Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible

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.

Did you know…?

  • Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were strangers all of their lives.
  • Israelites could be strangers even in Israel, if they lived in another tribe’s territory (for example, Judg 19:16).
  • In Israel, strangers could celebrate Passover and were included, along with slaves, as deserving rest on the Sabbath (Exod 20:10).
  • Divine visitors could also be considered strangers (Heb 13:2, referring to Gen 19:1-3).
  • Even God can metaphorically be described as a stranger with regard to Israel (Jer 14:8).
  • This year, the United States will admit fewer than 18,000 of the more than 25,000,000 refugees worldwide; from 1980 to 2017, the average had been 98,000 annually.
  • In 2018, the United States admitted seventy refugees for every million inhabitants; in Canada it was ten times that.


  • Michael Coogan

    Director of Publications, Harvard Semitic Museum

    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).