Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ancient Israel's Resident Aliens

With all the talk about immigration these days, I thought I'd look in the bible and see how Israel handled foreigners who wanted to live in their land.

In the Old Testament, God gave Israel many instructions on how to treat people and how to live together peaceably. God was particularly concerned for three groups of people who were particularly vulnerable to oppression and poverty: widows, orphans, and the foreigners, also called aliens, who lived among the Israelites. The writer of Psalm 146 shows God’s concern for these groups: “The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked” (verse 9). Jeremiah 22.3 states, “This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” Many times, Israel’s sin involved oppression of helpless people, and God called this to Israel’s attention: “See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood.  In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the alien and mistreated the fatherless and the widow” (Ezekiel 22.6-7). Clearly, God felt special concern for those who were most vulnerable, and he wanted Israel to make sure that these people were protected and treated with kindness and respect so that they would not fall into poverty.

God gave particular instructions for how to care for these groups of people: “At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 14.26). Because these people did not own land, they had no means of growing food for themselves, so God instructed that the tithes be used for taking care of the people who had the most difficulty providing for their own welfare. Those who owned land and grew crops were also instructed to leave parts of each field unharvested so that the poor could gather food for themselves: “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24.19-21). Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi were two people who benefited from this practice.

Aliens were a fact of life in Israel, and it was to be taken for granted that non-Israelis would live there. God had a specific reason to allow aliens to live within Israel, and he intended that they be treated fairly: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19.33-4). Several times, God commanded Israel to treat aliens with compassion and to remember that they themselves once were aliens enslaved in Egypt (e.g. Ex. 22.21, 23.9). Israel was to always remember what it was like to be oppressed by a more powerful nation.

Why did God place aliens in the same category as widows and orphans? Aliens had no share of the land of Israel, and apparently, many aliens were servants, doing menial jobs. In Deuteronomy 29.11 aliens are described as those “who chop your wood and carry your water.” Although many aliens occupied the position of servants, they, along with their poor counterparts, were not to be exploited: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge” (Deuteronomy 24.17). In court, aliens were to be treated fairly: “Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike” (Deuteronomy 1.16b-17). In fact, God was so protective of these people that he said, “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow” (Deuteronomy 27.19). Aliens also enjoyed the same rights as the Israelites and were allowed to worship in the same way. In describing the particular methods for offering sacrifices, God commanded, “Everyone who is native-born must do these things in this way when he brings an offering made by fire as an aroma pleasing to the LORD. For the generations to come, whenever an alien or anyone else living among you presents an offering made by fire as an aroma pleasing to the LORD, he must do exactly as you do. The community is to have the same rules for you and for the alien living among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the alien shall be the same before the LORD: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the alien living among you” (Numbers 15.13-6). Aliens were also subject to the same restrictions as the rest of Israel, including the restriction against working on the Sabbath (Exodus 23.12); they were also not to sacrifice their children to other gods (Leviticus 20.2); they were not to blaspheme the name of the Lord (Leviticus 24.16). Aliens were to follow the same laws of conduct as native-born Israelites (Leviticus 24.22) while at the same time enjoying the rights and privileges that native Israelites enjoyed. (It seems that the only rule that aliens did not have to follow was the ban on eating an animal found dead—Deuteronomy 14.21).

God reminds the Israelites that “the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25.23). He tells them that if they do not obey his commands, they will fall into calamity and lose what they have been given. As a result, “The alien who lives among you will rise above you higher and higher, but you will sink lower and lower. He will lend to you, but you will not lend to him. He will be the head, but you will be the tail” (Deuteronomy 28.43-4). However, in Israel’s later history, the Israelites and aliens in the land will live as equals. Isaiah 56 describes a time when aliens in Israel will be blessed in the same manner as Israel, and Ezekiel 47.22-3 says that aliens will inherit land in Israel just as if they were Israelites.

It is obvious God welcomed anyone who wanted to live in his land and be governed by him. The teachings of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament reinforce this fact. However, because Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the Old Testament law, anyone who wants to follow the law of Christ--love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself--is welcome in God's land, his kingdom.

You may be wondering how all this informs my opinion on immigration in the United States. Tell me your opinions and I'll tell you mine!


Mike Kear said...

Wow! That's an excellent study, JMG. Nice job.

Concerning our current immigration debate, there is one thing I do believe: We dare not persecute undocumented aliens or those who care for their needs. There has been talk of prosecuting those who help these undocumented aliens by providing food, water, or medical treatment. That kind of attitude sounds like a short route to the wrath of God.

JMG said...

Thanks, Mike, and I agree that it would be horrible to prosecute people for providing help to the "least of these."

Tony Arnold said...

I find it frustrating in our society that we spend so much time, effort, energy, and debate over symptoms of problems rather than addressing root cause.

Regarding immigration, why are we spending so much money and energy trying to make laws and keep people out when we could focus on why they are leaving in the first place?

If America wants to stop mass immigration from Mexico, Caribbean nations, and Central America, why don't we work with those nations to help them create an environment where people have little need to flee?

And the argument, "we can't make other nations do what we think is best" is a cop-out argument for not wanting to try. Surely if we can attack and wage war in an ememy nation to establish democracy, then we can work productively with nations with which we have treaties to solve problems.

Putting pressure on a bleeding artery or applying a tourniquet to stem the flow might work for a short time, but sooner or later you have to fix the artery or you are going to watch the patient die.


Tony Arnold said...

P.S. I thought your analysis was great and speaks directly to how a Christian nation should treat aliens.


JMG said...

Amen, Tony. Immigration is just a symptom of a much larger problem. We as Americans don't have much of an idea what it must be like to be so oppressed that we're willing to risk our lives to get into another country for the hope of a better life.