Refugees & the God of Israel

The God of Israel was intensely concerned that the nation treat foreigners, including immigrants and refugees, with justice, compassion and love. Israel’s Scriptures reflect this concern throughout.

Fundamental to Israel’s identity was that they were an alien people who were badly mistreated. They were refugees who had been settled in the land by God. This identity shaped Israel’s vision of God and the outrageous grace and mercy he showed to them.

They were always to remember that the God of Israel is unlike anyone else, upsetting all expectations. He chooses the younger over the older, a nation of slaves and refugees over the empires of the world. Because God is the sort of God who commits himself to a nation of slaves and settles them graciously in the land, God repeatedly commanded Israel to love and welcome foreigners.

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:21-24).

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Moses Receives the Law

Deuteronomy 26, a passage that is central to the faith of Israel and the theology of Israel’s Scriptures, makes this same connection. When Israel came to worship, they were to repeat their history, reminding themselves of their identity as mistreated aliens, of God’s rescue and care for them and God’s provision for their needs.

This passage also connects Israel’s worship with their providing for the needs of the Levites, the priestly tribe that didn’t have resources to sustain themselves. They were also to look after foreigners, orphans and widows, groups that were deprived of the natural care provided by extended families and a well-established system of social connections.

Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there as an alien and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied (Deut. 26:5-12).

Israel’s worship was vitally connected to their daily care for refugees and immigrants. God called Israel to embody his intense love for foreigners by providing them with care, feeding and welcoming them, loving them as brothers and sisters.

Now, America is not Israel and the church of Jesus Christ is not Israel. But the God who rescued and redeemed an enslaved nation of aliens has not changed. God wanted Israel to be a model for how the nations could walk in the ways of Israel’s God. Israel’s neighbors weren’t supposed to become Israelites, but they were supposed to consult Israel’s Torah and observe Israel’s practices to determine how to treat one another and others under the reign of the one true God.

These texts from Israel’s Torah, therefore, must shape Christian reflection, speech and action regarding our contemporary refugee crisis. God’s intentions for Israel are a model for the church’s response, which should include advocacy and care for refugees.

At the very least, we can say that there is something dramatically wrong when people who claim to know Israel’s God demonize foreigners, stir up suspicion of refugees and call for them to be shut out.

10 thoughts on “Refugees & the God of Israel

  1. gjohnston2244

    “America is not Israel and the church of Jesus Christ is not Israel.”
    I agree that American is certainly not Israel. It follows that the Torah does not apply to the U.S. policy. I also very much agree that the Torah should “shape Christian reflection, speech and action regarding our contemporary refugee crisis.” However, I’m not so sure about the church of Jesus not being Israel. That would need some qualification. If you mean that the church is not ethnic, geo-political Israel, then that is a given. The church is not Israel. But I think it is fairly consistent with the New Testament part of the narrative that the followers of Jesus the Messiah are the Israel delivered from exile. To the extent that people of any nation, tribe and tongue accept the terms of Yahweh’s new covenant with the house of Israel (Jeremiah 31,31-34), they are grafted into Israel and become joint heirs to the covenant promises. It follows that these aspects of the Torah addressing how God’s people should respond to the alien in the land very much apply to this “reconstituted” Israel.

    I doubt if I’m disagreeing. I am just suggesting qualifications.

    1. timgombis

      I think we’ll end up disagreeing on this one, Greg. I don’t read the NT and come to the conclusion that “the followers of Jesus the Messiah are the Israel delivered from exile. To the extent that people of any nation, tribe and tongue accept the terms of Yahweh’s new covenant with the house of Israel (Jeremiah 31,31-34), they are grafted into Israel and become joint heirs to the covenant promises.”

  2. kevinleroy

    Tim –
    I guess the issue that I’m having a hard time processing is the fact that the Gov’t has no way to vet these individuals. Just look at Tashfeen Malik (the female killer in San Bernardino). She was “vetted” by Homeland Security and passed. Sadly we know how well that worked out. We also know that ISIS wants to come into our Country to do us harm under the guise of refugees. My question is, how do we balance this fact with Scripture? Doesn’t the Gov’t have a prurient interest to protect its Citizens? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. gjohnston2244

      Tim can respond, but in the meantime, I will simply observe that his thesis was not a proposition of public policy. It specifically addressed Christian attitudes and behavior towards refugees.

    2. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Kevin. One of the difficulties in thinking about this issue for American Christians is that our identities are blurred. We have not often been challenged to see being Christian and being American as perhaps competing identities. Indeed, the government of this nation has an interest (not a “prurient” one, hopefully!) in protecting its citizens. But this is not a Christian interest. Christians do not think in terms of protecting their interests, self-protection, safety, etc., and there are very important reasons why, which I hope to elucidate in subsequent posts.

      When we are baptized and publicly identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus, we claim to have died to this world and to be raised to new life in the next world. We give up all rights by virtue of our death to ourselves and to this world, we are citizens of heaven and we belong to the world to come. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. The NT writers are at pains to press this reality onto the imaginations of those who belong to the church so that they will think, live, and act according to it. This drives our lives of hospitality and welcome, of care for the stranger and love for those deemed dangerous.

      The church is a separate people from any nation, tribe, or people, and we have a different mode of life. From an earthly perspective it may be deemed dangerous. But truly, the real danger from a NT perspective is that we will not lose our lives in order to gain them in the world to come. If we have already lost our lives to gain them in the future, then there is nothing that can happen to us in this world. So we do not have to live in self-protective modes. I’d go further and say that we cannot do so.

      All this is to say that Christian interests are different from government interests.

      1. kevinleroy

        Heh…yeah hopefully not! 😳 I have further comments that may be answered in subsequent posts. I look forward to reading and learning more.

    1. timgombis

      God did indeed use Israel to carry out his judgment where he saw fit to execute it, in this case, Jericho. But this reality does not impinge on Israel’s obligations toward foreigners in the land.

      1. gjohnston2244

        I agree Tim. Furthermore, whatever God had Israel do within that narrative is not a precedent for anybody today. There is a specific context within which that narrative unfolds. It cannot be duplicated. Israel was God’s explicit and prophetic agent of judgment. There is no analogy to those circumstances. Just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean people can snatch it out of its narrative purposes to justify whatever ugliness they are advocating today.

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