Borders and the Bible

The Bible also distinguishes between the “sojourner” and the “foreigner.”

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Someone recently asked me in a dialogue about the border wall: “In Matthew 25:35, Jesus talks about welcoming strangers. Are immigrants ‘strangers’ in the meaning of that text?”

Here it is (RSV, as throughout):

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

I submit that if Jesus favored open borders and illegal immigration, the verse would have to be re-written as follows:

for I was hungry and broke into your house and demanded that you give me food, I was thirsty and broke into your house and demanded that you give me drink, I was a stranger and forced my way into your house against your will and you ‘welcomed’ me, because you were forced to by non-enforcement of laws regarding illegal entry onto private property in your nation.

This is what is called a reductio ad absurdum, or satire, written as if Jesus had been an open border advocate. It is strictly against illegal immigration. Not a word is implied (negatively) about immigrants in general. Many extrapolate what is said about illegal immigrants to the entire class of immigrants. This is dishonest, and misrepresents what compassionate critics of open borders stand for.

What we oppose are illegal immigrants — not the entire mass of suffering people including refugees, whom we want to help by the multiple thousands.

The analogy to illegal immigrants has strictly to do with their breaking immigration laws at the outset. That is like breaking into a house, which is equally illegal. We don’t stand for that in our own house, yet many now wink at people violating border laws and national sovereignty. Jesus was talking about voluntarily helping the poor and destitute. He didn’t favor plunder, theft, stealing or burglary:

Luke 11:21-22 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoil. (cf. Mark 3:27)

Here Jesus explicitly endorses the perfectly permissible notion of self-defense and protection of what one owns (including one’s house). This is clearly analogous to countries establishing sensible laws for entrance of immigrants. We’re under no obligation to provide for people who break into the “house” of this country.

As Jesus contended, we can “guard” our own “palace. There is no hint at all that He would disagree with such a thing. It was in the context of “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Luke 11:17; Mark 3:24-26). Jesus taught, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” He taught that we are to obey our rulers, just as St. Paul did, much more explicitly (see below). This includes honoring the immigration and border laws of countries.

The Bible also distinguishes between the sojourner and the foreigner. This distinction is drawn in a way that is very similar to legal vs. illegal immigrants today. Exodus 22:21 says, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (cf. Leviticus 19:33-34). But the “sojourner” or “stranger” in Hebrew culture was understood as a person from a foreign country who was a temporary inhabitant.

Relationships with the sojourners were strictly regulated (Deuteronomy 23:3; 24:14-21; 25:5; 26:10-13). Sojourners, in the biblical understanding could also be categorized in two ways: 1) temporary visitors without property; and 2) permanent residents who were not citizens (Leviticus 22:10; Psalm 19:12). Both classes held, with some restrictions, the same rights that citizens possessed (Deuteronomy 10:19).

But Mosaic Law also made it clear that the sojourner had to follow Israelite laws, such as Sabbath observance (Deuteronomy 16:9-15). And there were legal distinctions. Deuteronomy 15 called for remission of Israelite debts every seven years, but not the debt of the foreigner (15:3). Israelites could extract interest from foreigners (Deuteronomy 23:20), and they were excluded from Passover (Exodus 12:43). Ezra (Ezra 10:1-44) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:23-31) forbade intermarriage with foreign women.

Ralph Drollinger, in his article, “What the Bible Says About Our Illegal Immigration Problem” (9-27-16; italics added for Hebrew words), further explains:

An Israelite citizen is referred to as a countryman (ach) in Scripture, whereas a legal immigrant is referred to as a sojourner (ger) or toshab, and a foreigner is called an illegal (nokri) or zar. Important to this study, and evident from the OT, is that an illegal did not possess the same benefits or privileges as a sojourner or countryman. 

“Stranger and Sojourner (in the Old Testament)”: an article in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, is also very helpful, as is the entry, “Theft and Thieves in the Bible” from Nave’s Topical Bible Concordance.

One must differentiate between a right to migrate and the right to citizenship; also between legal and illegal migration. No one has an inherent “right” to violate another country’s laws. Romans 13 states that the government functions as an agent of God:

Romans 13:1-4 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. . . .

Laws mean something. Some are unjust, true (like Roe v. Wade), but we must overturn them through due process of law. We don’t (in the biblical view) thumb our noses at laws and systematically break them (illegal immigration/sanctuary cities, etc.), and encourage thousands of others to do so too.