Aliens and strangers: The scope of the Kingdom and the logic of the gospel

This article was published in Issue #292 (January 2003).

No one approaches an emotionally and politically charged issue like refugees out of disinterested neutrality. The very labels we attach, whether asylum seekers or illegal immigrants, puts us for or against refugees from the moment we open our mouths. In such a climate, it is only fair that I disclose the standpoint from which I approach the subject, by way of reminder that for many of us certain topics in Christian ethics, as well as being academically challenging, are highly personal.

I am the son of an Austrian Jew who, along with his parents, fled Nazi terror in 1938. My father found asylum in Shanghai, China (where he and his parents became Christians), but came to Sydney in 1949 in the wake of the Communist Revolution in China. So I am  predisposed to empathize with, albeit vicariously, those who leave their country because of some form of persecution or discrimination. Furthermore, having lived sixteen years of my life in four other countries (the USA, England, Scotland and Germany) I know something of what it means to be an alien (I felt most like a foreigner in Texas!).

In considering the Bible’s teaching that may be relevant to the subject of refugees, not only do we need to take account of the relevant laws and commands in both the Old and New Testaments, but we must also reckon with the example of God’s people throughout their long history recorded in the Bible, and the Bible’s visions for the future.

Needless to say, I don’t think this is an easy task. We need both literary and historical sensitivity, as we sift and weigh Scripture’s full witness, in order to construct a response to the issue which is worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ and reflects the values of the kingdom of God. I aim to cover the range of material, some of which is easily overlooked.

A humanitarian approach to the problem of refugees is sometimes given a Christian gloss with some vague and insipid notion of ‘niceness’, with a passing reference to the Good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount. Hopefully, we can move beyond such generalities, attempting to construct something approaching a biblical theology of the stranger.

I will ask questions such as:

  • What is the Bible’s attitude to foreigners in general?
  • What is the Bible’s attitude to immigrants and refugees in particular?
  • What do the gospel and the kingdom have to say to our subject?

The Bible and the nations

A superficial reading of the Old Testament could leave the impression that God’s purposes are narrowly nationalistic. His covenant with Abraham, and promise to bless his descendants, and his election, deliverance and rule over Israel suggest that the nations are not his concern—except negatively, in the conquest of the promised land when he decrees their annihilation. Indeed, Israel is told not to be like other nations and the prophets are littered with frightening oracles against the nations of divine judgement of the utmost severity. After the exile, Ezra instructed those who returned to divorce their foreign wives. In fact, throughout her history Israel is to maintain a safe distance vis-à-vis the nations in order to protect her own cohesiveness in terms of ethnicity, language, territory, religion and political institutions. So are we left with a negative view of the nations in the Bible? Does the Bible unwittingly encourage xenophobia?

This reading of the nations in the Old Testament is in fact a gross caricature. From the beginning God intends Abraham to be a “father of many nations” (Gen 17, 4-6. All references are to the NIV) and “a blessing to all the nations on earth” (Gen 12:3), not merely Israel. Likewise, Israel was to fulfil a mediatorial role between God and the nations (Ex 19:4-6): “Out of all the nations, you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests.” Despite the nations’ detestable practices, God is concerned for their salvation in books like Psalms (67:2; 98:2: God will reveal his “righteousness and salvation to the nations”) and Isaiah (52:10,15: where the Servant will “sprinkle many nations”).

Certain messianic texts are also blatantly universal, such as Gen 49:10, where the ruler of Judah will receive “the obedience of the nations.” In Isaiah the servant of the Lord will be a light to the Gentiles and bring justice and salvation to the nations (Is 42:1; 6; 49:6; 51:4-5; 52:10; 61:1-2). And many prophetic texts envisage the universal acknowledgement of Israel’s God, when the nations will make a pilgrimage to Mt Zion, the mountain of the Lord (Is 25:6-8; 66:20; Jer 3:17; Mic 4:1-3; Zech 8:3, 20-23; 14:16-19; Isa 2:2-4: “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s Temple will be established… and all nations will stream to it).

The New Testament heralds the fulfilment of these prophecies, as Jesus’ occasional ministering to Gentiles anticipates the preaching of the gospel to all the nations. It is then no surprise when the risen Lord commissions his disciples to “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20) and Acts records the impressive progress of the word across considerable ethnic, relational and geographical barriers.

While not decisive on its own, the theme of the nations in the Bible underscores God’s love for all peoples and gives us no grounds for supporting a narrow nationalistic outlook or any form of racism.

