What is a Christian response, or a biblical ethic, regarding refugees?

A famous passage, perhaps the most famous, that speaks into the issue of welcoming refugees is:

He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving them food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

Christian activists rightly use this passage to demonstrate that vulnerable people who seek a home ought to be welcomed. Here I will investigate this passage in some depth.

Refugeed women and children waiting for treatment for malnutrition, Yida, South Sudan.

The Stranger/refugee in Deuteronomy

There is, in the Old Testament, a category of people who don’t come from the community

of Israel, is of a different ethnicity to them, and is reliant on them. The Hebrew word for this category of people is ‘ger’. ‘Ger’ is translated in various ways: NIV: alien/stranger; ESV: sojourner; KJV: stranger; NRSV: resident alien. There are 21 references in Deuteronomy to the ‘stranger’. This figure indicates the large number of displaced and vulnerable people in Israel at that time. It indicates too the importance of Israel’s response to these people. Here are a two examples:

…but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. (Deut 5:14)

This passage comes from the ten commandments. The ‘stranger’ must be able  to rest on the Sabbath, as the Israelite is. The ‘stranger’ in other words, must not be used as cheap labour to be exploited.

And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you. (Deut 26:11)

Seasonal sojourns to ‘the place the Lord will choose’ punctuate Israel’s calendar with a rhythm of worship and celebration. Yet these celebrations are radically inclusive: Israelite households include the ‘stranger’, orphan, widow and Levite in their journey and celebration – four groups who are economically vulnerable and often without land themselves. Together with the ‘stranger’ and other vulnerable people, an Israelite household journeys to the sanctuary, worships and then feasts together with great joy (16:11, 14, 26:1-11). These inclusive harvest festivals are a striking example of the radical hospitality and ‘home making’ for displaced people that Israel is called to. There is no comparable example of such radical hospitality among Israel’s ancient near east contemporaries that I am aware of.

I pause here to ask: Where do these people come from? And why are they so many? Some seek another place to live because of poverty. The book of Ruth begins with an Israelite family leaving their home and finding a home in Moab due to famine (Ruth 1:1-2). Displacement from war was another way people were ‘refugeed’ in ancient times.

Love the stranger

Now I come to the key text:

He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving them food and clothing. Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:18-19)

The word ‘love’ is a key Hebrew word for covenant commitment. (Hebrew: ‘ahav’). It is a word laden with significance: it is used for YHWH’s covenant commitment to Israel, his people. We learn here then that YHWH has a fierce loyalty to the vulnerable stranger. He is on the stranger’s side. ‘YHWH loves the stranger’. Structurally Yahweh’s love for the ‘stranger’ is parallel to Yahweh’s love for Israel. Verse 15 reads:

Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as is the case this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and stiffen your necks no more. (Deut 10:15-16)

This parallel strengthens the force of vs 18, YHWH’s love for the stranger. YHWH’s love for his people corresponds positively to YHWH’s love for the stranger. Yet there is an interesting difference in the way YHWH’s love is conceived in these two verses: God’s love for Israel includes a warning: Israel must obey YHWH’s laws and be faithful to YHWH with covenant commitment. However regarding YHWH’s love for the stranger, no warning is attached. Yahweh’s affection for the vulnerable other is permenant. This is a remarkable text. In other words, I take it, YHWH stands with the poor. He is resolutely on the side of the refugee. Here we get a sense of the Old Testament roots of Christ’s words: Matt 25:40 ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”

I must admit such passages dazzle me somewhat. Why is YHWH so committed to the poor and vulnerable? Where do such strong statements as this come from? Gustavo Guitierrez, a Peruvian scholar, is helpful here. He points out that: ‘God is committed to the stranger, not because vulnerable people are good – but because he is good.’

Let me get specific now: in what ways does YHWH love the ‘stranger’?  First, by exercising Justice (vs 18). If humanity won’t exercise justice, God will secure it just the same. God, in Christ’s resurrection, has secured a future for his world of justice and thriving for all.

Second, YHWH loves the stranger by giving them food and clothing (vs 18). YHWH’s providential concern and care extends, especially, to vulnerable people.

