The Bible and Borders
With questions swirling about immigration and borders, what might we discover in the Bible relative to these topics?
“These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.“ (Deuteronomy 6:1-2, NIV)
This one sentence summarizes for us the three fundamental elements of Old Testament Israel: the Lord, the Law, and the Land. The Hebrews believed God chose Israel from among the nations of the world to be a “nation of priests.” They believed God, through Moses, gave them the laws and decrees they followed. They believed that God gave them the Promised Land after rescuing them from Egypt.
Like three legs on a three-legged stool, you can’t remove one without tipping over.
Today it is popular among some to dismiss the idea of borders. “The Lord said to Moses, “Command the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter Canaan, the land that will be allotted to you as an inheritance will have these boundaries…’” (Numbers 34:1-2, NIV) Then, for the next nine verses, God delineates these boundaries – north, south, east, and west.
God set these boundaries for two reasons. First, he created a nation. As he rescued the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, he had now given them a home – a land to possess. The land was a unifying factor in Israel. Though the twelve tribes dispersed to different regions within Canaan, when help was needed, Israel united.
This leads to the second reason for borders: danger. Outside of Israel’s borders were nations more powerful than themselves. Israel had little fighting power and was surrounded by military might. Throughout the Old Testament we read of foreign nations crossing Israeli borders to do harm to the Hebrews.
Borders, then, were both unifying and protective. But were they permeable? In ancient Israel, the answer was yes. The Jews were a very proud and patriotic people, but not xenophobic. The Bible is replete with commands related to hospitality and caring for the “sojourner” or “alien” (foreigner within Israel’s borders). The impetus behind this was God’s reminder: “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.“ (Exodus 23:9, NIV)
This brings us back to the second leg of the stool: the Law. Israel functioned under the rule of law. Foreigners were welcomed into Israel, but they were expected to follow Israel’s legal code. God describes this egality: “You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the Lord your God.“ (Leviticus 24:22, NIV)
Israel was welcoming to foreigners…think of Rahab and Ruth, foreigners whose great-grandchildren became Jewish royalty. Provision was made for non-Jews to participate in the workforce, in civic life, feasts, festivals, and even the worship of God. And, as mentioned before, the same laws applied to everyone within Israel’s borders.
But the borders weren’t wide open, either. Though foreigners were welcome, some of their traditions were not. Foreign gods and religious practices were not kosher and weren’t invited in. Failure to keep Israel’s laws were met with punishment.
Likewise, there were warnings about dangers foreigners might pose. The Gibeonites, for example, were enemies of Israel. They entered Israel using deceit, pretending to be refugees asking for asylum (see Joshua 9).
American jurisprudence owes a great deal to Moses and ancient Israel. What might we take from them related to our borders and immigration challenges? The Old Testament shows us that borders are a healthy feature of every nation. They exist not only to unify those within, but to keep unsavory characters out.
As such, our nation should have the right – the responsibility – to close borders to those using deception to cross, or to those who hope to do harm to those inside our borders.
Those who are allowed in our borders should be welcomed. They should be treated fairly and equitably. They should be given every opportunity to participate in and pursue the American dream. This is because our nation functions under the rule of law. If these laws are broken, a government has the right and responsibility to take action.
Where we differ from ancient Israel is the fact that ours is not a theocratic society, but founded on the freedom of religion. For us, foreigners should be allowed to bring their religious beliefs with them and worship freely (as long as these religious expressions are legal).
Ultimately, I would hope that our borders exist for the same purpose as ancient Israel’s: unity and safety. Further, we should have the same ethic behind our immigration laws as did Israel. They had been aliens and therefore treated aliens hospitably. We are a nation of immigrants. Hospitality to immigrants should be our motive.
Jim Mann, Ph.D. is a Denton native and the Lead Pastor of New Life Church of Denton. (www.newlifedenton.org) He is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Liberty University School of Divinity.