What We Can Learn From The Anti-Immigrant Passages In The Bible

…and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.’  (Nehemiah 13: 24-25)

We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with God to send away all these wives and their children, (Ezra 10:2-3)

For the most part, the Bible is written from the perspective of Immigrants. Abraham is an immigrant. Joseph and later his family and descendants are immigrants into Egypt. After the Exodus the Israelites are immigrants in Canaan. During the exile they are immigrants/refugees. With all that in mind it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of the Bible is essentially pro-immigrant. Throughout Hebrew law the Israelites are constantly reminded to care for the migrant and the resident alien because they were once aliens in the land of Egypt.

There is, however, one place where the scriptures are fairly unequivocally anti-foreigner. After returning from the exile the Israelites are led by the political leader Nehemiah and the priest Ezra. The stories are told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah of how Ezra renewed the the covenant with God and Nehemiah rebuilt the military wall. Both books record the wave of anti-foreigner sentiment led by the political establishment. Ezra and Nehemiah are concerned with the purity of their people, and maintaining their status as a people set apart before God. Ezra condemns the people (naturally, he’s only speaking to the men), “For they have taken some of their [foreigners] daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the people of the lands” (Ezra 9:2).  He then tells the assembly to “never seek their peace or prosperity” (Ezra 9:12) and sends away all of the wives and children (Ezra 10:2, Nehemiah 9:2).  Meanwhile Nehemiah curses them, beats them, and pulls out their hair (Nehemiah 13:25).

I’ll return to the story of Ezra and Nehemiah in a minute, but first I want to give a little bit of history on today’s anti-immigrant movement. Chris Hayes writes an excellent profile of John Tanton, the liberal/progressive ecologist who founded many of the organizations that currently advocate for restricting immigration. Tanton’s initial arguments were about the damaging effects of brain drain and the inequality and poverty that drove immigration. He was also concerned about preserving the environment by keeping human populations steady, arguing that “each country ought to try to match its population to its resource base.” He was an early advocate of birth control and founded the first Northern Michigan chapter of Planned Parenthood.

As he campaigned against immigration, Tanton found that his arguments did not resonate with people. Instead, people would tell him some variation of, “I tell you what pisses me off, it’s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can’t read.” The emotional power of language and culture far outweighed any kind of ecological or economic argument over immigration. In order to help the movement succeed, it became increasingly driven by those who felt their language, culture, and identity were threatened by this new wave of immigration.

Even though much of what is said about immigration relates to economics, there’s really not much debate among economists over the positive economic impacts of increased immigration.  But as Tanton’s experience showed, the economics may be an intellectual rationale, but the emotional center of the debate is about culture.  The current legislative debates include an English language provision, requiring undocumented immigrants to be proficient in English in order to be considered for citizenship. Paul Waldman provides a solid analysis of the political importance of this provision:

As a group, Americans have contradictory feelings about immigration. We can’t divide the country into “pro-immigrant” and “anti-immigrant” groups, even if you might be able to make such a division among politicians or talk-show hosts. Apart from a small population of hard-core nativists, most Americans acknowledge that we’re all descended from immigrants of one kind or another, whether your ancestors walked across the Bering Strait land bridge, came over on a slave ship, or drove down from Toronto. They also appreciate that immigration gives our country vitality, and that immigrants are exactly the kind of hard-working, ambitious strivers that drive our economy and culture forward. But at the same time, many feel threatened when they see the character of their towns and cities change, and nothing embodies that change more than language. When people walk into a store and hear a language being spoken that they don’t understand, they suddenly feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, alienated and insecure. I’m not putting a value judgment on that feeling, but it’s undeniable.

Historically, immigrants have wound up learning English anyway, so some on the left have argued that this provision is not a big deal, and if it helps immigration reform pass, then we should keep it in the deal.  I can certainly agree it’s better than cursing them, beating them, pulling out their hair, and separating them from their families, but better yet would be an actual discussion of culture and immigration. Here, we can take a cue from the authors of the books of Jonah and Ruth.

While Ezra and Nehemiah were rooting out foreigners, a few Israelites were telling stories that cast foreigners in a completely different light (much the way Jesus would later do in the parable of the Good Samaritan). In the story of Jonah we have a native prophet who can’t do anything right, while even the livestock of the hated Ninevite foreigners are repentant. The story of Ruth celebrates the loyalty of Ruth the Moabite who follows her mother-in-law back to Israel. As Ruth is taking advantage of the gleaning laws (Lev 19:9-10, 23:22, Deut 24:19-22) to ward off hunger she meets Boaz, a distant relation of her husband’s family. They are married, and Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David.