Israel is to love the stranger

Love the stranger, therefore, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:19)

This verse is referring to that time when Jacob and his family went down to Egypt in a time of famine, seeking food. In those days, Joseph was Egypt’s vice-President, and Pharaoh showed Jacob’s family hospitality. Yet when a new Pharaoh came to power Israel was oppressed and forced into hard labour.

This verse then is insisting that Israel shows the stranger the hospitality that she herself would have liked to have been shown in Egypt. She is to love the ‘stranger’.  Yet practically, what does it look like for Israel to ‘love the stranger’? I will go to two passages from Deuteronomy:

1. The stranger can live wherever they want in Israel – and anyone and everyone is welcome to live in the land!

You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him. (Deut 23:15-16)

2. The stranger shares life and celebration with Israelites! For example at the feast of weeks:

And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place that the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. (Deut 16:11)

As I noted above, an Israelite household journeys to the sanctuary, worships and then feasts together with great joy (16:11, 14, 26:1-11). The Levite, stranger, orphan and widow are included in this celebratory feasts. These inclusive harvest festivals are a striking example of the radical hospitality and ‘home making’ for displaced people that Israel is called to.

These meals reflect the radical welcome of Christ. New Testament scholars have said that: ‘Jesus literally ate his way through the gospels. And so he did. And Jesus ate with all the wrong people! It has been said too that Jesus was killed for who he ate with! He ate with outcasts. We might call these meals, ‘meals of the Kingdom’. Such radical welcome show us the shape of the Kingdom of God: celebration, relationship and radical welcome.

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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 (missionaltraining.org), and he teaches at Regent College, Vancouver. Mark's research focusses upon the Pentateuch, biblical ethics, and mission. Mark has authored a book on Exodus (Lexham, forthcoming), numerous refereed articles (including in the Journal of Biblical Literature, forthcoming) 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 regularly 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).
This entry was posted in deuteronomy, ethnicity and the bible, justice, miscellaneous, old testament ethics, stranger/alien/outsider/refugee and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to What is a Christian response, or a biblical ethic, regarding refugees?

  1. Rees D says:

    Hey Mark,

    Thanks for the insight. A very interesting article for me, considering my line of work.

    What is your conclusion in all of this?

    Are you saying that we should be opening our doors to refugees? Jesus was an excellent judge of character, how do we know the genuine refugee from those trying to deceive our nation, and take advantage of its relaxed laws?

    Regards,

    Rees D

    • Hi Rees! Thank you for reading; great to hear from you! In my blog I described Israel’s welcome, hospitality and justice for refugees. It is interesting to note that Israel’s radical welcome was not matched by other ancient near eastern nations. Actually, it was common for neighbouring countries to have a policy of compulsory refugee return! Israel’s counter cultural practice of radical welcome displays our God’s heart for vulnerable people, without a home. It reflects the radical welcome of Christ, which was also counter cultural! Christ hung out with all the wrong people (even deceivers, like Judas!) Christ’s radical welcome does indeed, as you say, challenge the parochialism of much contemporary western politics. Blessings mate!

  2. Ian Powell says:

    Hey Mark – Terrific work – Many thanks – What a beautiful God we love. What a challenge to my relative, in action, indifference.

  3. George Glanville says:

    This is a profoundly substantial and discomforting piece Mark. Thanks.

    • It is discomforting indeed. Found anywhere but in the Bible it would be too harsh, too strong. Yet does not Deut reflect the repeated witness of Jesus regarding poverty! eg Luke 16, the rich man and Lazarus!

  4. robhellstrom says:

    Hi Mark

    You say it was common at the time amongst neighbouring countries to compulsorily return refugees.

    Is it possible to share any references to that view?

    And thanks. Very compelling insights.

    Regards
    Rob

    • Hello Rob. Thank you for your question. Look up the major ancient near eastern law corpuses. You will find them online. See in particular the Laws of Hammurabi, Middle Assyrian Laws and Hittite Laws.

      • robhellstrom says:

        Hi Mark I looked up those three today and read and searched through them.

