The Bible and the Immigrant Experience


I’ve recently written that the issue of immigration is provocative to me. A big cause for this is the fact that the immigrant experience is a central theme in the Bible.

The immigrant experience in the Bible

At the core of the Patriarchs’ identity was the experience of being foreigners in a foreign land.

God called Abraham from his native land with the promise that he would go before him and that he would lead him to the land he would one day inherit (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham obeyed and went. God then entered into a covenant with Abraham. In doing so, he promised he would “give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God,” (Genesis 17:8). The only small parcel of land Abraham would own was the burial ground he purchased for his wife (Genesis 23:4). Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. They owned nothing else. Eventually, God would lead the entire family from their campsite in Canaan to what would become bitter slavery in Egypt. Certainly, next to the Promise, the immigrant experience was the most defining feature of life for the Patriarchs.

When God formed his nation, he formed it from a nation of aliens and slaves.

God’s own people toiled in slavery in the land of Egypt for over 400 years (Exodus 1:1-14). They lived in the land as aliens. They were oppressed. Demeaned. Beaten. Without representation. They spoke a different language. Had different customs. Had no formal institution in which to gather and forge an identity. They were prohibited from carrying out their religious ceremonies. They had no rights. Only the faint memory of a promise. Generations came and went until God sent a deliverer, Moses, to wrench them from Pharaoh’s hand and to guide them to freedom. The defining moment of the Exodus, the event that symbolized the birth of the nation of Israel, was the Passover. Whom did Moses include in that first Passover? The children of Abraham, of course. Whom else? Any foreigner living among the Israelites who was willing to identify with the nation (Exodus 12:48-49).

At Sinai, God made provision in the Law for the foreigners who would inhabit the Promised Land beside his people.

God’s instructed Israel to deal fairly with foreigners. Why? Because “you know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9). He even included them in religious activities (Leviticus 17:8). God commanded his people to treat foreigners well and to include them in the life of the nation precisely because they understood and could identify with their plight. They knew what it meant, how it felt and all that was entailed. That empathy was to fuel goodwill and provision, justice and fairness, mercy and compassion.

The Bible is the story of a nation of exiles who are delivered by God himself.

As the story of the nation of Israel unfolds, through a long, looping spiral of devotion and betrayal, repentance and rebellion, eventually God’s people ended up, once again, as foreigners in a strange land. The Old Testament records the sad story of the destruction of the nation, most poignantly seen in the destruction of the Temple, and the deportation of the people. And the New Testament tells the story of how God once and forever provided an end to the exile and oppression under which his people groaned.

He did this by creating a brand new nation, a nation made entirely of aliens and immigrants.

How did he do this? He purchased freedom for all who would depend upon him in faith by means his own death, burial and resurrection. He returned us from exile and created a new nation. This nation isn’t exclusively comprised of people from the nation of Israel. The Church is a gathering of foreigners from all nations, people who are welcomed not as “strangers and foreigners” but as brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 2:19). Then, as Christians go about their business in the world, they do so as “temporary residents and foreigners,” (1 Peter 2:11).

There are several biblical principles—principles that we might be bold enough to embrace—that emerge:

  • To be a Christian is to be a foreigner. Therefore, we ought to be uniquely suited to understand the plight of the foreigners in our communities.
  • To be a Christian is to welcome foreigners because we understand what being a foreigner is like.
  • To be a Christian is to join God, working to bring his justice, mercy and provision to the dispossessed and disenfranchised.
  • To be a Christian is to have a heart that swells with the kind of compassion that leads to action.

If you and I follow Christ, we pledge our allegiance to the highest Authority. In so doing, we alienate ourselves from the world. We look, think and act differently. (If we don’t, we must examine ourselves.) From that humble position, the Church can be the Church and Christians can be Christians—and act in good conscience—no matter what public opinion states, no matter what laws are passed or not passed. If we are living for Christ, we know what it is to be aliens. And, we should be willing to do whatever we can to put that biblical worldview to action for the benefit of those around us.

This is a big challenge to me, personally. And, I hope it’s a challenge my fellow immigrants will take more seriously as well.

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