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I Understand
Volume 1.2 / The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible

Book Review

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The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible

Book Author: James Hoffmeier
Publisher: Wheaton, Crossway, 2012. 176 pp.
Reviewed by Darren Carlson

What does the Bible say about immigration? James Hoffmeier lays out a compelling case in his book The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible. He begins by stating the problem plainly—Western countries, particularly the United States, have a problem on their hands. There are roughly 500,000 illegal immigrants in Britain, 1M in Germany and 12–15M in the United States. In Arizona, which borders Mexico, 10% of the population is made up of illegal immigrants.

Hoffmeier’s concern is to address how the Bible speaks about immigration and to address arguments various Christian organizations make in their support for various legal reforms. The first big question he tackles is how to apply the Bible to present-day laws and issues. This of course goes beyond just immigration. Christians have wrestled through how the OT Law applies in their personal lives, not to mention how they should desire to influence public laws in a secular state. Hoffmeier argues for a robust approach, moving away from simplistic formulas. He actually confuses the lan- guage a little bit here (p. 26) as he first states positions as ways forward. He really makes a statement (first view) and then critiques three ways of approaching the Bible (2–4 ways).

First, he argues that we must recognize the differences that exist between our culture and Israel’s culture. The differences in culture, economic structure and social milieu must be taken into account. By example—how one thinks of poverty today versus someone who was poor then is very different. Hoffmeier believes a proof-texting approach is simple and naïve, and that we must take differences of time and culture into account. This is a helpful point, but one most people would recognize.

In the second approach (which is really the first) desires to take seriously the demand for justice found in Israel’s prophets. Martin Luther King, in this way of reading the prophetic material, called for fairly applied American Law, as he quoted Amos in his famous “I have a Dream” speech and referred to biblical texts often in his writings. In Hoffmeier’s view this approach is commendable, but limiting justice to the failed application of existing laws makes the Bible only serve as a reaction to what is present instead of a way forward to something new.

Thirdly, he states a view motivated by a desire to understand the theological or ethnical prin- ciples behind the Law and then use that doctrine to shape or critique federal, state and local laws. Hoffmeier appreciates this but offers that a fourth way to approach the OT Law is to “take a more comprehensive view of the teaching of the Bible in theological, social and economic areas.’ Here he highlights Christopher Wright.

The strength of the book is Hoffmeier’s scholarship. He breaks the discussion of immigration law into different time periods of the Bible: Abraham, Exodus and then the application of the law in Israel, then during exile and then during the time of Jesus. The discussion is not just limited to what the Bible records, but also what neighboring countries enforced during the time of the Patriarchs and conquest. In each chapter he is very narrow in his approach. With the exception of one time, he saves the application to the end. The data is stated rather matter-of-factly with little commentary on how the arguments might apply to current discussions. So when Hoffmeier asks what the Bible says about immigration, most of the time he is discussing right application of the law in the period when the Bible was recorded.

His presentation boils down to four concepts: (1) Every nation has the right to decide who can and who cannot enter its territory. (2) Legal entry requires obtaining permission from the host people (3) OT laws regarding the alien are for those who come into the land legally (4) The NT adds no new teaching, but reinforces what the OT teachers said and emphasizes respect toward laws and authority.

Starting with Abraham he relies not just on biblical data, but practices that can be found in places where Hoffmeier has spent his time on archeological digs. He then brings that information to the discussion to inform Bible texts. For example: The OT speaks of borders in the land of Canaan (Ex 16:35), Egypt (1 Kings 4:21) and the borders of Israel (1 Sam 27:1). The question is whether these borders were seriously and sovereignly recognized (p32). Hoffmeier gives multiple examples from the Biblical text to make his point (Num 20:16-21; Jud 11:16-20). Nations clearly controlled their borders and determined who could pass through. In a celebrated tomb scene from a governor in 19th century BC, there is depicted a band of Semites entering the land. The picture shows the chief presenting his credentials, which Hoffmeier says acted like a visa. To protect territorial integrity, Egyptians built border forts to protect against invocation and mass migration. As Abraham entered Egypt (Gen 12:11) maybe fearing for his life or that his wife might be taken, he proposes a diplomatic relationship with Pharaoh by offering his “sister” Sarah to be his wife. Near the end of his life when his wife died, he needed to purchase property for her burial (Gen 23:3–4). Here he recognizes his immigrant status and need to conform to the laws of the Land.

