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What The Bible Really Says About Immigration

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out . . .

—Robert Frost, “Mending Wall” (1914) 

One mark of a free society is that strangers can flourish economically.

—Gary North, Inheritance and Dominion (1999) 

The Nature of Walls

What The Bible Really Says About Immigration

Image source: NBC Latino

Walls separate.  They divide those without from those within. City walls in the ancient world made this division more than an issue of location or geography.  The man who lived within the city walls belonged to the city.  He belonged to its community.  He shared in its fortunes.  He benefited from its laws.  He was defined by its religion.  Those without were generally enemies and aliens.

The original city structure was the Garden of Eden.  A man and a woman living in God’s sanctuary and on God’s terms.  When man fell into sin, God drove him from this sanctuary and into the wilderness.  There he lived out his life beyond the Garden walls, though he could come as near as the Garden gate to sacrifice and worship.  And in that ritual of sacrifice was a divine promise that one day God would restore man to paradise—to a renewed Garden and a fully realized City.

In the Tabernacle and later in the Temple God expanded on this promise of restoration.  The Levites stood guard about God’s house in place of the cherubim.  Israel’s priests officiated beyond the first veil in the Holy Place, and her high priest, once a year, could pass the second veil into the very presence of God and there sprinkle the atoning blood on the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant.  But the common worshipper could still come no nearer to God than the gate of His sanctuary.  He was still outside the wall.

The Promised Land and Immigration

The Promised Land, however, had no walls along its borders.  People could come and go as they pleased.  In fact, the law and the prophets assumed that many peoples would come.  If God’s people faithfully lived out their covenant with Him, then Israel would be a land of prosperity, liberty and justice.  Of course, people from all lands would flock to Israel’s cities—to trade, to seek asylum, to start new lives, and to learn more about her amazing God.  God’s people were to welcome all such, as long as they submitted themselves to God’s law and left their idols behind.  For there was to be one law for citizen and foreigner alike (Num. 15:15-16, 29; Lev. 24:22).  God’s people weren’t merely to tolerate strangers… they were to love them.

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.  But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Lev. 19:33-34).

Visitors and immigrants could come to Israel and expect to be treated with justice and kindness.  They could even worship at Israel’s Temple, for the prophet said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (Isa. 56:7; cf. Mark 11:17).  But there were two things they couldn’t do … own land and exercise civil authority.

Invisible Walls

What The Bible Really Says About Immigration

Image source: NBC News

The Promised Land had been parceled out to the families and tribes of Israel at the original conquest.  Though those original parcels would be subdivided over the years as families grew, none could be sold permanently.  They could be leased out for a time, but at the Jubilee, which came every 50 years, all lands would revert to the descendants of the original owners (Lev. 25).

So immigrants could never buy farmlands in Israel.  They could lease them, but for no more than 50 years.  An immigrant could, however, buy a city house, assuming the owner had no desire or ability to redeem it within a year (Lev. 25:29-30).  Or an immigrant could get around all these restrictions by adoption:  “Strangers in Israel could become legal heirs through adoption by Israelite families” (North).

Participation in Israel’s civil government was also restricted.  Only those who belonged to Israel’s covenant with Yahweh could hold office or exercise any sort of civil authority.  Such membership was not a matter of ethnic descent but of religious profession.  The man who submitted to circumcision and celebrated Passover would be counted as a member of the covenant people.  This membership also imposed upon the citizen the duty of serving in the militia whenever Israel fought a holy war.

There were exceptions to this process, however.  God’s law put restrictions upon immigrants from some of Israel’s longstanding enemies.  Immigrants from Egypt and Edom couldn’t obtain full citizenship until the third generation (Deut. 23:3-8).  Those from Moab and Ammon were shut out till their 10th generation—although this rule had exceptions as the Book of Ruth shows us.

New Covenant Implications

The restrictions on land ownership seem to be tied to a one-time-only event, the conquest of Canaan, and to Israel’s tribal organization under the Old Covenant.  These restrictions no longer apply directly to nations in this New Covenant age.

The laws restricting citizenship were also tied in part to the Old Covenant order, but their underlying principles are still binding.  The most important is that the Church, God’s holy nation, must insist that those who teach, rule and vote be in full agreement with the historic Christian faith and accountable to duly constituted church authority.  No Lone Rangers, and no pastors or seminary professors making it up as they go.

But there is also an abiding application for civil governments.  This is because civil commonwealths are covenant-bound communities.  That is, they exist and function in terms of a shared religious commitment and vision.  The nation that does limit civil authority to those who subscribe to its basic faith is on the road to cultural suicide.

More specifically, a nation that claims some degree of commitment to the God of Scripture commits national suicide when it grants civil authority to God’s enemies.  And a nation that wants to maintain even the traces of a once Christian heritage — things like civil justice and liberty under law — must require some kind of test, confession, and oath of those it welcomes as new citizens.

The Army as a Wall

We have been talking about conditions in Israel during times of peace.  When foreign nations attacked Israel, her army and militia became a very visible and violent wall of protection along Israel’s frontiers.  Strangers might come peaceably to Israel and settle within her borders, but those who came with sword and chariot were targets for destruction.  In Israel’s later history some of her kings maintained fortress cities and border towers to protect their country from invasion.  The kings and their soldiers also tracked down bandits and border raiders.  Israel had no place for foreign thugs or lawless gangs.

Conclusion

Any direct comparison of ancient Israel with modern America is impossible, because there are too many complicating dissimilarities.  Israel had no public education system and no public welfare system.  Education and welfare were personal and family matters.  No one got free government handouts simply by moving to Israel.  But immigrants did receive all the benefits that a free market and equal protection under the law could afford.

But far more important than any of this was the religious commitment that lay at the heart of Israel civil life.  Immigrants who swarm across our borders may never hear of Jesus or discover the Gospel of His grace.  But every immigrant who settled in Israel should have (in theory at least) heard and seen the promise of salvation by watching how God’s people worshiped and how they lived their lives.

One day God promised, He would break through the wall created by man’s sin. One day God would provide a Door into His City.  As long as the Temple stood, that Gospel message was cloaked in shadow and type, but it was still clear enough that those who God called could believe unto eternal life.  And, as the Bible shows us… many Gentiles did.

(To be continued.)

For Further Reading:

Gary North, “Sonship, Inheritance, and Immigration” in Inheritance and Dominion, An Economic Commentary on Deuteronomy (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1999).

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1955).

Peter Leithart, A House for My Name, A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID:  Canon Press, 2000).

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