An exploration of migration in the Bible to inform our own response to immigrants
The Bible and Borders
By M. Daniel Carroll R.
The Old Testament is full of accounts of people on the move or who have settled in other places. Many reasons are given for these migrations—whether of individuals or of large groups, forced or voluntary—that span centuries. They are part of the very fabric of biblical history—and ours.
The Bible offers readers realistic scenes and situations and amazingly true-to-life characters. In these biblical books are found the same kinds of factors that always have pushed people to leave their homes and begin the trek to somewhere else. Like today, in ancient times migration was caused by ecological factors (famine and drought) and war. Some desperately fled armed conflicts (of which there were many) across borders to what they hoped might be safer spaces. Others were not so lucky; to the trauma of widespread death and massive destruction in terrible wars was added forced displacement to faraway places. Still other individuals ran from personal threats.
The Old Testament migration is not just about those multiple moves over the centuries; it is also about the sojourns in other lands. The text depicts the life and experiences of these displaced people across multiple generations. We read about the personal and systemic challenges and the toxic xenophobic opposition they faced as displaced people. Finally, we read about return migration. In other words, the Old Testament portrays for us a wide panorama of the various migration realities and patterns that we witness around the globe in the modern world.
Above all else, it must not be forgotten that these immigrants and refugees are people, individuals and families caught up in the trials and tribulations of the time, events that often are beyond their control. These are lives of vulnerable populations of a small country, which are set on a broader canvas of international politics, economic challenges and military forces. These migrants, from Genesis through to the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah in the land of Yehud, suffer tremendous loss. They are tested and discriminated against; they work to provide for their families; they worship the God of their ancestors and the God of their exile; they have different jobs, some not by their own choice. Others are gifted in extraordinary ways and rise to positions of authority and do marvelous things for the host country of their sojourn. Some long to go back to their homeland, while others choose to stay in their new context. Those who do go back find that things are complicated. All wrestle with how to coordinate their background and heritage with the culture that now surrounds them, how to deal with the inescapable tensions of a new language, how to cope with a different set of imposed customs, faith, politics, economics and laws. These displaced people are flawed individuals too—imperfect in all kinds of ways.
The text records as well the reactions of host cultures to this alien presence. Some individuals are compassionate, while others are cruel and scheme to exploit them or even eliminate them (e.g., Pharaoh, Haman). An aspect of realism around the topic of immigration, then, is that suspicion and rejection toward immigrants, refugees and asylees should come as no surprise. That probably should be expected, at least to some degree. Herein are examples of immigrants and host people, good and bad, to be followed or avoided. In sum, the text presents a human face to migration and migrants.
Excerpted from The Bible and Borders by M. Daniel Carroll R., ©2020. Used by permission of Baker Publishing BakerPublishingGroup.com.