Edit 2/2017: This post was originally written in 2015. I’ve stated it below but want to reiterate here at the top: this is not political commentary. This is also not systematic theology. What this is is a sampling of bible verses (a list! which by its very nature means scripture taken out of context!) to show that issues related to how we treat foreigners (immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, etc.) are important to the heart of God as evidenced by their prevalence throughout scripture, and that they share a theme of welcome. Determining how scripture should be interpreted and applied in a modern context or through public policy in our modern-day nation-states is not my objective here; suggesting that we start with a heart attitude of welcome and Christian hospitality is. I wish I didn’t have to say this but I do: I am not against secure borders or responsible (even rigorous) vetting or doing our best to keep our families safe. Responsible vetting and generous compassion do not have to be at odds with one another and I wish there would be less jumping to conclusions, less shouting at one another, and more collaboration and compassionate action. If you’d like more information on what that could look like, please follow the work of Preemptive Love—a non-partisan coalition of Christians helping refugees who are fleeing violence (in addition to working for sustainable change). I have huge respect for their work and their leadership in this volatile area. I also believe they represent the intent of the biblical narrative and mandate with heart and integrity and practical wisdom.
Thanks for reading,
The gospel of peace extends not only beyond our borders, but within them.
Facebook is a hot mess right now as we link to articles and throw around our opinions on Syria, the refugee crisis, the recent Paris attacks, Beirut, you name it. When things escalate like this, I literally find it hard to sleep. In full disclosure, I sit squarely in the “welcome refugees” camp. (Which, by the way, does not equate to a “let’s do away with borders and let everyone in” camp!) I realize these issues are complex and polarizing, but my own experience coupled with my faith doesn’t allow me wiggle room on the issue. I want my whole life to be oriented around a posture of Christian welcome and I’m willing to bear the consequences of what that welcome actually means.
All the ranting and raving across news outlets and social media (from both sides of the debate) has got me wondering: how many shouting “keep them out!” have ever shared a meal with an asylum seeker or refugee in your home or theirs?
I’d like to introduce you to my Afghani friend, Amira (name changed). She’s given me permission to share this photo of us sharing a meal in her living room.
I met her one day on the train platform while visiting a city on the other side of Australia from where we normally live. We first made eye contact when I noticed her admiring my children. I smiled and said hello and we chatted until the train pulled up, continued until we got off at the same stop downtown, and carried on talking for another twenty minutes on a near-by bench.
It was pretty wonderful to be able to tell her that earlier that same morning my husband and I and a few friends had been gathered in prayer for Afghanistan. Of course she was amazed—amazed that we cared in the first place, and amazed that we’d set aside time in our day to pray for a country none of us had ever been to. We talked about religion—hers and mine—and what our lives were like here, both immigrants in Australia, albeit very different pathways of arrival.
When Amira’s father was murdered point blank at their family’s shop in Afghanistan, she and her mother and brother fled to Pakistan. As violence worsened there, they sought refuge in Australia.
Amira’s life is radically different now. She’s studying to become a technician at a pathology lab and, in her words, she chose this profession “because she wants to find cures for things like cancer and make the world a better place.”
She’s remarkable—not just because of her story about fleeing for her life, or even because of the accomplishments she’s achieved. She’s remarkable because she is her—fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
Do you know anyone like Amira? Her story is unique and yet it’s not. There are countless others like her—foreigners who’ve sought asylum and refuge—and each of them have reasons we’ll never understand until we listen and notice and allow them to share their stories, their time, their talent, their culture, and their lives with us.
What does the bible have to say about refugees?
Earlier this week I shared some personal stories about my own journey of immigration and some of the milestones along the way that have helped shape my worldview. Today I want to offer some of what the Bible says about foreigners (including immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers). If this isn’t an issue you’ve deliberately looked into, you might be surprised at how full the scriptures are. Mind you, the following is only a sampling—there are many, many more scriptures.
As with any list of scripture presented like this, verses are plucked up and put into bullet form void of context. Of course that means there’s a much deeper and more accurate understanding that would come if we were going through these systematically. My point here isn’t to unpack the theology behind welcoming foreigners (also called strangers, aliens, migrants, refugees, etc.), or to suggest what public policy surrounding the issues might look like, but to show how important this topic has been to the people of God throughout history and to the heart of God himself. That is my entire point: to show the topic’s importance and prevalence right throughout the whole bible (and—by implication—determine that we should also care!), and to suggest we begin from a heart posture of welcome.
