16).


In fact, one theme that comes through loud and clear as we examine the 93 uses of ger in the Hebrew Bible is that the ger must obey the law.  In Deuteronomy 31:12, the alien “shall learn to fear YHWH your God and observe diligently all the words of this law.”  In Leviticus 18:26, neither citizen nor alien shall do “any of these abominations” listed in this chapter.  Several times Moses’ law insists, “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen” (Lev 24:22; Num 15:15-16; 15:29).  And in Numbers 15:30, we are told, “Whoever acts defiantly, whether native or alien, reviles YHWH, and shall be cut off from their people,” meaning, they shall be expelled or deported, as I have argued in my dissertation “Cut Off From (One’s) People.”  (To cross our modern border without legal permission can hardly be an accident, and is almost always an act of deliberate defiance.)  


Much of the substance of this debate hangs on the meaning of the verb in the command “oppress” in the command not to “oppress” the ger.  The pro-illegal-immigration crowd wants to define oppression as broadly as possible.  But the language, in context, does not permit us to equate oppression with enforcement of legitimate laws.  While it is true that many immigrants in ancient Israel may have been fugitives from punishment elsewhere, the only non-extradition clause found in the Torah is for runaway slaves (Deut 23:15-16), not for murderers or even for political refugees.  There is no obligation in the Torah to protect any immigrant other than runaway slaves from being deported to their country of origin for crimes they have committed.


In cases where the Hebrew verb ‘ashaq is used (Deut 24:14), the NRSV is probably correct to translate the verb as referring to “extortion.”  In other words, Israel is forbidden to practice the exploitation of immigrants that prevailed in virtually all surrounding cultures at that time (similar to today’s treatment of illegals by smugglers, or by employers who exploit the immigration status of their workers with threats to deport them if they complain of unjust working conditions).  The hif‘il form of the verb ya’ah (Exod 22:21) conveys a similar meaning: to exploit or mistreat by rip-off.  This is a far cry from claiming that “oppression” means enforcing modern immigration law.  To claim (as implied by the stated clerk’s letter) that illegal immigrants have an inalienable right to be here in America, based on Scripture, is a stretch far beyond what the meaning of ger will allow.


The real issue is not our willingness to welcome the immigrant.  Let’s make it easier to immigrate legally.  Let’s get rid of the quotas.  The one thing we have a right to expect is that immigrants obey the law. 


If a person willfully breaks our immigration laws, they are much more likely to break our traffic laws (Why do I need a license? Why can’t I drive drunk?), our tax laws (why pay them?), and our criminal laws (armed robbery, murder – what’s the big deal?).  Those who appeal to Joseph and Mary’s story forget why they ever went to Bethlehem: they were obeying an inconvenient law they could have easily blown off.  And they fled to Egypt for reasons already permitted under current immigration law, that is, to escape the murder of their child.  Joseph and Mary are models of the law-abiding immigrant, not the illegal immigrant.


One of the curses on a nation that abandons YHWH (Deut 28:43) is that “the ger among you shall rise higher and higher, while you shall sink lower and lower.”  When illegal aliens have grown so powerful that they have created a double standard that allows them immunity from laws that the rest of us have to obey, we might want to think deeply about what is happening to us, and why.