The Conversation: Debates on migration have never been simple – just look at the Hebrew Bible


THE CONVERSATION — Today, the Bible is often invoked in public debates on immigration. From former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to a group of 2,000 rabbis, people have turned to the Bible to explain their differing positions on immigration and refugees. Several scholars of Bible studies have spoken and written about what the text has to say on the subject.

One thing is clear: migration is important in the Bible. Stories about this are common – from the book of Genesis, where the patriarch Abraham obeys God’s command to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia, to the Moabite woman Ruth, who emigrates to Bethlehem for love of her Judean mother-in-law , Naomi, to the forced migration of the Jews to Babylonia.

But these many voices do not necessarily boil down to a single theology or ethical framework. As a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, I study the significance of migration themes in the crafting of Scripture, as well as how the text was disseminated, debated, and interpreted by readers around the world.

Discussions of migration are always complicated because the real experiences of migrants do not easily translate into simple bureaucratic categories.

Modern societies defined by ideas of citizenship and borders tend to classify modern migrants into legal binaries, each with their own rights and restrictions: resident versus non-resident, documented versus undocumented, immigrant versus non-immigrant. Ancient Israel also relied on legal categories to try to make sense of migration.

ancient Israelite law

The legal passages of the Hebrew Bible deal with people who came to Israel from other places and how they should be treated. The Book of Deuteronomy, for example, prescribes a law that protects the working poor and destitute from exploitation, whether or not they are fellow Israelites.

There are two Hebrew terms that recognize different types of strangers in the community, with different status and privileges.

The first, “ger”, can be translated as “resident foreigner”. In other words, it is a legal category of people who are not “citizens”, in the language used today, but who have permission to reside there. In the Hebrew Bible, the term does not distinguish between voluntary immigrants and forced refugees.

People in the “ger” category are considered part of the Jewish community. For example, the law of the Book of Numbers dictates that “ger” are eligible to participate in a sacrificial ritual to the God of Israel, just like the locals.

The Book of Numbers further protects the “ger” by stating that there will be one law for Israelites and immigrants through the generations. Whether local or not, they are also subject to rules regarding offerings and other standards of holiness. When the community makes an offering in atonement for sin, the immigrant population is also considered forgiven.

On the other hand, migrants called “nokri” – commonly translated as “foreigner” – have a more restricted social status. Deuteronomy forbids Israelites to charge interest on loans to another Israelite, but not to “nokri”. Similarly, the law commands the Israelites to forgive debts to one another every seven years, but not the debts of “nokri”.

The foreigners themselves

The Hebrew Bible’s view of foreigners is not just about dealing with others. Biblical ideas about strangeness are forged through the Israelites’ own experiences and their collective memories of being foreigners.

In the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, a main reason for protecting foreigners is repeatedly given: because the Israelites themselves were “ger” in the land of Egypt.

The many meanings of strangeness are also explored in biblical literature after the Babylonian exile of the Jews. Some groups returned to the land of Judah, some remained in Babylon, and some had never left in the first place.

The Book of Esther, for example, concerns the life of the diaspora community living in Persia. The story unfolds primarily through the actions of Queen Esther, who carries a dual identity as a Jew and a Persian, and its central themes deal with the struggle to survive in a foreign land.

Meanwhile, the protagonists of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are returnees who had previously lived in Mesopotamia, but who encountered a new sense of strangeness upon their return. Chapter 13 of Nehemiah describes Nehemiah’s shock when he learns that Jews had married women from surrounding cultures and that half of their children spoke only other languages.

The Bible speaks of migration with many different voices – even beyond its pages. Migrant communities around the world have continued to read and interpret it through the lens of their own experiences ever since, opening up new possibilities for understanding.

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