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Sight Magazine – Essay: Debates on migration have never been simple – just look at the Hebrew Bible

Today, the Bible is often invoked in public debates on immigration. From the former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a group of 2,000 rabbispeople turned to the Bible to explain their differing positions on immigration and refugees. Several specialists in Bible studies spoke and wrote on what the text says 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 the order of God to leave his homeland in Mesopotamiato the Moabite Ruth, who emigrated to Bethlehem out of love for his Judean mother-in-law, Naomi, for the Jews forced migration in Babylon.

Abraham’s journey from Ur to Canaan, József Molnár (1821-1899). PHOTO: Hungarian National Gallery via Wikipedia

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

Discussions about migration are always complicated because migrants lived experiences do not easily translate into simple bureaucratic categories.

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

Modern societies defined by the ideas of citizenship and borders tend to categorize modern migrants into legal binaries, each with their own rights and restrictions: resident vs non-resident, documented vs undocumented, immigrant vs 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 which 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 “foreign resident“. In other words, it is a legal category for people who are not “citizens”, in the language used today, but who have permission to reside there. 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 instance, law in the book of numbers dictates that the “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 across the generations. Whether local or not, they are also subject to the rules of 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 forbade the Israelites to charge interest on loans to a fellow Israelite, but not to “nokri”. Likewise, the law commands the Israelites to forgive each other’s debts 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.


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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. Nehemiah Chapter 13 describes Nehemiah’s shock when he learns that the Jews had married women from surrounding cultures and half of their children only spoke 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 prism of their own experiences ever since, opening up new possibilities of understanding.The conversation

Ki-Eun Jang is Assistant Professor of Theology (Bible in Global Cultures), Fordham University. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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