immigration crisisEveryone knows the celebrated teaching of Jesus in the Gospels: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31). But as readers of the Torah or the Old Testament law know, it did not originate with him in the first century A.D. Rather, the New Testament citations are actually found in Leviticus, and Jesus is quoting that passage. The entire verse reads, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). A few paragraphs later, this remarkable law is specifically applied to aliens: “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34, NRSV).


Surprisingly, biblical law has a lot to say about the alien in Israelite society. In fact, the word for alien (ger) occurs more than sixty times in the legal section of the Torah. Previously (Chapter 2) it was shown that an alien was a foreigner who was a legal resident of Israel. The foreigner (nekhar or zar) was not. When these terms are found in the legal section of the Pentateuch, we see that the foreigner does not enjoy the benefits and protections afforded to the alien (ger). For a good example that illustrates the difference in status between the foreigner and the alien, consider the laws regarding paying interest. Leviticus 25:35–37 records that Israelites should not charge interest on loans to fellow Israelites and aliens. Foreigners (nokharim), on the other hand, could be charged interest (Deut. 15:3). Clearly there is a difference in status between the ger and the nekhar and zar as reflected in the laws regarding interest. The question we need to address here is, why does the Torah offer such a sympathetic stance regarding the alien?

The oppressive treatment that the Israelites experienced as aliens in Egypt is without a doubt the main reason so many of the laws deal with the alien in Israel. After all, Israel knew what it was like to be an alien and to be harshly treated. Consequently, it is not surprising that God gave so many statutes concerning the appropriate treatment of aliens. In this chapter I will review many of the laws dealing with the alien who lived in Israel.

The two greatest commandments of the Law, according to the New Testament, are: love God and love your neighbor (Matt. 22:37–38; Luke 10:27). These two pillars of biblical law are reflected in the Ten Commandments themselves because the first four deal with the relationship between Israel and God (Exod. 20:2–11; Deut. 5:6–15), and the latter six pertain to the social arena (Exod. 20:12–17; Deut. 5:16–21). The Ten Commandments themselves might be viewed as establishing the basic categories of religious and social law. All succeeding laws are themselves logical extensions and nuances of the Ten. As one reviews all the laws about aliens, it is apparent that they can be divided into several obvious categories, which I have placed under the following rubrics: 1) general ethical considerations, 2) legal protection, 3) treatment of employees, 4) social benefits, and 5) religious participation. Having offered these different categories, it will be obvious that they often overlap, especially the religious and social spheres.

In the following sections, the term ger is consistently used for the alien. As was demonstrated in Chapter 2, the ger had legal standing in the community and therefore was afforded protection and had rights. The same is not true for the foreigner, i.e., the nekhar or zar who lacked legal status and therefore is not mentioned anywhere in the Law as having these benefits. This is a salient point in the current debate about aliens and illegal immigrants in America, especially for those who look to the Bible to establish their position on how illegal aliens should be treated by the legal system.

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