Since so many of the characters of the Bible were migrants of one sort or another, it is not surprising that God gives us a great deal of guidance about interacting with immigrants. God reminds the Israelites early on of their own history as strangers in a foreign land, commanding them that, given their own experience, they should welcome the immigrant among them.
In Leviticus 19:33-34, God commands the Israelites, “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.”
In fact, Israel’s very identity was tied to how they treated the foreign born, as it reflected Israel’s trust in God to provide and their willingness to follow his commandments.
God commands his people to extend the same legal protections to immigrants as were available to the Israelites themselves, including rights to a sabbath rest (Ex 20:10), fair labor treatment (Deut 24:14), and prompt payment for work (Deut 24:15).
The words of Exodus 12:49, repeated throughout the Pentateuch multiple times, make clear: “The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.”
At the same time, immigrants are recognized as being particularly vulnerable, and God therefore commands the Israelites to take special concern for them. The term usually translated as foreigner or sojourner appears repeatedly in conjunction with two other categories of people of special concern to God: the fatherless and the widow.
For example, Deuteronomy 10:18 says that God “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” Psalm 146:9 echoes this concern:
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but He frustrates the ways of the wicked.”
The same linkage extends throughout the Old Testament, such as in Ezekiel, where the evil rulers of Israel are condemned for having “oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow,” and in Zechariah, where God commands, “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor” (Ezek 22:7; Zech 7:10).
Given God’s particular concern, the Israelites are commanded in Deuteronomy 24 to make special provisions for immigrants, as well as for orphans and widows:
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. (Deut 24:19-21)
Likewise, the Israelites are commanded in Deuteronomy 14 to participate in a special triennial tithe, when they set aside a portion of their harvest so immigrants, along with the Levites, the orphans, and the widows, may have a feast (Deut 14:28-29).
Many of these biblical imperatives also warn that those who disregard God’s instructions—who do not specially care for the immigrant and others who are vulnerable—will face God’s judgment. The prophet Malachi lumps those who deny justice to foreigners with sorcerers and adulterers: “I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me” (Mal 3:5).
The Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the books of the Law, are full of instructions on how to treat immigrants. Old Testament scholar Daniel Carroll Rodas notes that such frequent and specific injunctions in the Mosaic law toward care for the sojourner are unique in that the law codes of other nations in the ancient Near East “are almost totally silent” about how to treat immigrants.
While these instructions (along with the rest of the law) were directed to the people of Israel as rules to structure their society, and few American Christians believe that we should adapt the entire law as given to Moses (with its sacrificial system and dietary guidelines) directly to US policies, the many commandments to care for the immigrant demonstrate that God has a special concern for immigrants, a concern that, as God’s people, we are commanded to share. Our concern for the foreign born in our own society will have personal manifestations, but should also inform our positions as we consider immigration policy.
While the New Testament speaks less frequently about immigrants, the same ethic of concern for the alien and stranger is consistent. The author of Hebrews advises us to care for and welcome strangers with hospitality, because in doing so, we may be entertaining angels “without knowing it” (Heb 13:2).
Likewise, Jesus told His disciples that whenever they welcomed and invited in a lowly stranger, they welcomed Him (and, alternately, whenever they shut the stranger out, they shut him out as well—and would be judged harshly) (Mt 25:31-46).
Caring for immigrants is a central theme in Scripture. God does not suggest that we welcome immigrants; He commands it—not once or twice, but over and over again.