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Strangers & Sojourners

Mary Davenport Davis
February 1, 2017

What does the Bible say about refugees?

Ordinarily, the question “what does the Bible say about X” has a complex and contradictory answer. As a collection of books composed over a period of centuries rather than a unified work by a single author, the Bible tends to teach through dialogue across authors and texts. Even if you believe, as I do, that all scripture is divinely inspired, the fact remains that this inspiration took the form of a multitude of different viewpoints. So imagine my delight to find a topic about which the Bible does indeed have a strong, consistent stance: refugees and immigrants.

It might be easy to miss this opinion, unfortunately, because you rarely if ever find the words “refugee,” “immigrant,” or “migrant” in an English Bible. But this doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about refugees and temporary or permanent migrants. To the contrary! It’s just that English translators have traditionally rendered the Hebrew and Greek words differently, with “stranger” and “alien,” “foreigner” and (my favorite) “sojourner.”

How do I know this? Let’s tackle the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in this post, starting with the Hebrew word gēr. This is the main word the Hebrew Bible uses to describe people living outside their country of origin. It’s used in a technical legal sense to contrast foreign-born peoples with native-born, as in Numbers 15:29: “For both the native among the Israelites and the immigrant (gēr) residing among them—you shall have the same law for anyone who acts in error.” 

In 21st-century America, we make distinctions between immigrants and refugees. Those who move to other countries by choice are seen as being different from those who are forced to leave to escape violence, starvation, or persecution. But the language and thought of the Bible doesn’t make these distinctions. The same word is applied to both our categories. Abraham is called a gēr (Gen 23:4), and we know that he left his homeland by choice, in response to God’s call. And the people of Israel are also gērîm (the plural) when they are driven by a devastating famine to settle in Egypt: “Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be refugees (gērîm) in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years” (Gen 15:13). 

This last example begins to tell us what the Bible has to say about the gēr. The Israelites are vulnerable when they must take refuge in Egypt, and that vulnerability is exploited. They are made slaves for generations. And whether the Exodus was a historical event or simply the defining mythos of a people, it creates a compassion for migrants that permeates the whole Hebrew Bible. “You shall not oppress a refugee (gēr); you know the heart of a refugee, for you were refugees in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). Most laws are explicitly stated to apply equally to foreign-born and native-born peoples, but beyond that, there are repeated injunctions not to oppress the gēr. These commands reflect a world that seems quite familiar to us today: people who migrate are likely to be in need, at risk, relatively powerless and afraid.

The writers of Scripture are acutely aware of the vulnerability of immigrants, and consistent in demanding justice, mercy, and hospitality for them. This compassion rises not from a lack of national pride, but precisely because in the milieu of the Hebrew Bible, one’s homeland is vitally important. God tells us to take special care of those who, by leaving their native land, have lost much of their security and sense of identity. So when Job tells God, “The migrant (gēr) has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler” (Job 31:32), he’s calling on a universally affirmed value, that hospitality to the wanderer is an essential part of being a good person. And in Psalm 146, the gēr is declared to be under the protection of God: “The Lord watches over the refugees (gērîm); he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9).

There are other words for migrants, foreigners, travelers, and transients in the Hebrew Bible, though they’re used less frequently. Nēkār seems to emphasize the aspect of foreignness or strangeness. Tôšāb comes from the verb meaning “to dwell” or “to sit” and is frequently used in a frozen idiom with gēr. In the King James Version, this phrase is translated “Stranger and sojourner.” See, for example, Psalm 39:12: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.” 

And this takes us, finally, into another reason the Bible exhorts us to treat the refugee with justice and hospitality: we are all, in the long run, refugees. This isn’t simply a poetic figure of speech. It’s written into the laws regarding property sales: “The land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23, KJV). As long as we live, whoever we are, we are vulnerable, porous, open to exploitation and in need of the kindness of strangers. This land—every land—belongs to God, who has given it to us as an outpouring of God’s own hospitality, mercy, and justice. And God invites us to do the same.

Coming Soon: Refugees in the New Testament


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