Immigrants and Foreigners in the Bible by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher

Modern Christians frequently assert that early Christianity accepted Jews and Gentiles on an equal basis as potentially righteous people in fellowship with God, in contrast to more xenophobic attitudes toward non-Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. However, the Hebrew Bible is not of one mind on this topic (and noting the debates in Acts, neither were all early Christians!).

Israelites would always have had contact with non-Israelites, in their land and in circumstances of exile and diaspora. There were Philistine and Canaanite cities amongst Israelite villages from the tribal period into the monarchy; the Philistine cities of Gath and Ekron are classic border towns, showing signs of frequent mixing between Israelites and Philistines (1Sam 27). The Transjordanian peoples (Ammon, Moab, and Edom) are depicted both positively and negatively—sometimes within the same book! For example, Deuteronomy states that the Ammonites and Edomites are to be left to live in their lands in peace (Deut 2:4-5, Deut 2:19, Deut 23:7). But texts such as Num 20:14-21 and Deut 23:3 take a much more negative tone toward the Edomites.

What is the reason for these attitudes? On one end of the spectrum, with the purity concerns typically advocated by the priesthood, there is a serious suspicion of corruption from contact with foreigners, especially foreign women. Despite the fact that aliens living among the Israelites were to be treated with basic decency—being allowed to glean with the poor among the Israelites (Lev 19:10), for example—it is also true that no animal gift from a foreign person was acceptable as an offering to God; the foreign source seems sufficient to render it “blemished” (Lev 22:25, Ezek 44). Furthermore, Leviticus explicitly allows slaves to be taken from among the “aliens residing with you” (Lev 25:44-46).

In the postexilic period, Ezra and Nehemiah’s horror of mixed marriages represents an opinion that such mixing is dangerous to the survival of the Jewish people (Ezra 9, Neh 9:2). The fear of foreign women is also reflected in the figure of “Lady Foolishness” in Proverbs, portrayed as a foreign temptress. Yet, it is likely that the story of Ruth, which features a foreign heroine, was composed precisely as a counterargument to such negative views.

In contrast, Deuteronomy sometimes represents a more positive attitude toward foreigners. Although Deuteronomy permits taking foreign peoples as slaves, their treatment is to be tempered by the realization that “you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut 5:15, Deut 15:15, Deut 16:12, Deut 24:18). Furthermore, Israelites were commanded to provide asylum to slaves who had fled because of mistreatment Deut 23:15), and there is no suggestion that this applies only to Israelite slaves. Finally, a number of biblical texts group foreigners with others in difficult circumstances who deserve protection (the “widow, orphan, and foreigner/alien,” in Deut 10:18, Ps 146:9, Jer 7:6, Jer 22:3, Zech 7:10, Mal 3:5).

Some texts even go so far as to say that many foreigners will become part of God’s people. Second and Third Isaiah call on Israel to be a “light to the nations” (Isa 49:6) and include foreigners (Isa 56:3-7) even to the surprising extent that foreigners may serve as priests. This motif of positive relations with foreigners is especially notable in Zech 8:23:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”

Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, "Immigrants and Foreigners in the Bible", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online:


Daniel L. Smith-Christopher

Daniel L. Smith-Christopher
Professor, Loyola Marymount University

Daniel L. Smith-Christopher is professor of Old Testament at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A Quaker, Smith-Christopher has a particular interest in the biblical literature of Exile, issues of peace and nonviolence, and also in indigenous and diasporic interpretations of Scripture.


Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Isaiah 40-66, or "Second Isaiah," so called because the author is different from and later than the author of Isaiah 1-39; sometimes also subdivided into Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) and Trito-Isaiah ("Third Isaiah," chapters 56-66).

The Transjordan is the region east of the Jordan River in the Southern Levant, described in Numbers 34:15 as home to the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh. The Transjordan was also home to the Ammonites and the Moabites.

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

1Sam 27

David Serves King Achish of Gath
1David said in his heart, “I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul; there is nothing better for me than to escape to the ... View more

Deut 2:4-5

4and charge the people as follows: You are about to pass through the territory of your kindred, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid o ... View more

Deut 2:19

19When you approach the frontier of the Ammonites, do not harass them or engage them in battle, for I will not give the land of the Ammonites to you as a posses ... View more

Deut 23:7

7You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin. You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.

Num 20:14-21

Passage through Edom Refused
14Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the adversity that has befall ... View more

Deut 23:3

3No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly ... View more

Lev 19:10

10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Lev 22:25

25nor shall you accept any such animals from a foreigner to offer as food to your God; since they are mutilated, with a blemish in them, they shall not be accep ... View more

Ezek 44

The Closed Gate
1Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut.2The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut ... View more

Lev 25:44-46

44As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves.45You may also acquire them ... View more

Ezra 9

Denunciation of Mixed Marriages
1After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites hav ... View more

Neh 9:2

2Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors.

Deut 5:15

15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore th ... View more

Deut 15:15

15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.

Deut 16:12

12Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and diligently observe these statutes.

Deut 24:18

18Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

Deut 23:15

15Slaves who have escaped to you from their owners shall not be given back to them.

Deut 10:18

18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.

Ps 146:9

9The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

Jer 7:6

6if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,

Jer 22:3

3Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to t ... View more

Zech 7:10

10do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

Mal 3:5

5Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, agai ... View more

Isa 49:6

6he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a li ... View more

Isa 56:3-7

3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”4For ... View more

Zech 8:23

23Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with y ... View more

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