Relevant Verses: Deuteronomy 10:1–19; 23:7; 24:19, 20
Theme: How to Treat the Other
Leading Question: Why do we have trouble with a God who calls for justice?
ou will not find the term “refugee” in the Bible. But the Bible has plenty to say about people called “strangers,” “sojourners,” or “foreigners,” and some Bibles even have “aliens.” The book of Deuteronomy has the most occurrences of the Hebrew word ger, meaning “stranger” (22 times). A “stranger” refers to anybody who was from another ethnic group but lived among the tribes of Israel. Often the reason was that such a person came to find refuge because of hardship, famine, and war, or the stranger was brought into the land as a slave.
For instance, Ruth was from the tribe of Moab and came to live with her mother-in-law in Bethlehem. In Ruth 2:10 we see her ask Boaz, in whose field she is gleaning, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me — a foreigner?” She understands her status as not being part of the tribes of Israel.
Hagar is the Bible’s paramount stranger. While in English, we call her Hagar by name, in Hebrew, hager means “the stranger.” She was an Egyptian woman taken as a slave into Abraham’s and Sarah’s household. Her story, as told in Gen 16 and 21, is heartbreaking.
Read: Deut 10:14–19 and Deut 27:19
Question: Why did God pay so much attention to how Israel treated the strangers?
We use many different terms today for what the Bible calls strangers, foreigners, and sojourners. Here are a few:
- Displaced persons — those who have been forced to leave their homes (community) due to violent conflict, war, or a natural disaster. These people temporarily live in another community in their country and usually return home when things improve.
- Refugees — people who have been forced to leave their nation due to violent conflict or war. These people want to return to their country once the war or conflict is over. These situations often lead to years of displacement.
- Migrants — those who have chosen to leave their home country, mainly to escape poverty. These people are making a permanent move and would not return unless conditions improved significantly.
- Immigrants — very similar to “migrant.” Someone who moves to another country for any number of reasons, including marriage or other family ties, employment/business opportunity, etc. Some distinguish between immigrants with legal papers to enter a country and those without legal permission. This would not have been a consideration in Bible times.
- Asylum seekers — individuals who ask to live in another country to escape severe religious or political persecution or another violation of their human rights. These people would not return home unless the reason for their move came to an end.
- Stateless persons — those who are not a citizen under the laws of any country. People can become stateless in many ways, such as when a country ceases to exist or when a country adopts discriminatory laws that do not recognize certain ethnic groups within its borders.
- Visitors — people coming into a country or community for a defined time. Some come for a vacation or sabbatical. Others come for an education. These individuals return home when that time period is over.
In the Bible, providing justice for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan means caring for those in society who live on the margins and need to be cared for. This can mean helping them monetarily as well as setting up the proper social structures to combat their plight. God calls all nations to implement and embody justice and righteousness for the strangers and the poor. This view of government existed throughout the ancient Near East where legitimate rule was predicated on the basis of “justice” and “righteousness” for the oppressed and the lowly. Accordingly, rulers who did not maintain a just social order would be deposed (Daniel 4:27).
“Anyone who oppresses the poor insults their Maker, but anyone who is kind to the needy honors him” (Proverbs 14:31).
Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “It is not enough to be concerned for the life to come. Our immediate concern must be with justice and compassion in life here and now, with human dignity, welfare and security” (Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, 147).
God’s concern for justice grows out of His compassion for man. The prophets do not speak of a divine relationship to an absolute principle or idea, called justice. They are intoxicated with the awareness of God’s relationship to His people and to all men. Justice is not important for its own sake; the motivation for justice, and the validity of its exercise lie in the blessings it brings to man. For justice, as stated above, is not an abstraction, a value. Justice exists in relation to a person, and is something done by a person. An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt. What is the image of a person? A person is a being whose anguish may reach the heart of God (Heschel, The Prophets, p. 276).
Question: What allows some individuals to take a stand against oppression while others choose to participate in it?
Question: Has there ever been a time when your idea of justice and compassion and God’s idea of justice and compassion were different? How did you reconcile those feelings?
Question: How can I look out for others—the stranger, the poor, the marginalized—as if they are an extension of me?