Hoffmeier’s best section turns now when he discusses the Hebrew verb ger, from which the noun ger is derived as usually translated “stranger,” “alien” or “sojourner.” For him, the Bible’s definition of these words is critical to the current debate. This is probably only true in the US where many quote passages from the Old Testament to support their position. Here Hoffmeier provides his real only direct critique of another view. He mentions Sojourners, an influential evangelical advocacy group in the United States, which quotes Lev. 19:33 as their primary text: When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the stranger. Sojourners foundation is based on “principles that compel us to love and care for the stranger among us.”

The question remains: what does ger mean? He contends that the ger (alien/sojourner), is one who settles in a new land for an extended period of time and integrates into that society, However he adds to this a controversial point when he adds “In the Hebrew Bible the alien (ger) was a person who entered Israel and followed legal procedures to obtain recognized standing as a resident alien” (p. 52). This is the argument that underpins the entire book.

This list he gives of texts to support are impressive and I generally agree with his conclusion on his lexical study of alien/sojourner and his explanation of the true meaning of a sanctuary city in the OT. But does the OT text actually address the following of legal proceedings in every instance?

When Ruth arrives in Bethlehem, there are no legal proceedings mentioned. When Jacob in Genesis 33 buys land from the city of Shechem, Hoffmeier says that he had first received permission to dwell in that region (p. 53-54). The text, though, says only that he bought property after moving into the region (33:18-20); obtaining permission is an assumption. Seeking property is what people do to establish roots in their adopted land and make a life for themselves.

The greatest weakness of the book is that it really doesn’t address the immigration crisis at all. While it does make some general points about immigration in the Bible, which most would agree on, the question of application is left aside. His basic application is to submit to laws in place. This might work as an ancient Israelite living under the law of God for that time. But what of Christians, who live across all borders? While there should be a willingness to help legal aliens, nothing is said about those that are undocumented. That seems to miss the general thrust of NT teaching on showing compassion for those who are marginalized.

To say that undocumented Christians “need to be sensitive to their obligation to this teaching of Scripture [i.e., to submit to the law] and work through what may be deemed to be imperfect government procedures to obtain legal status” is to not appreciate what is occurring. The book concentrates on the nature of entry across national borders. But again, the issue of immigration is quite complex, which is why one is shocked to read, “in the data amassed in these chapters, I see nothing in Scripture that would abrogate current immigration laws” (p. 146). What of the millions of undocumented workers in the US who are needed to uphold local economies, which explains why certain sectors (like agriculture workers in CA) are rarely raided by the authorities. Who is taking advantage of whom in this scenario? What of the makeshift enforcement at the border of the US and Mexico?

Or take the significant challenge of immigrants in Greece, where people enter illegally, claim asylum, but are never given the proper paperwork because the local authorities want the immigrants to leave. If the laws of the country of destination are unjust, should Christians tell the sojourner to stay out? Human need is what drives immigration. Abraham went to Egypt because he had no food. What if he had been denied entrance? Would he have just starved to death? If illegal entry means survival, should the Christian then support the person fleeing for their life or send them back to die and uphold the law.

With that said, there has been much ink spilled on how Christians should appropriately engage in this issue, whether at a federal, state or personal level. One recognizes that laws are in place for a reason and that to ignore laws would be catastrophic to any country. That debate is left for another time. It is not a book about the current immigration crisis in various places around the world. It is a book about the relevant Biblical data and for that it is commendable. 

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