        The only time they referenced foreigners in any way was in relation to providing rules around treatment of foreign-born slaves and endless penalties where the father of a house would leave for foreign lands and come back after some time to face changed family arrangements etc.

        But, maybe I’m looking at the wrong documents or have missed something in my reading.

        Hammurabi
        https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4e/The_code_of_Hammurabi.pdf

        Hittites
        http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/1650nesilim.asp

        Middle Assyrian
        http://jewishchristianlit.com/Texts/ANElaws/midAssyrLaws.html

        Regards
        Rob

      • Rob,thank you for following this up. Yes, you are quite right, the law corpuses are concerned with the compulsory return of fleeing slaves. My apologies. That is a lot of hard reading that you did there. The reference that I had in mind was rather the common clause in ANE treaties stipulating the return of fugitives. This clause seems to be in order to preserve cheap labour. In an inequitable treaty between a suzerain and a vassal, fugitives tend only to be returned to the great king – not the other way around. Here is an example taken from “Context of Scripture” v 2.

        TREATY BETWEEN ŠUPPILULIUMA AND AZIRU (2.17A)

        Extradition of deportees, conspirators and fugitives
        (iii.17´-28´) Whatever deportees of that land [My Majesty] has carried off — deportees of the land of Hurri, deportees of the land of Kinza, deportees of the land of Niya and deportees of the land of Nuḫ-ḫašše — if some man or woman flees from Ḫattuša p 95 and enters your land, you should not say as follows: “Although I am sworn to the treaty, I (don’t want to) know anything. [Are they (?)] in my land?” [You], Azira, should rather capture them and send them to the king of Hatti.

        (iii.29´-34´) [If] someone speaks [evil words about] My Majesty to you, Azira — whether [a man of Hatt]i or your own subject — but you, Azira, do not seize him and send him to the king of Hatti — thereby you will break the oath.

        (iii.35´-44´) Whatever men of Amurru reside in the land of Hatti – whether a nobleman or a slave of Azira’s land – if you request him from the king of Hatti and the king of Hatti [gives] him back to you, then take him. But if the king of Hatti does not give him back to you and he flees and comes to you, and you Azira take him — thereby you will break the oath.

        (iv.1´-5´; F I´-3´) [If] some [people (?) rise and come to the land of Azira, and you, Azira, speak unfavorable things before them and you direct them] towards the moun[tains or towards another land, and if] you, [Azira, do not seize and extradite hi]m to the king of Hatti — thereby [you will break the oath.]

        (iv.6´-11´) If a man of H[atti] comes as a fugitive [from the land of Hatti] and he turns to [you, Azira, seize him and extradite] him to the king [of Hatti]. But [if you do not extradite him — thereby you will break the oath.]

        (iv.12´´-14´´ = F 8´-9´) [If a fugitive flees] from the land of Amurru [and comes to the land of Hatti, the king of Hatti does not (have to) seize and extradite him. It is not right for the king of Hatti to return] a fugitive. [But if a fugitive flees from the land of Hatti and comes to the land of Amurru, you, Azira, [should not detain him], but should release him to the land of Hatti. [If you detain him] — thereby you will [break the oath.]

        (iv.15´´-18´´) If you, [Azira, want something (?) you should request it] from the king of Hatti. [If the king of Hatti gives it to you], take it, but you should not take what [the king of Hatti does not give to you].

        William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Context of Scripture (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2000), 94–95.

        You might also read, from the same volume, THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN IR-ADDU AND NIQMEPA (AT 2) (2.128). Regarding this text, on page 329, Richard Hess writes:

        “This is a treaty text from the Middle Babylonian period of Alalakh (Level IV). The stipulations are largely concerned with citizens of Niqmepa’s lands who, for various reasons, find themselves in the land of Ir-Addu. The clauses provide for extradition of these people back to the lands of Niqmepa. Fugitives were a common cause for concern as witnessed in the second millennium law codes: Ur-Nammu §17; Lipit-Ishtar 12–13; Eshnunna 50; Hammurabi 16–20 (COS 2.153; 2.154; 2.130; 2.131, respectively). See Roth 1995/1997.”

        I hope that this is helpful.

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