A Brief Theology of Aliens, Strangers and Pilgrims

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April 4, 2017 (updated August 8, 2017) • Download this article (PDF)

Slaves in Egypt

From the beginning, God commanded man to treat aliens and strangers with love and justice. Abraham welcomed and fed three strangers who appeared to him before the judgment against Sodom (Gen 18:1-8). The Law of Moses also says, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34; also Deu 10:19).

These and many other Old Testament texts are often cited by those who defend the so-called rights of illegal immigrants. This is manifest hypocrisy since liberals loathed and ridicule the Bible and never read it because they view it as legends and obsolete. And if they know any Bible verse, they twist and pervert it to their abominable purposes because they have no knowledge of sound Biblical interpretation.

In addition to the texts mentioned above, Numbers 35:11-12’s “cities of refuge” is used to advocate the illegal “sanctuary city movement.” The cities of New York, San Francisco and Denver spearhead this movement. Some churches have even made their facilities as “sanctuaries” for illegals.

The problem with this so-called justice movement for illegal immigrants is that they make a simplistic correlation between the ancient Israelite social laws and the present situation in the United States. However, three big questions must first be raised to do this: (1) Did the second millennium B.C. kingdoms defend their territorial sovereignty? (2) Who were “strangers,” “aliens,” and “sojourners”? and (3) How does one obtain these different status?

In the Old Testament, who were “strangers” and “aliens”? The most common Hebrew word used is ger, variously translated “stranger,” “sojourner,” “alien,” and “foreigner” (Lev 19:33-34; Deu 10:19). As a verb (gur), it is translated “to sojourn” or “to be an alien.” The other words used are nekhar and zar, which are also translated “foreigner” or “alien.”

But while all three words describe foreigners, only a ger has legal status as a resident alien who shares certain rights and privileges with the citizens. Some examples of these rights are: gleaning from the fields, as the Moabite woman Ruth was allowed to do by Boaz (Lev 19:9-10); receiving help from tithes (Deu 26:12); equality in legal matters (Num 15:15-16) and wages (Deu 24:14-15); and religious rights such as participating in the Passover feast (Exo 12:48) and Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-30).

On the other hand, they were bound by the same dietary and holiness laws (Lev 17:8-12); and could be charged interest by a citizen lender (Deu 23:20). Therefore, a ger or resident “alien” (“stranger” or “sojourner”) received most of the benefits and protection of a citizen, but a nekhar/zar or “foreigner” did not.1

An illustration is the story of Joseph and the Israelites dwelling in Egypt during a famine in Canaan as gerim. Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, rose from a foreign slave to become Pharaoh’s vice-regent. But even after Joseph recommended to Pharaoh that his family be allowed to stay, they still asked Pharaoh to allow them to “sojourn” in Egypt, “We have come to sojourn [gur] in the land… for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. And now, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.” And Pharaoh graciously welcomed them. So Israel’s status in Egypt changed from nekhar to ger (Gen 47:3-6).

Therefore, as citizens or resident aliens of America, we are to remember these four things.

First, we are to abide by its laws, as the Jews and resident aliens obeyed the law of Moses. Violators of Israel’s ceremonial laws, civil laws and moral laws faced serious penalties, as set forth in the Law of Moses. Christians are not exempt from the law, and even commanded to pray for the leaders of the nation and pay taxes (Rom 13:1-7). All aliens immigrating to or just visiting a country are required to abide by its laws. An alien who violates the law is usually deported back to his home country.

For example, Muslim immigrants demand that the Islamic shariah laws be incorporated in the cities where they live. However, the Declaration of Independence states, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides for freedoms of religion, speech and press, and redress of grievances. Since Muslims’ shariah laws are incompatible with these foundational American laws, they can’t be incorporated into America’s laws.

Second, if we came as immigrants, we are to adopt the gracious host nation’s language, culture, and social norms as well. Immigrants can continue to eat their food, speak their language, celebrate their culture’s festivals, etc. But the goal of every legal immigrant must be to learn and absorb the language and culture of the country and become full-fledged citizens, even while maintaining their foreign heritage. Ethnic enclaves are not good for social and cultural integration. This was how aliens and strangers integrated into the civic, social and religious life of the ancient Israelites.

Third, we are to recognize that every nation in the world even from ancient days has its own sovereign boundaries. Wars were fought over territorial rights, as when Israel invaded the Promised Land of Canaan, the Canaanites fought a long war against them. Cities were fortified to defend territories and monitor the activities of outsiders. They trained and maintained armies to defend their territories. There were no open borders between kingdoms. Outsiders had to be welcomed legally by the host nation, as when the family of Jacob went to Egypt during a famine in Canaan, and the Pharaoh gave them permission to “sojourn” there. The Bible nowhere condones illegal aliens. Today is no different from ancient days.

Fourth, the subject of “sanctuary cities” come to mind. In Numbers 35:11-12, “cities of refuge” were assigned to those who have committed unintentional death, to avoid vengeance from the families of the victims. They were to wait in the cities of refuge until their cases were heard. Therefore, the “cities of refuge” were never intended to provide shelter for illegal aliens, especially for those who have committed crimes. Jails and prisons are our modern “cities of refuge,” not sanctuary cities where illegal aliens are free to roam without fear of arrest.

Fifth and last, Christians are also aliens and strangers in this world. Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham lived as a “stranger” and an “exile” in Canaan, living in tents all his life (verses 9-10, 13), because he desired “a better country, a heavenly one” (verse 16). God also calls us to live like Abraham did. Our ultimate gaze must always be unto our permanent place, the heavenly city, “Set your minds on things that are above [where Christ is], not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:1-2). Though we live in our own homes, own cars and other possessions, we must acknowledge that all these are temporary and “passing away” (1 John 2:16-17). We are dual citizens: citizens of heaven first (Eph 2:19; Phl 3:20), and citizens of our nation second.

Centuries after Abraham, King David and Israel also confessed that they were “strangers and sojourners” on earth (1 Chr 29:15). Peter calls Christians “elect exiles” and “sojourners” (1 Pet 1:1, 17; 2:11). But like the Jews in Babylonian exile, we are to live “normally” as exiles in this world—building homes, planting fields, marrying and giving our children in marriage, and praying for the place in which we live (Jer 29:4-7). We are exiles in this world until Christ welcomes us into our “Promised Land.”

The law of Moses was for Israel, not for America or any other nation. Advocates of illegal immigrants make an erroneous application of Old Testament civil laws to the current Western situation. It is not only erroneous, but also hypocritical, because these advocates don’t even read or believe the Bible. And God’s people is the church, not Israel or America. Christians are sinners who used to be “alienated” from God, but are now “citizens” of heaven (Eph 2:12, 19). Our churches are to be “cities of refuge” that welcome “refugees” visiting from this world of spiritual oppression by sin, temptations and sufferings.

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