Migration in Scripture: A Metaphor for Faith and More
Summary of Danny Carroll R’s Annual Assembly Keynote Address and Sermon
July 31-August 1, 2020
Kathy Neufeld Dunn
As people of God’s word, we do ourselves and others a disservice when we try to start a conversation about immigration with politics. While immigration justice, including health care for migrants, family reunification, and immigration legal reform are all very important, we need to find common ground. Our common ground is scripture. What about Romans 13 that we have to obey those who govern? This is a valid text to discuss, but what about all of the other scriptural wisdom that comes before it? It’s better to begin where the bible begins, with every person described as created in the image of God—with inherent worth and with the potential to do immense good in partnership with God.
Migration is so important and common a phenomenon that it’s described again and again in scripture. Already in Genesis we read many migration stories. Abram and Sarai’s journey (before they became known as Abraham and Sarah) includes the account of her being asked to “put her body on the line,” as Carroll noted. At an Egyptian border checkpoint, Abram tells Sarai to protect him. “If they ask, tell them you’re my sister” (Gen. 12.13). Joseph’s story is one of forced migration because his jealous brothers sold him into slavery. Later, when there’s a famine in his brothers’ home country, they migrate to Egypt where there is food available. Joseph, with God’s provision, has moved from slave to Pharoah’s second-in-command. Joseph pretends he does not understand his brothers’ “strange language.” It’s clear that Joseph has assimilated into Egyptian culture, because his brothers do not recognize him at all, while he recognizes them instantly, and withdraws to weep alone. In another migrant story, Hebrews Naomi and her sons immigrate to Moab, again because of famine. In that foreign country they find adequate food, so they decide to stay and make a life there. They ultimately marry local women, then die in Moab. When Naomi’s sons die, she decides to return to her home country. One of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, insists on going with her. Ruth, a foreigner, ultimately becomes part of the lineage of Jesus. Let’s not forget that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled to Egypt because Herod, the ruler in their home country, was seeking Jesus to kill him. Other male toddlers were killed as the soldiers searched for “the king of the Jews.” Immigrant stories in scripture echo the same themes about why people move across borders today—the need for safety and security, whether it is for personal safety or the security of adequate supplies of food and clean water or other basics of life.
The Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, is not just full of migrant stories. It is also full of laws on behalf of immigrant rights. Read through Leviticus and Deuteronomy for the breadth of these laws which were unique in the ancient world. Here are just a handful of examples: Migrant workers were to be paid their wages on time (Deut 24.14-15). God’s people were not to “mistreat or oppress aliens” (Jer. 22.4) Foreigners who joined God’s people should be allowed the same access to worship Yahweh (Is 56.3). In general, the same laws applied to native-born and immigrants (Ex 12.49).
Why were these unique laws created in ancient times? In response to historic memory.
33 “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. 34 Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Lev 19.33-34).
Bottom line: Love the foreigner, because God does.
Migration is such a key biblical concept that one writer even used migration as a metaphor for following Jesus.
11 Dear friends, you are like foreigners and strangers in this world. I beg you to avoid the evil things your bodies want to do that fight against your soul. 12 People who do not believe are living all around you and might say that you are doing wrong. Live such good lives that they will see the good things you do and will give glory to God on the day when Christ comes again. (1 Peter 2.11-12)
Lastly, Paul mobilized a team of diaspora or immigrant Jews as his primary sharers of the gospel. The church’s earliest missionaries were immigrants.
God loves immigrants very much and even uses the image of being a migrant as a metaphor for our faith journey. Because God loves the immigrant and the stranger, we are called to, also. This message rings throughout scripture again and again. Let this be our starting point and our common ground as followers of Jesus.