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Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible

Deuteronomy presents God’s actions in freeing the oppressed as a model for human conduct and directs the people of Israel to remember their history as immigrants and refugees, so that they treat refugees with the same care God showed them.

The Flight of the Prisoners

In many respects the Bible is a series of variations on the theme of exile. From Adam and Eve leaving Eden to the Judeans being deported to Babylonia and beyond, many biblical characters experienced being refugees. The paradigm examples are Jacob and his offspring. Jacob fled Canaan, first to Aram because of fear for his life, God renaming him Israel along the way, and then to Egypt because of a famine. Several generations later, his descendants, “the sons of Israel,” escaped from slavery and threats of genocide in Egypt because of what the Bible describes as divine initiative. That divine initiative then becomes a model for the Israelites’ treatment of those in similar situations.

Who are the “strangers” whom God loves?

According to Deuteronomy, God “loves the strangers” (10:18). In biblical law, “strangers” (Hebrew gerim) are grouped with others who are vulnerable, especially the poor and the fatherless and widows, who have no male protectors. Different translations of the underlying Hebrew word make their vulnerability clear: sojourners, aliens, resident aliens, immigrants. At the same time, these different translations reveal a problem: biblical legal terminology does not always exactly correspond to modern terminology. In the Bible, strangers are individuals, both non-Israelites and Israelites, who, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, live somewhere else than in their own territory and who are therefore at risk. The category thus includes those we would call immigrants, refugees, exiles, displaced persons, undocumented aliens, and temporary residents.

Among biblical persons explicitly or implicitly identified with the status of strangers are: the ancestors of Israel both in Canaan and in Egypt; Moses in the land of Midian; Elimelech, Naomi, and Ruth herself; Judeans in Babylonia and in Egypt after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE; and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Egypt. The reasons for that status were often the same as today: war, famine, persecution, fear for one’s life, or seeking a better life.

Jacob, his extended family, and the first several generations of his descendants are perhaps the most prominent examples of strangers in the Bible, because their stories reverberate throughout its pages. According to Deuteronomy, when the Israelites present their offerings at the harvest Festival of Weeks, they are to recite a summary of the ancestral migration to Egypt, the exodus from Egypt, and the entry into the promised land (Deut 26:5-9). This “little historical creed,” as it has been called, summarizes most of the narrative of the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua.

Why should the ancient Israelites love strangers?

The little historical creed describes Jacob as a “wandering Aramean” who went down to Egypt; like the word for strangers, the Hebrew word translated “wandering” can also mean lost, perishing, perhaps even starving. That was the condition in which Jacob’s descendants ended up in Egypt and from which God rescued them and brought them into the “land flowing with milk and honey.”

That divine action provides a model for the Israelites: “You shall also love strangers, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). Over and over in the Bible, the Israelites’ experiences in Egypt serve as motivation for how they are to treat those who find themselves in similar circumstances, especially strangers, whom they are to love as they love themselves and whose heart they know (see Lev 19:34; Exod 23:9).

Moreover, Israelites recognized that they too were essentially strangers. The land to which God brought them after the exodus was not originally theirs. It belonged to others (Gen 15:18-21) and ultimately to God: according to one source, God said to the Israelites, “The land is mine; you are but strangers resident with me” (Lev 25:23, NJPS).

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that at present there are more than twenty-five million refugees and more than forty-one million internally displaced persons worldwide, numbers that have increased yearly. All of these are strangers in the biblical sense, and because, as Joel Baden has observed, for both Jews and Christians “the Exodus story did not end with the departure from Egypt,” they all deserve to be loved.

  • Michael Coogan

    Michael Coogan is Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Stonehill College. His most recent book is God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity, and the Myth of Divine Chosenness (Beacon Press, 2019).