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).
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.