immigration crisisThe Hebrew word usually translated “stranger,” “alien,” or “sojourner” derives from the verb gwr, which occurs eighty-one times in the Old Testament. It means “to sojourn” or “to dwell as a stranger, become a refugee.” As a noun, ger is found eighty-two times in Hebrew. More than 160 occurrences of these words indicate just how common aliens were in ancient Israel’s experience.

But what exactly is a ger? One source of confusion for readers of the Bible is that English versions differ on how to translate the Hebrew term ger. Some translations, especially older ones, render this word as “stranger” (e.g., KJV, NASB, JB), while others prefer “sojourner” (RSV, ESV). The translation “stranger” is problematic as it is a bit archaic and has different connotations today than it did in the past. More modern versions opt for the translation “alien” (NEB, NIV, NJB, NRSV). Unfortunately some contemporary versions render ger as “foreigner” (TNIV, TLV). “Foreigner” is hardly an adequate alternative as it is too vague, not to mention being misleading because different Hebrew words are rendered “foreigner” in the Bible, nekhar and zar. In the end, the TNIV and TLV end up translating both words as “foreigner” (cf. Exod. 23:12; Deut. 1:16; 14:21 where nekhar is used). The words ger and nekhar refer to two different categories of people, as we will see below. The two cannot be confused. Understanding the Bible’s definition of an alien or sojourner and how one attained that status is critical to the current debate because advocates for illegal immigrants are using passages from the Old Testament to support their position as if the English word alien and the Hebrew word ger have the exact same meaning.

One advocacy group, Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, on the Sojourners website, quotes Leviticus 19:33, which states “When a stranger [i.e., ger] resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you,” and then based on this Scripture they declare, “we are working together to revive comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible, because we share a set of common moral and theological principles that compel us to love and care for the stranger among us.”

While this compassionate concern is commendable, their statement begs the question, does the word ger (i.e., alien, sojourner, stranger) apply to immigrants regardless of their legal standing? If people with varying views on the status of illegal immigrants are going to cite the Bible to legitimize their position, especially passages that specifically deal with “aliens,” it is imperative to know what the Hebrew Bible meant by the term ger. Let us consider further the biblical evidence, especially that furnished by the book of Genesis.

From the Bible and ethnographic evidence it is evident that outsiders were able to enter and stay in a foreign land because they were offered hospitality by a host, and one’s status as an alien was an extension of that welcome. When Abraham approached the residents of Hebron to purchase a burial plot for his wife Sarah who had just died, he identified himself as “an alien and a stranger” (Gen. 23:4) or “an alien and a settler” (NEB). What are the legal and social implications of this identification?

The word alien (ger) is sometimes coupled with the term resident (toshav, literally “one who resides”), the second word Abraham attributes to himself. Rather than translating this expression as “an alien and a stranger,” the two terms together likely mean “resident alien.” Such individuals or families, a clan or tribe, are those who have essentially taken up permanent residence in a foreign land, as Abraham and his family had done in Hebron with the permission of their host. In fact, the residents of Hebron acknowledged Abraham’s status as being one who is “among us” (23:6) rather than viewing him as a foreigner (nekhar or zar). The distinction between the two is not only that the aliens (gerim) have resided with a host nation for a period of time, but that “they have abandoned their homeland for political or economic reasons and sought refuge in another community.” In other words, the ger regards the land of his sojourning as the new home for a protracted time period, while the foreigner does not.

Typically the foreigner is one who travels through a country or is there for business purposes. As a consequence, as we shall see in Chapter 4, the Law prescribes for aliens certain legal protection as well as social and religious benefits that foreigners (nekhar and zar) do not get. One of the reasons aliens required “a host or patron” was because they would not be a part of any kinship group and thus would lack protection.27 This is why the meaning “protected citizen” can also be applied to the word ger. The practice of using a host family or sponsoring individual still persists in some countries to this day for immigrants and refugees.

The alien, then, is a guest of sorts. As such the alien was not entitled to offer hospitality to others. By way of analogy, if one invites guests into one’s home, it is hardly appropriate for the visitor to invite other guests into the host’s home.[1]



[1] James K. Hoffmeier, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009).