Undocumented Aliens in the Bible (and in the News)

In the book of Genesis, when God calls on Abram, and offers to bless him, God does not explain what qualifies this man for the encounter and blessing (12:1).   Later, we get a hint. God characterizes the man’s good qualities: “He will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (18:19).  We have to search the narrative to see what that means in practice.  A key moment: three strange men come across near the entrance to Abram’s tent, and he runs out to greet them, to invite them in, to prepare a feast for them (18:2ff).

He does not ask whether these three men have permission to travel there; he does not challenge their credentials; he does not ask their nationality, or even their names.  It seems that taking care of random strangers might count as Abram’s special qualification.

Later two of these men show up at Sodom to deliver a message to Lot, Abram’s nephew.  Lot also invites them, and insists that they stay with him rather than sleep in the plaza.  As becomes clear, these men have no permission to come to Sodom.  They are precisely illegals, as the residents of Sodom make clear.  Lot risks his life to protect them, for the men of Sodom threaten to gang rape the visitors, and then do worse to Lot (19:1ff).

The people of Sodom judge sexual violence as the appropriate punishment for unwanted border-crossers, with worse punishment for helping the unwanted visitors. God, however judges Sodom as deserving of destruction. The sin of the people of Sodom, according to the prophet Ezekiel, appears in their refusal to help the poor and the needy (16:49).

At the crucial moment, Lot heroically demonstrates hospitality at the risk of his own life.  Lot’s descendants,  the Ammonites and Moabites, behave less hospitably towards foreign visitors; when the children of Israel leave Egypt and come to Ammon and Moab, the two nations do “not meet you with food and water” ( Deut 23:4).  One could understand not wanting a foreign people to pass through a nation’s territory, so it might seem good enough to refrain from military action to keep the strangers away. Apparently the standard requires actively helping the refugees, and the text imposes harsh consequences for failure to help: “No Ammonite or Moabite, or any of their descendants, shall come into the community of God” (Deut. 23:3).

Years later, refugees come to Moab from Judah.  Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons leave Bethlehem because of a famine, and settle in Moab. The Moabites do not intern the refugees, or drive them out; the refugees settle in Moab, and the sons even marry Moabite women (Ruth 1:2ff).    Even Moab, castigated in the Bible for inhospitality, accepts these refugees.

When the famine ends, Naomi returns to Judah, she brings Ruth, her widowed (former) daughter-in-law with her.  The people of Judah do not offer much help, but they do not actively prevent the foreigner from entry.  One man, Boaz, provides the foreign refugee with some food, and with the opportunity to collect more (2:15ff, and 3:15). Boaz eventually marries Ruth, and they have a son, Obed, the grandfather of David, King of Israel.

So, before there were any Jews, or, for that matter, Christians and Moslems, according the Bible tells us that God chose to deal with Abraham, who welcomed strangers and provided them with food and drink.  Lot also offers food and drink to illegal immigrants, and tries to protect the illegal immigrants from his neighbors, the people of Sodom.  When angels unleash destruction on the inhospitable Sodomites, the angels save Lot.  In these stories, and in many others, the Bible demands that we humans treat strangers, even vagabonds without papers or legal protection, with compassion, with food and drink.   It seems that God wants us to treat these poor stragglers the way we would want to be treated, if and when we leave our homes in fear for our lives, or in search of security, or of opportunity.

Federal Prosecutors put Scott Warren on trial for providing sustenance to undocumented immigrants, and for the felony of allegedly shielding them from agents of the Border Patrol.  The case in Federal District Court in Tucson ended in a hung jury.  The attitude of the Department of Justice towards Scott Warren in this case closely resembles the attitude of the people of Sodom towards Lot.

Those, whether they call themselves Jews, Christians or Muslim, who support the role of the Federal Government in dealing with undocumented immigrants choose the way of Sodom over the way of Abraham.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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