The Bible on immigrants and foreigners

Narrowing our focus, we move now to consider a complex bundle of Old Testament texts, namely the biblical laws relating to the various types of foreigners in ancient Israel. Like all collections of legal material, these texts are complex and at times confusing to us. Certainly the nation of Israel needed some legislation to know how to deal with such people. Israel occupied a central position in the Ancient Near East, had a policy of preserving the nation’s integrity and identity, and, owing to the volatile and at times barbaric nature of the ancient world, was continually confronted with the presence of foreigners in the land.

Old Testament law distinguished between the native Israelite and various types of foreigners. The key word is the Hebrew term ger which is variously translated in English versions of the Bible as stranger, sojourner or alien. There are two types of strangers:

  1. The assimilating stranger, who chose to fit in with Israelite culture and religion. (The Greek Old Testament translates it with proselutos, from which we get the word proselyte.)
  2. The non-assimilating stranger, who though having settled in the community chooses to retain an independent sense of identity. This type can be broken down again, into the individual immigrant who is taken into an Israelite home as a guest, and at the other end of the spectrum, the tribe of foreigners who settle in Israel in a clientele relationship to the Israelites. (The Hebrew word nokrim, usually translated strangers, are the true  foreigners who live in their own country outside the land of Israel.)

In short, biblical law is remarkably generous towards and supportive of the strangers in Israel. It is acknowledged that such people have no power, and are frequently poor and needy. Yet they are accorded fair and hospitable treatment. Whether assimilating or not, strangers were protected from abuse, especially abuse stemming from patriarchal authority, protected from unfair treatment when employed by Israelites, and protected from unfair treatment in the courts, including justice at the city gate.

They were also offered various degrees of social inclusion depending on the willingness to assimilate. For example, aliens, or proselytes, to use the Greek term for an assimilating alien, were allowed to participate in the major Israelite feasts, including Passover and the Day of Atonement. They had equal access to the cities of refuge and, in the post-exilic period, even had the prospect that they might inherit land.1

Basically, strangers were to be treated as native-born Israelites with only a few qualifications. The non-assimilating strangers were not prohibited from eating anything found dead (Deut 14:21; cf. Lev 17:15 which apparently refers to the assimilating stranger). A second difference is more profound: assimilating strangers were not considered Israelites in the full ethnic sense, probably in recognition that their ancestors did not experience the saving events of the Exodus and Passover.

The motivation supplied to secure Israelite compliance to these positive and politically enlightened laws are the reminder of the Israelites’ ancestors’ time as slaves, that is strangers, in Egypt. For example, Exodus 22:21 states: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” The same logic is inherent in the so-called golden rule, Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. As Exodus 23:9 puts it, the Israelites “know the heart of the alien”, seeing they were once aliens themselves.

The example of God is also cited as a motivation, as in Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, he shows no partiality… and loves the alien.”

Most remarkably of all, in the same chapter where the famous and often quoted “love your neighbour as yourself” appears, in Leviticus 19 the Israelites are commanded to “love the alien” (v.34). The definition of the neighbour to be loved extends it seems to the foreign immigrant, without the restriction that they be of the less objectionable assimilating kind.

At face value, the biblical laws relating to the stranger in the land of Israel model a generous and hospitable approach to the foreigners in the midst, without insisting on assimilation. In Israel’s case this was motivated by the personal experience of once being strangers themselves, a motivation which may have a broader application than first appears in the light of New Testament teaching on all Christians as aliens and strangers.

The Bible and refugees

Along with this startling teaching on welcoming the stranger in the biblical laws, we have a specific case of asylum seeking in Israel’s history. It does not fit exactly the typical refugee experience, but it is worth mentioning for it demonstrates how keenly the Bible sympathizes with the predicament of the refugee.

In 586 BC Israel as a nation, or strictly speaking the southern kingdom of Judah, was exiled to Babylon. They were not so much refugees, but even worse, deportees; not chased out, but led out or shipped out. The forlorn Israelites sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept (Ps 137:1), with Jerusalem in ruins and their infants slaughtered. Predicted in Leviticus (26:33) and Deuteronomy (28:64; 30:3-4), lamented in the book of Lamentations, and with Ezekiel and Daniel as exilic prophets, the Old Testament gives much space to this catastrophic experience and future generations of Jews lived under its cloud. Even after the Return, not unlike Jews today who continue to shudder at the memory of the Holocaust, its shadow remains. With only a little overstatement, we could characterise the Old Testament as a book about refugees.

