Immigration and refugees – is the Bible clear?

Migrants exist under darkening clouds of suspicion in Western countries today. Media reports the arrival of asylum-seekers in “waves” that threaten to “swamp” our shores—in fact, the arrival of vulnerable migrants described in terms of a threatening natural disaster have become common. A biblical response to asylum-seeking is a pressing need. Old Testament Israel hosted large numbers of refugees—what attitude did Hebrew scripture

Over fifty asylum-seekers die off Christmas Island, Australia.

require of Israel? Debate over asylum-seekers today is red hot and appeals to Scripture bring little clarity—vastly differing agendas equally claim scripture as their guide. One writer appeals to the Bible to bolster an exclusivist agenda. A blog claims support for inclusion. With some, the Old Testament has a reputation for exclusivism and violence. I

t is derided by sceptics and is an embarrassment for many Christian advocates and academics.

Lacking direction from the Bible, Christian opinion on immigration and refugees often reflects national sentiment tending towards exclusivism and self-preservation. As Ralph Premdas has demonstrated, “The inter-communal antipathies present in the society at large are reflected in the attitudes of churches and their adherents.”

To date, dialogue on ethnicity and inclusion has focused on Israel’s laws, with little discussion of Israel’s view of life, the world, and God. Abstracting laws from the worldview in which they are embedded has led to readings that are uncontrolled and therefore variegated. Proper ethical investigation must begin with Israel’s view of the world as a whole. As Chris Wright writes, “What we have to try to do is to put ourselves in Israel’s position and understand how Israel perceived and experienced their relationship with God and how that experience affected their ethical ideals and practical living as a community.” A search for ethics in Scripture that ignores the worldview of Israel will inadvertently result in a collapse of the reader’s worldview with the text’s worldview.

This three part dynamic is central to Israel’s worldview:

  1. God has givengenerously
  2. His people respond with thanksgiving
  3. Thanksgiving results in generosity, justice, and inclusion

Where this dynamic is observed in scripture it is impossible to glean an ethic of exclusivism, parochialism or stinginess. It is my opinion that this dynamic is at the heart of the Old Testament. You might like to read for example Deuteronomy Chapter 15 or 26:1-11. The message of these passages is clear: those who have received much must respond with thankfulness and generosity. Anything less is idolatry.


About Mark Glanville

Mark Glanville is a pastor-scholar who ministers in a missional urban community, Grandview Church, Vancouver. Mark is Professor of Old Testament and congregational studies at the Missional Training Center, Phoenix (, and he teaches at Regent College, Vancouver. Mark's research focusses upon the Pentateuch, biblical ethics, and mission. Mark has authored "Adopting the Stranger as Kindred" (SBL, 2018), "Reading Exodus: Society Reshaped by Kinship" (Lexham, forthcoming), numerous refereed articles (including in the Journal of Biblical Literature (2018), Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (2019), and Refuge Journal (2013)) and chapters on the Pentateuch, mission, and refugee related issues, as well as numerous popular articles. Mark is presently co-authoring a book, "Providing Refuge: A Missional and Political Theology." Mark is called upon to speak on in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. His previous career was as a jazz pianist in Sydney, Australia (Chick Corea and Wynton Kelly are his musical heroes).
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