“for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt”

Updated 11/19/2015

I wrote this post well before the Syrian refugee crisis was front page news, but now that everybody and their brother is posting on this same topic, I feel somewhat compelled to revisit what I have said. I have added up “update” section on the bottom to explain how I feel this does/does not apply to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Original Post

As I was doing my concordance search on the word “foreigner” in the Bible I discovered a very interesting link to being a foreigner and welcoming foreigners. If you’ve been following my blog recently you’ll know that I have been a little occupied with the idea that as Christians we are foreigners and strangers. We are sojourners and exiles.

This identity is not unique to the New Testament church. The first of the sojourners and exiles are found in the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, Daniel. Israel itself was a nation of foreigners and strangers. They arrived in Egypt as foreigners by the plan of God. When they became too big a threat to Egyptian rule God rescued them from slavery and they transitioned into a long period of exile/sojourn in the desert. When they finally arrived in the Promised Land under Joshua they were finally “home”, though they would once again experience exile in Babylon because of the judgment of God.

But even when they were home, when they found themselves as the citizens of the land that God had given them, they were continually instructed to remember that they were at one point the strangers and foreigners. And this sense of identity led to an important ethical conclusion – remember the foreigner among you.

This ethical concern for the foreigners and strangers in codified in the laws of the Pentateuch. First, there are commands to simply do no harm. “Do not mistreat the foreigner among you.” (Exod 22:21, 23:9, Lev 19:33). These commands are specifically given with the encouragement to the Israelites to remember their own historical identity. “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice… Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I commanded you this” (Deut 24:17). Then there are the commands which explicitly state the same laws should apply equally to native-born and foreigners alike. In other words, Israel is supposed to apply a basic principle of justice without showing favoritism.

But the laws given to Israel in regards to the foreigners go beyond prohibitions against mistreatment. The “gleaning” laws demonstrate a specific concern for the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow (Lev 19:10, Deut 24:19, 21). In Israel these individuals would have been especially vulnerable to poverty and so they required special care from the entire community. Once again, these commands are given with the instruction to “remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” that is, you were once a foreigner.

Perhaps the fullest expression of this idea is given in Deuteronomy 10:17-19:

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. “

This passage is striking because it reveals the heart of God. He shows no partiality. He loves the foreigner and he demonstrates that love by providing for their basic needs. The Israelites are to extend that same love. That is, they are to love the foreigners among them as well, caring for their basic needs. Here the command is to love (a matter of the heart) and it is based on two principles: God’s own love and Israel’s historical identity.

So what does this mean for the church of exiles and foreigners? I think there is a temptation for a church, as it begins to feel more and more then sense that it does not belong, to become inward focused and protectionist. There is a temptation to focus solely on caring for one’s own inner group. There was probably a temptation for Israel, especially given its history of military animosity towards its neighbors, to view all foreigners as suspect and to therefore deny them justice. I think that this is why Israel is so often warned against such unfairness (see Deut 26:19 where denial of justice to the foreigner is connected to a covenant curse). At a minimum, then, I think that this means that the church needs to resist this same urge. Being foreigners and strangers does not mean that we lose a concern for those who are different from us or that we take up a position of distrust or animosity to them.

On the positive side of things these commands remind us that God is concerned for the socially and economically vulnerable and that we should extend that concern. They remind us that basic empathy matters. Do you feel like a foreigner? Then keep that in mind when you see someone else in a similar position. Practically this could mean befriending the friendless, defending the person being bullied, showing hospitality, graciously welcoming newcomers to church, or the greeting the new residents of your neighborhood. Just like for Israel, I think it means showing generosity to the poor and a concern for basic issues of fairness and justice.

I was listening to an interview on NPR where the interviewer was discussing Islamic radicalization in Great Britain. The big concern for Britain is that there are many Islamic youth who feel like they are not “full citizens.” This sense of not belonging in that particular community leads to radicalization and, ultimately, to acts of terrorism. It would be a great tragedy if there was the same movement in Christian communities! But the Bible points us in the exact opposite direction. The status of “exile” and “foreigner” needs to point us to love and concern for others. After all, we may be foreigners on earth but we are citizens of heaven and it is our mission, through the ministry of reconciliation, to draw others into that same citizenship.

Updated 11/19/2015 – How does this apply to the Syrian refugee crisis?

First, I want to stress that the primary application for these texts is for the Church, not the State. I find it somewhat ironic that many Christians who would ridicule conservatives for applying 2 Chronicles 7:14 to the United States when it should apply to the Church, are so quick to make a blanket application of Old Testament law (in a theocracy!) to U.S. policy. Both texts apply to the people of God, and not to the secular state.

In regards to the refugee crisis (or just basic immigration policy, for that matter) we should apply these texts first to the church, with secondary applications (as citizens of an earthly kingdom) to government policy. For implications for the church, look up three paragraphs.

Second, I do believe there is some application for secular governments. The role of the secular government is to establish justice. This means (a) protecting its citizenry from evildoers/punishing evildoers (see Romans 13) and (b) doing what is within its scope of responsibility for caring for the destitute. That second point could certainly be contested, and I won’t fully defend it here, but I do want to point out the close connection between the laws listed above and principles of basic justice (i.e., doing no harm, equal protection under law, etc.). The pattern of connecting care for the especially vulnerable with justice (and not just charity) is established well throughout Scripture. For more on this see Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice. It’s natural for Christians to want both forms of justice from their government. And the challenge for the secular State is to balance between competing goods. The arguments just aren’t as simple as “keep them all out” and “people who want to limit the refugees, or take a pause, are heartless jerks.”

A Christian friend of mine posted a provocative status on Facebook which actually illustrates this quite well. He stated “If Obama allows Syrian refugees in we will house a family in our home. Who is with me?” This is a rather radical proposal, but I really like the heart behind it. First, it’s an observation that its the government who decides who to let in and when. The government is going to make this decision based on its competing interests. Second, though, there’s a call to the church to take an active role in caring for those strangers if or when they arrive. At that point the church has the opportunity to fully realize its role and take the above passages to heart.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to help refugees now, Syrians or otherwise. One such organization doing this good work is Samaritan’s purse. I was touched by this video back in early October, and it’s worth another “share.”

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