I hope you find this list helpful, and that it will cause you to do your own study on the topic and draw your own conclusions.
A comment on public policy and politics
I understand this issue is complex and polarizing, filled with political and ideological division. I have no interest in being contentious or arguing about the specifics of public policy for the purposes of this post. I am not qualified in policy-making or immigration law, nor do I pretend to know all the answers to the current refugee crisis. There is not a political party out there capable of getting all the details “right” on their own and we do ourselves (and our governments and our neighbors) a disservice when we imagine there is. The reality is, we need each other. What I do desire is to contribute my small part in helping illuminate what I believe is a biblical response: a heart attitude of welcome. Can we start there?
Let’s not be “us verses them,” but instead “us for them”
When I woke up this morning to my personal scripture reading in Matthew, I read of Jesus and his family fleeing a murderous oppressor and a mass genocide of babies to find refuge in near-by Egypt. Just when I thought I’d take a break from obsessing over the news and current events, I realized again that this story is not a new one. In fact, it’s part of my own. Even our beloved Jesus and his family knew what it’s like to run for their lives, hoping to find safety on the other side. The life of Jesus compels me to look at my own and be willing to examine my heart in light of God’s love for all peoples.
“Help us,” they cry. “Defend us against our enemies. Protect us from their relentless attack. Do not betray us now that we have escaped. Let our refugees stay among you. Hide them from our enemies until the terror is past.” —Isaiah 16:3-4
Determined to say welcome even when it’s uncomfortable,
Who sought refuge as recorded in the Bible?
This is a brief run-through of some of the people in the Bible (there are many more) who took refuge, sought asylum, or migrated for other reasons, including being sent into exile, escaping natural disaster or famine, fleeing from political strife, violence, or persecution, etc:
- Noah and his family take refuge from the flood. (Gen 7-8)
- Abraham is called by God to leave his country and go to Egypt, taking up residence there as an alien. (Gen 12)
- Lot and his family flee Sodom. (Gen 19)
- Joseph becomes a victim of human trafficking and eventually finds a way to not only contribute to society but gets hired as the highest ranking official under Pharaoh. (Gen 37-50)
- Jacob moves his family to Egypt to escape famine; they are given jobs and land. (Gen 46-47)
- Israelites become oppressed by Egypt and mass genocide of babies begins. Moses is saved by Pharaoh’s daughter and adopted into their family. (Ex 1)
- Moses flees Egypt and becomes resident in Midian. (Ex 2)
- Moses returns to Egypt. (Ex 4)
- Israelites fled Egypt so quickly they couldn’t even make provisions. (Ex 12)
- God instructs Moses and his people to never oppress foreigners and reminds them they were once aliens in Egypt. (Ex 22)
- God gives multiple instructions and laws regarding the treatment of foreigners. (Deut & Lev)
- Ruth, an immigrant, commits herself to Naomi, and then Boaz, becoming the great-grandmother of King David. (Ruth 1-4)
- Daniel serves God while in exile in Babylon. (Dan 1)
- Esther is made Queen and rescues her people (foreigners in exile) from genocide. (Es 8)
- Nehemiah, a foreigner, asks the king if he can be released to go home and rebuild his city that was left in ruins. (Neh 2)
- Jesus and his family flee genocide under an oppressive ruler—the murderous Herod—and find refuge in Egypt until it’s safe for them to return. (Matt 2)
What does the Bible say about immigration, refugees, asylum seekers, and caring for the poor and oppressed?
The following scriptures are from the NLT translation.
- Gen 12:10 At that time a severe famine struck the land of Canaan, forcing Abram to go down to Egypt, where he lived as a foreigner.
- Ex 2:21-22 Moses accepted the invitation, and he settled there with him. In time, Reuel gave Moses his daughter Zipporah to be his wife. Later she gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, for he explained, “I have been a foreigner in a foreign land.”
- Ex 22:21 You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
- Ex 23:9 You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
- Lev 19:33-34 “Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
- Lev 23:22 “When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.”
- Lev 25:35-36 If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and cannot support himself, support him as you would a foreigner or a temporary resident and allow him to live with you. Do not charge interest or make a profit at his expense. Instead, show your fear of God by letting him live with you as your relative.