The example and teaching of Jesus

When we come to the New Testament, the obvious question to seek to answer is, what would Jesus do? However, I think this is not so much the wrong question, as not the first question to ask. What did Jesus do is more pressing and fundamental. In short, he did two things.

Jesus broke into history with a kingdom from heaven which encompassed those Israel conventionally thought to be its least likely subjects, namely, the poor, women, children, the socially excluded (prostitutes, lepers) and eventually, gentile sinners like us. Jesus redefined the people of God. “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31; Matt 19:30; Luke 13:30), sums up the breathtakingly radical reversal that stamped his work and agenda.

The second thing that Jesus did was to insist that those who acknowledge him as the Christ should care for the poor and the powerless.

Each of the four Gospels captures a distinctive feature of the moral vision of Jesus for his people. In Matthew Jesus calls for a surpassing righteousness; Mark sees him challenging us to a heroic discipleship; John focuses on the common life of love Christians are to provide for each other. But it is the Gospel of Luke that is most relevant to our subject.

According to Luke, Jesus, leading by example, expects his followers to look after the humiliated and marginalised. Mary’s song in chapter one celebrates God’s work on behalf of the hungry and poor. The infant Jesus is visited by simple shepherds in less than salubrious surroundings in Luke, rather than by Magi in a house as in Matthew. John the Baptist’s preaching includes the admonition to share with the poor (3:10-14).The story of Zacchaeus makes it clear that to know Jesus will result in doing justice and practising kindness.

In fact, Luke conceives of Jesus as himself a stranger on earth (2:7; 4:16-30; 9:58; cf. John 1:10-11), dependent on the generous support of others (cf. Luke 8:1-3; 9:1-6; 10:3-12, 38-42). This became the grounds for hospitality to strangers in Luke 14:12-14 (cf. Matt 25:21-46; Heb 13:2). The Greek word for hospitality literally means “love for the stranger”. Jesus himself had the experience on earth of being a refugee, to Egypt as an infant, fleeing the persecution of Herod the Great.

Indeed, Jesus expects his followers to imitate his deep concern for those in trouble, whoever they may be.

The biggest objection to acting in love towards the refugees is the risk that it will open the floodgates or that they will somehow betray our kindness. Perhaps the best answer to such fears is to recognise that true faith and discipleship always involve taking a risk. When Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman his disciples were scandalised. He risked the serious loss of reputation in a society obsessed with status, honour and shame. When he healed the blind and the lame, he risked being inundated with needy people, and sometimes was. Such risks did not deter him.

Among the risks is the possibility, as Hebrews 13:2 puts it, by welcoming strangers “some people have entertained (not terrorists) but angels without knowing it”.

The example and teaching of Jesus impresses on us a compassionate response to refugees, strangers and the marginalised. We know the heart of the stranger, for each one of us were once lost and estranged from God. The same logic applies to us as it did to Israel. Christians of all people can empathise with foreign strangers. Once we were strangers to God, then having experienced his welcome, we become strangers in another sense—strangers to the world in which we remain.


Ethical issues are among the hardest for Christians to find a consensus on, in part because of our diverse social backgrounds and varied political loyalties. My plea is that we be open to listening to the whole counsel of Scripture, which was written for us and for our instruction not only as to what to believe, but to how we ought to live.

The Christian response of welcoming the stranger, in full knowledge of the attendant risks, is not based on Christian niceness. Rather, the Christian warrant for a humanitarian response to refugees, or should I say new humanitarian (since we are part of the new humanity, with Jesus Christ as the head), is grounded in God’s love for all, even (or especially) for the outcast and the stranger.

The Bible insists on an indissoluble link between ethics and mission. In Genesis 18: 18-19 the blessing of all the nations of the earth through Abraham is linked to his children “keeping the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right”. How we live makes a difference to the success of our mission and evangelism. What was true for Israel here is just as true for the church.

I find the cumulative evidence of the Bible on the subject of refugees pointing overwhelmingly in the same direction, to a compassionate response. In the current refugee crisis in Australia and around the world, Christians have a golden opportunity to adorn the gospel, to illustrate the gospel, the glorious gospel in which we receive, unexpectedly, a lavish welcome from God. Surely those who have freely received are best placed freely to give such a welcome to strangers.

  1. An excellent resource on much of this material is J.P. Burnside, The Status and Welfare of Immigrants: The place of the foreigner in Biblical Law and its relevance to contemporary society (Cambridge: The Jubilee Centre, 2001).

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