Immigration and the Bible, pt. 2: Sojourners in the Land—Ethical Considerations

This is part two in a series I’m teaching in my Sunday school class on the subject of immigration and the Bible. In part one (which you can find here) we examined the general historical context of immigration in the ancient Near East. One of the important points to remember from part one is that a distinction is made in Scripture between a sojourner dwelling in the land as a permanent resident (Heb., ger) and a foreigner who was just passing through or temporarily doing business in the land (nekhar or zar). In this post we want to consider what Scripture teaches concerning our ethical responsibility toward sojourners in the land.

Sojourners in the LandEthical Considerations
We understand of course, that we have an obligation to treat everyone humanely—native born citizens, legal immigrants, illegal immigrants, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, men, women, children, and the rich and poor alike.  This obligation is grounded in the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). The Lord mentions this particular ground for ethical behavior in the first recorded prohibition of murder. It comes immediately after the flood.

“For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning:  from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood by shed,
for God made man in his own image.”
— Genesis 9:5-6

This is a mandate from God himself for the death penalty for the crime of murder. We should note well that the fact that man is made in the image of God is stated as the reason for such a fearful penalty. The word “for” at the beginning of the last line introduces a rationale for what precedes. The dignity of man as a bearer of the image of God is so great that to unjustly take his life is a crime of enormous proportions and deserves a penalty equally as serious.

We are on good grounds to infer that the same rationale (man bears the divine image) is the basis for all ethics. We should do no harm to, nor commit any injustice against anyone, because everyone is made in the image and likeness of God.

The Lord expressed this obligation in another way in Leviticus, in the famous command:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18b). Jesus identified this as the most important commandment of the law after loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mk. 12:30). Interestingly enough, the Lord applies this standard specifically to sojourners.

“When a stranger [ger] sojourns [gur] with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger [ger] who sojourns [gur] with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
— Leviticus 19:33-34

The Lord hints in this passage at an additional motive for treating the sojourner justly, a motive rooted in Israel’s own bitter experience in Egypt:  “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Israelites had been welcomed into Egypt as legal sojourners. But the Egyptians eventually turned against them, did wrong to them, oppressed them, and enslaved them. Israel therefore knew what it was like to be poorly treated in a foreign land. That experience was to make them all the more considerate of the sojourners who lived among them, a point repeated several times.

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21)

“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9)

“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19)

The general prohibition is, “You shall not wrong or oppress them.” Other commandments prohibit specific acts of oppression, for instance in the matter of wages.

“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners [ger] who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.
— Deuteronomy 24:14-15

Those who hired themselves out for daily labor did so because they had no other means of earning a living; they had no fields, no crops, nor herds or flocks, or shop or business of their own. A typical Israelite raised crops and would have stores of food laid up to tide him over until the next harvest. Not so the hired hand. This is why in the ancient world it was considered a matter of justice that he be paid on a daily basis for his labor.[1] Here the Lord reinforces this ethical obligation. The obligation is also mentioned in Leviticus: “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant[2] shall not remain with you all night until the morning” (Lev. 19:13).

The Lord’s concern for the wellbeing of sojourners can also be seen in the provisions of the fourth commandment.

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.
— Exodus 20:9-10

This is framed as a commandment for sojourners to refrain from working on the Sabbath just like everyone else in Israel, but it also serves to protect them (like it protects servants) from being required to work on the Sabbath. It ensures they get a weekly day of rest. They benefit from the blessings of the Sabbath like the native Israelite. This is stated more explicitly in Exodus 23:12.

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien [ger], may be refreshed.
— Exodus 23:12

We also find that Israel was prohibited from denying or perverting justice due to a sojourner.

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless or take a widow’s garment in pledge.
— Deuteronomy 24:17

Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.
— Deuteronomy 27:19

In the dark days before the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel lamented, “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek. 22:7; cf. v. 29).

We notice in these verses that the sojourner is frequently mentioned along with the fatherless and widow and others who are “poor” or “needy.” All of these are objects of God’s special concern because they are the most vulnerable people in society, the easiest and most likely to be forgotten or exploited.

Not only does the Lord wish to ensure that justice is not denied to them, but also that they become the objects of Israel’s benevolent care. We find, for instance, that they are all mentioned together as proper recipients of the poor tithe.

“At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”
— Deuteronomy 14:28-29 (cf. 26:12)

The poor tithe was only one means of providing for the poor. Another was by way of the gleaning laws.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
— Leviticus 19:9-10 (cf. 23:22)

The Lord solemnly warned Israel through Malachi of the judgment that awaited them for their failure in these matters.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
— Malachi 3:5

“Thrusting aside the sojourner” may be taken as either refusing to hear his case in a court of law (thus denying him justice), or as refusing the benevolent care to which he is entitled under the law (thus denying him compassion).

Equal Treatment (Protection) under the Law
Everything we have mentioned so far can be summarized under the rubric, “equal treatment (protection) under the law,” a long cherished legal principle in the Judeo-Christian West. The principle is stated explicitly several times in Scripture. It applies, for instance, to participation in the celebration of Passover.

“If a stranger [ger] shall sojourn [gur] with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it [i.e.., whether native or sojourner]. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger [ger] who sojourns [gur] among you.”
— Exodus 12:49

It applies likewise to the presentation of sacrifice and offering.

“If a stranger [ger] is sojourning [gur] with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do. For the assembly, there shall be one statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner [ger] shall be alike before the Lord. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger [ger] who sojourns [gur] with you.”
— Numbers 15:14-16[3]

The “one law” statute also applies to crime and punishment.

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal [belong to another man] shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.”
— Leviticus 24:17-22 (cf. 18:26)

This stands in sharp contrast to other legal codes of the ancient Near East which often assigned more lenient penalties to native citizens when their crimes were committed against resident aliens or others who were in a lower socio-economic class.[4] 

The one rule statute of Scripture is an integral component of that righteousness and justice that form the foundation of God’s throne (Ps. 97:2) and if properly implemented would make the nations stand in awe of Israel and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (see Deut. 4:5-8).

[1] See the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16. The owner of the vineyard went out in the morning to hire workers and then paid them in the evening.
[2] Whether “one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are within your land within your towns,” as per Deut. 24:14-15.
[3] Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom, who has been described as “the most significant Jewish authority on all things legal and ceremonial in Israel” (Daniel Block), points out that Old Testament law requires the sojourner to obey all the prohibitive commandments, but not the performative ones. See Jacob Milgrom, Numbers in The JPS Torah Commentary, Excursus 34, pp. 398-402
[4] See Martha Roth, ed., Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, 2nd edition (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1997)


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