- Num 15:14-16 And if any foreigners visit you or live among you and want to present a special gift as a pleasing aroma to the Lord, they must follow these same procedures. Native-born Israelites and foreigners are equal before the Lord and are subject to the same decrees. This is a permanent law for you, to be observed from generation to generation. The same instructions and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigners living among you.
- Deut 10:17-19 “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”
- Deut 23:15 If slaves should escape from their masters and take refuge with you, you must not hand them over to their masters.
- Deut 24:14 Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns.
- Deut 26:11-13 Afterward you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. Remember to include the Levites and the foreigners living among you in the celebration. “Every third year you must offer a special tithe of your crops. In this year of the special tithe you must give your tithes to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, so that they will have enough to eat in your towns. Then you must declare in the presence of the Lord your God, ‘I have taken the sacred gift from my house and have given it to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, just as you commanded me. I have not violated or forgotten any of your commands.’
- Deut 27:19 ‘Cursed is anyone who denies justice to foreigners, orphans, or widows.’ And all the people will reply, ‘Amen.’
- Deut 31:12 Call them all together—men, women, children, and the foreigners living in your towns—so they may hear this Book of Instruction and learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully obey all the terms of these instructions.
- Ruth 1:16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.
- Ruth 2:9-11 See which part of the field they are harvesting, and then follow them. I have warned the young men not to treat you roughly. And when you are thirsty, help yourself to the water they have drawn from the well.” Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. “What have I done to deserve such kindness?” she asked. “I am only a foreigner.” “Yes, I know,” Boaz replied. “But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers.
- Ps 146:9 The Lord protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows, but he frustrates the plans of the wicked.
- Prov 31:8-9 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.
- Is 58: 6-11 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. “Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.
- Is 1:17 Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.
- Is 16:3-4 “Help us,” they cry. “Defend us against our enemies. Protect us from their relentless attack. Do not betray us now that we have escaped. Let our refugees stay among you. Hide them from our enemies until the terror is past.”
- Is 21:13-15 This message came to me concerning Arabia: O caravans from Dedan, hide in the deserts of Arabia. O people of Tema, bring water to these thirsty people, food to these weary refugees. They have fled from the sword, from the drawn sword, from the bent bow and the terrors of battle.
- Jer 22:2-3 ‘Listen to this message from the Lord, you king of Judah, sitting on David’s throne. Let your attendants and your people listen, too. This is what the Lord says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent!
- Ez 47:21-23 “Divide the land within these boundaries among the tribes of Israel. Distribute the land as an allotment for yourselves and for the foreigners who have joined you and are raising their families among you. They will be like native-born Israelites to you and will receive an allotment among the tribes. These foreigners are to be given land within the territory of the tribe with whom they now live. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!”
- Zech 7:9-12a “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Judge fairly, and show mercy and kindness to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other. “Your ancestors refused to listen to this message. They stubbornly turned away and put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing. They made their hearts as hard as stone,”
- Mal 3:4-5 Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past. “At that time I will put you on trial. I am eager to witness against all sorcerers and adulterers and liars. I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
- Matt 2:13-15 After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death.
- Matt 5:46-47 If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.
- Matt 25:34-40 “Then the King [Jesus] will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
- Mark 12:30-31 “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
- Luke 4-25-26 “Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
- Luke 14:12-13 Then he turned to his host. “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
- Acts 7:28-29 ‘Are you going to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday?’ When Moses heard that, he fled the country and lived as a foreigner in the land of Midian. There his two sons were born.
- Acts 28:1-2 Once we were safe on shore, we learned that we were on the island of Malta. The people of the island were very kind to us. It was cold and rainy, so they built a fire on the shore to welcome us.
- 2 Cor 8:13-14 Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.
- Phil 3:20 But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.
- Col 3:11 In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.
- Heb 11:8-10 It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.
- Heb 13:1-3 Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.
- James 1: 27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.
- James 2:1-4 My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?
- 1 Pet 4:7-10 The end of the world is coming soon. Therefore, be earnest and disciplined in your prayers. Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins. Cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay. God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another.
For further reading:
- God instructs his people to build cities of refuge: Num 35, Josh 20
- God himself is often called a Refuge, a Fortress, a Shelter, or a Rock in whom we can hide and find safety: 2 Sam 22:3, Ps 9:9, Ps 59:16, Is 25:4-5, Jer 16:19 Na 1:7
- The Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37