The Bible is full of stories, and many of them are reactions or counter-reactions to the established religious paradigm. The authors of Jonah and Ruth reacted against the anti-immigrant stance of Ezra and Nehemiah, just as the wisdom sages reacted against the theology of the deuteronomists. One of the many things I find beautiful about my sacred scripture is that it shows the way in which religion is always in conversation with itself. The authors of the Bible don’t all agree about theology or public policy, and we get to see it all.  Yes, the overwhelming evidence suggests that coherent theology demands a pro-immigrant stance (and it does), but the lesson of Ezra and Nehemiah is that the discussion over the importance of culture cannot simply be dismissed, and that the best way to meet it is not with economic charts and graphs, but rather with stories full of humor and charm.

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5 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From The Anti-Immigrant Passages In The Bible

  1. Hey Nate,

    Great article and reflection. I am especially affected by this piece because I just returned from a two week study tour in Palestine and Israel with two dozen people from Chicago Theological Seminary, where I am an M.Div. student. After reading your article and reflecting on this complex journey in the Middle East, I am left with two thoughts.

    The first has to do with borders as a theo-political reality, which have resounding importance in both the Middle East and the United States (and elsewhere). I noticed how much borders helped to preserve a sense of political and religious identity/legitimacy in Israel. And while most immigrants trying to come to the U.S. are Christians, they present a different vision of Christianity that may seem threatening to others (especially conservative and evangelical traditions). However, like in both geographical situations the wall is somewhat of an illusion since there are Arab Muslims and Christians in Israel and Latino Christians in the U.S.

    The other thought I had was related to your ideas of language as being a really critical component to a lot of the debate and anxiety regarding immigration. I was reflecting with a fellow student who I went to Palestine and Israel with about how it felt uncomfortable to have our various NGO or activist presenters during the trip speaking in English, which is often not their native tongue. It felt like they had to give up a part of their identity and conform to our ears. There was even one part, and I assume numerous others, where it was evident that the english translation of and Arabic speaking person was losing a big part of the beauty and authenticity of rhetoric it originally had. So, my point is that I wish the immigration debate had a provision for all U.S. citizens to learn Spanish (at least), so that we do not lose culture but add culture to our delicious tossed salad that is the United States.

    Thanks for your reflection and I welcome any thoughts you have in response to my reflection.

    Peace to you,

    1. Nic,

      Sorry it’s taken so long for me to reply, it’s been a busy week for me. Thanks for your comment and sharing some thoughts about your recent trip to the Middle East. I agree that borders have the effect of preserving a sense of identity and unity. Not only is that understandable, in some cases it’s even healthy (for example, cheering for the regional sports team). It becomes problematic when it actively hurts others. It’s important to find a way to hold onto an identity without allowing something that is partially an illusion to take over and dictate a harmful policy.

      I’ve gotten a lot out of my ability to speak Spanish, and I do think the U.S. would be made better off by increasing language diversity from its current levels. I don’t think that all U.S. citizens need to learn Spanish though.


  2. Hi Nate,

    This is just really beautiful–thank you. I so appreciate your careful and loving exploration of texts, including some very difficult and challenging ones, and that you hold the complexity while suggesting that there is, in fact, a right answer. Thank you.

    Peace & blessings,

    1. Yaira,

      Thanks so much for your comment. It made my day! You’ve basically summed up everything I was trying to put into the post. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


  3. Nate,
    Thanks for your exposition on immigration, culture, and the Bible. The one critique I would suggest is that Ezra and Nehemiah were not “anti-foreigner”, as you suggest, because they themselves were the foreigners! Ezra and Nehemiah represented an elite class of Babylonian exiles (termed “bnei haGolah”) who, upon returning to Israel, encountered those who had not been expelled after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE (termed “am ha’aretz”). The actual foreigners saw the locals as provincial, simplistic, and corrupt, and class conflict ensued.

    But I think this actually supports your overall point: cultural constructions and narratives, and insider-outsider status, are constantly in flux. As America’s own history makes clear again and again, one generation’s persecuted immigrants frequently become the next generation’s assimilated locals who go on to persecute the next generation of immigrants. We would do well to embrace the spirit of Nehemiah 8, in which the entire assembly of Israel–new immigrants and long-time natives alike–assemble together as one, praying together and committing to a common purpose.

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