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Immigrants and Foreigners in the Bible

The Hebrew Bible contains a variety of views about foreigners, reflecting the fact that Israel was in nearly constant contact with foreign peoples.

Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali

Modern Christians frequently assert that early Christianity accepted Jews and Gentiles on an equal basis as potentially righteous people in fellowship with God, in contrast to more xenophobic attitudes toward non-Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. However, the Hebrew Bible is not of one mind on this topic (and noting the debates in Acts, neither were all early Christians!).

Israelites would always have had contact with non-Israelites, in their land and in circumstances of exile and diaspora. There were Philistine and Canaanite cities amongst Israelite villages from the tribal period into the monarchy; the Philistine cities of Gath and Ekron are classic border towns, showing signs of frequent mixing between Israelites and Philistines (1Sam 27). The Transjordanian peoples (Ammon, Moab, and Edom) are depicted both positively and negatively—sometimes within the same book! For example, Deuteronomy states that the Ammonites and Edomites are to be left to live in their lands in peace (Deut 2:4-5, Deut 2:19, Deut 23:7). But texts such as Num 20:14-21 and Deut 23:3 take a much more negative tone toward the Edomites.

What is the reason for these attitudes? On one end of the spectrum, with the purity concerns typically advocated by the priesthood, there is a serious suspicion of corruption from contact with foreigners, especially foreign women. Despite the fact that aliens living among the Israelites were to be treated with basic decency—being allowed to glean with the poor among the Israelites (Lev 19:10), for example—it is also true that no animal gift from a foreign person was acceptable as an offering to God; the foreign source seems sufficient to render it “blemished” (Lev 22:25, Ezek 44). Furthermore, Leviticus explicitly allows slaves to be taken from among the “aliens residing with you” (Lev 25:44-46).

In the postexilic period, Ezra and Nehemiah’s horror of mixed marriages represents an opinion that such mixing is dangerous to the survival of the Jewish people (Ezra 9, Neh 9:2). The fear of foreign women is also reflected in the figure of “Lady Foolishness” in Proverbs, portrayed as a foreign temptress. Yet, it is likely that the story of Ruth, which features a foreign heroine, was composed precisely as a counterargument to such negative views.

In contrast, Deuteronomy sometimes represents a more positive attitude toward foreigners. Although Deuteronomy permits taking foreign peoples as slaves, their treatment is to be tempered by the realization that “you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut 5:15, Deut 15:15, Deut 16:12, Deut 24:18). Furthermore, Israelites were commanded to provide asylum to slaves who had fled because of mistreatment Deut 23:15), and there is no suggestion that this applies only to Israelite slaves. Finally, a number of biblical texts group foreigners with others in difficult circumstances who deserve protection (the “widow, orphan, and foreigner/alien,” in Deut 10:18, Ps 146:9, Jer 7:6, Jer 22:3, Zech 7:10, Mal 3:5).

Some texts even go so far as to say that many foreigners will become part of God’s people. Second and Third Isaiah call on Israel to be a “light to the nations” (Isa 49:6) and include foreigners (Isa 56:3-7) even to the surprising extent that foreigners may serve as priests. This motif of positive relations with foreigners is especially notable in Zech 8:23:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”

  • Daniel L. Smith-Christopher

    Daniel L. Smith-Christopher is professor of Old Testament at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. A Quaker, Smith-Christopher has a particular interest in the biblical literature of Exile, issues of peace and nonviolence, and also in indigenous and diasporic interpretations of Scripture.