"Love The Alien As Yourself": Trump's Refugee Ban And The Bible

Donald Trump's ban on global refugees and Muslim inhabitants of seven nations is not just excruciatingly bad policy. It is an affront to one of the core ideals of both Judaism and Christianity, as well as anybody else who thinks of the Bible as a source of important moral guidance, because the open-armed welcome of strangers is central to biblical traditions. In fact, hospitality to the vulnerable makes ancient Israel stand out in stark relief from its neighbors.

Unless you were part of the vanishingly small elite class, the ancient Near East was a brutal place to live. Resources were scarce and excess food and water were almost nonexistent. Local communities were wary of any wandering foreigners. They posed a threat to everyone's livelihood: if we give them food, will we have enough for ourselves? What if they get greedy and take all we have? These questions are understandable when almost everyone was living on the brink of starvation. As a result, ancient Near Eastern peoples such as the Canaanites extended hospitality to foreign dignitaries, but they shunned visitors who might not be able to give something in return - like those fleeing oppression.

In this respect, ancient Israel is an oddity among their neighbors: they insist, again and again, that their God, Yahweh, demands that the entire community welcome strangers. Their stories repeat this theme (see Genesis 18 and Ruth 1-4), and their legal codes, found in the Torah, make the requirement to offer hospitality to the stranger binding.

In the book of Exodus, just after Yahweh gives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, this command becomes part of the covenant: "You shall not wrong or oppress an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:21). The Hebrew word here translated alien, "ger," refers to someone on a journey -- in other words, this isn't about people with immigrant grandparents or long-settled individuals.

In the book of Leviticus, the Israelites are commanded to provide food for all those who are needy: "You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien" (Leviticus 19:10). Moreover, Israelites are supposed to treat foreigners exactly as they treat one of their kin, or even how they treat themselves: "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:34). The Israelites are also commanded to give full legal protections to foreign visitors: "You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen" (Leviticus 24:22), and "You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice" (Deuteronomy 24:17).

Why would Yahweh want the Israelites to welcome, nourish and protect vulnerable strangers who wander into their communities? There are two reasons. First, Israel is composed of vulnerable, oppressed people whom Yahweh chose to help. Abraham, Sarah and Hagar were all foreigners in the land of Canaan. One recitation of Israelite history that worshipers are instructed to recite begins with "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number" (Deuteronomy 26:5). In case the irony is not clear enough: "Arameans" is an ancient word for Syrians. So, Israel starts as a group of Syrian refugees oppressed by a foreign superpower. Yet these terrible circumstances are precisely why Yahweh heard the cry of the Hebrew slaves and came to rescue them (Exodus 3:7; Deuteronomy 26:6): that is, Yahweh is particularly sensitive to the cry of the vulnerable when they are threatened (Exodus 22:21-23).

And this is the second reason why Yahweh wants Israel to welcome the stranger: because "I am Yahweh" (Leviticus 19:34). Yahweh is different than the other gods of the ancient Near East: for starters, Yahweh lives in the Sinai wilderness, far removed from the luxurious centers of power in the Nile valley and along the Euphrates river (Exodus 3:1). Yahweh is opposed to the oppressive, hierarchical and self-serving theologies of the ancient Near East. Instead of choosing a strong nation to dominate the world by force, Yahweh chooses to work with a ragtag group of recently freed slaves to bring blessing to all the nations o the world (Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 19:6).

Yahweh has always listened more intently to the cries of the downtrodden, of which the alien is a repeated example. As a result, Yahweh demands that everyone follow suit and lend a hand -- particularly those who were once wanderers themselves, or who are descended from wanderers, but who are, by the grace of God, now in a safe place.

This attitude of radical hospitality to the vulnerable is utterly bizarre in its cultural setting. Among several law codes from the ancient Near East that survive today (Hammurabi's code is merely one of them), none say anything at all about welcoming, protecting or loving strangers. Except, that is, the law codes found in the Bible.

The New Testament is very similar: welcoming the vulnerable is welcoming Jesus himself. Not only is Jesus a descendent of a foreign refugee (Mathew 1:5), he himself was a refugee in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23). If the point isn't clear enough, Matthew 25:37-40 hammers it home: God is present especially in the vulnerable, including the needy stranger, and when you refuse them, you are refusing Jesus himself (see also Hebrews 13:2).

Anyone calling themselves a Christian, or anyone who says that they value the Bible, must then welcome the vulnerable stranger. It is not simply a recommendation or a cultural affectation of the ancient world: it is a core commitment of the God whom the Bible claims to depict. God has issued an executive order: love the stranger. If you count yourself in this group, then let's get to work.