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Immigration in the Bible



Samaritan pilgrims travel to Mount Gerizim. The parable of the good Samaritan is often interpreted as a general commentary on human charity, but the Samaritans of Jesus' era were a marginalized ethnic and religious group with uncertain citizenship status.

Photo: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images.

The Origin of Nations:

The Torah tells two stories to explain the diversity of nations. The first, generally described as the Table of Nations, discusses the blessings and curses inflicted on Noah's sons and their descendants, whose families represented tribal powers in the ancient Fertile Crescent. The second, the more widely known Tower of Babel story, is a cautionary tale in which an ancient empire builds a very tall building that reaches the sky—probably a reference to a 298-foot Babylonian ziggurat called Etemananki, which was dedicated to the sky-god Marduk—and learn, to their horror, that they are no longer speaking the same language. Both stories deliver the same basic message about the origin of nations: that they were specifically created as a punishment from God, and do not reflect the natural order of things.

Sodom, Gomorrah, and the Sin of Inhospitality:

The Torah also tells us that God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment after a mob of local residents attempted to rape two visiting angels. Although most conventional Christian interpretations tend to suggest that the cities were destroyed because of mere sexual promiscuity (see Jude 1:7), most Jewish interpretations focus on the community's heartless behavior towards outsiders (see Ezekiel 16:49-50), as represented by the angels. The latter tradition, which is more faithful to the text (and which may have been endorsed by Jesus himself; see Matthew 10:14-15), suggests that Sodom and Gomorrah represented cruelty, exclusivism, and greed. If this interpretation is correct, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah represents the first of many strong biblical injunctions against those who use their status within a community to harm outsiders.

Joseph, Moses, and the Egyptian Exodus:

The story of Joseph is often best remembered as an illustration of the Prodigal Son motif, but it also acknowledges a fact that we can corroborate with contemporaneous archaeological evidence: the Jewish people were known to the Egyptian empire, and subject to its regional power. The teachings of Moses, acknowledging this history, repeatedly remind the Jewish people to treat immigrants well, "for we were strangers in Egypt" (Exodus 22:21 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 1:16, et. al.). This moral imperative would continue throughout the prophetic tradition, as Jeremiah (7:5-7 and 22:3), Ezekiel (22:7), Zechariah (7:10), and Malachi (3:5) would continue to hold the Jewish people accountable to an ethic in which kindness and hospitality would gradually become paramount.

Babylonian Exile and the First Jewish Diaspora:

An Occupied Nation:

In 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered Israel under brutal circumstances and exiled the literate ruling class from Jerusalem to Babylon, where they produced the Torah as a way of preserving their religion in a foreign land. During this period, known by historians as the Babylonian Exile, the Jewish tradition was set down in writing as the record of an immigrant faith.

The Jews, the Greeks, and the Samaritans:

By the time of Jesus, Israel—called Judaea—was a province of the Roman Empire, ruled over by outsiders to the tradition and subject to secular imperial law. Jesus associated with publicans (collaborators with secular law), prostitutes, and members of ethnic minorities within Judaea—such as Samaritans (the parable of the Good Samaritan occupying a privileged place within Jesus' teachings)—while preaching a gospel that placed the poor and the marginalized outsider on a higher moral plane than the rich and the fully included culture leaders. As his itinerant followers spread the gospel of an multiethnic faith in which there was "neither Jew nor Greek" (Galatians 3:28), Christianity undermined the Hellenistic-nationalism message of imperial Roman pagan ideology. The Christian message taught that the most impoverished slave had more worth than the most reputable Roman citizen. It is a message that was profoundly relevant to Jesus' time—and remains relevant to ours.
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