Some Biblical Reflections on Refugees

The Biblical story of salvation begins with a community of refugees.

The book of Genesis recounts how Jacob and his family sought refuge in Egypt from a severe famine. The book of Exodus begins–many generations later–with a great showdown between a terrible king who sets himself against these immigrants and the gracious God of their ancestors who comes to their rescue. We know how the book ends: Pharaoh’s foolishness and hardness of heart bring disaster upon Egypt, even as God brings his people out and leads them towards a land flowing with milk and honey. The book culminates in God’s gift of a good Law in place of Pharaoh’s oppressive order, one that bears witness to Israel’s immigrant experience by fixing in its national character a policy of mercy towards aliens and refugees. “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

If the book of Exodus offers hope to refugees, it also offers a stark warning for those who would trust the likes of Pharaoh over God. Ironically, this temptation afflicts God’s people as well–perhaps most of all. The central tragedy of the Scriptures is arguably not simply Israel’s suffering, but rather the fact that despite (or because of) its suffering, Israel constantly succumbs to the temptation to return to Egypt. Already during their wilderness wanderings, the people fantasize about how good it was under Pharaoh:

We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. (Numbers 11:5-6)

When they are finally established in the land, the temptation takes a subtler form: the desire to have a “king” like the other nations, even though, as the prophet Samuel warns them, “you shall be his slaves” (1 Sam. 8:17). This warning first comes to fruition under King Solomon, who increasingly patterns his own empire after Egypt’s, even instituting slavery for his own massive building projects. Under Solomon, Israel returned to Egypt in its own land. The later prophets also constantly inveigh against the same temptation to establish national greatness through naked power–including, ironically, by turning to Egypt for military aid–rather than by submitting to the moral demands of God’s covenant.

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses,
   who trust in chariots because they are many,
   and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
   or consult the Lord!.. (Isaiah 31:1)

The apostle Stephen calls this recurring temptation “returning in their hearts to Egypt” (Acts 7:39). It is the temptation to love the idolatrous order of Egyptian power and values, trusting its false promises of power, fullness, and material gain while being blind to the slavery it brings about in the end. It is the temptation to abandon the very Law of freedom for which God graciously rescues his people.

In light of this temptation, the beginning of the Exodus narrative offers a particularly relevant warning for our own time. With its characteristic terseness, the Bible offers an archetypal portrait of the sort of ruler who exemplifies the order of Egypt and the mechanisms by which he leads people astray. It is no coincidence that the oppression of refugees plays a central role in this narrative.

8 A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” (Ex. 1:8-16)

This passage has much to teach us, and I hope my readers will study it further on their own. However, several things in particular stand out to me:

…who did not know Joseph. Whether from foolish ignorance or willful malice, this new king is blind to a history that might have tempered his actions–presumably because Joseph was both a member of this immigrant people and a public benefactor to Egypt. The mention of Joseph may also contain a subtler warning about the complex causes of oppression. When Joseph became Pharaoh’s deputy, he used his elite status to strengthen the Egyptian state and help his own family thrive, while enslaving the Egyptian people to the Pharaoh of his day (Genesis 47:19-21). The people’s lingering resentment against Joseph’s policies may help explain the ease with which the Egyptians are induced to oppress Israel.

the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. Pharaoh successfully stokes fear in his people, but he does so with utterly baseless accusations. If the Israelites were really “more powerful than we,” as he claims, they would not be so easy to enslave. There is no indication throughout the exodus narrative that the Israelites have the slightest inclination to “fight against” the Egyptians. If unwarranted fear is cowardice, then this king and his people are supremely cowardly.

Therefore they set taskmasters over them… The Egyptian people accept Pharaoh’s accusations without questioning them and eagerly participate in his oppressive policies. Consequently, “the Egyptians became ruthless,” imitating the character of the ruler they trust.

They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. The king tries to prove his dominance and his greatness through great building projects. These cities are “for Pharaoh”–in his honor or to serve his purposes. “Rameses” was also the name of a dynasty of Pharaohs, so perhaps we may infer that this Pharaoh has a taste for putting his family name on his buildings. Even the Egyptians are ultimately serving Pharaoh’s interests rather than their own.

Come, let us deal shrewdly… Though the king claims to act “shrewdly”–the Hebrew literally means “let us deal wisely”–in fact his policies are foolish and counter-productive. His oppressive policies, aimed at stopping the increase of this people, have the opposite affect: “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied…” There is a kind of dark comedy to the incompetence of Pharaoh’s proposal to kill the boys–after all, the birthrate of the people is primarily dependent on the number of women in the community. Indeed, throughout this tale the king consistently underestimates women: the Israelite girls whose fertility he fears but does not understand; the midwives whom he naively believes will obey his command to kill; Moses’ brave mother and sister; and ultimately Pharaoh’s own daughter, who raises the illegal immigrant Moses as an elite in Pharaoh’s own palace.

If it is a boy, kill him… What begins with irrational fear enacted through incompetent policies rapidly escalates to a program of state-sponsored murder in which the Egyptian people are complicit. Terribly but justly, during the Ten Plagues the suffering and death that the Egyptians inflicted upon these Israelite immigrants was eventually visited upon their own head. If you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.

Let those who believe the Scriptures weigh these things carefully. Those who have put their trust in the word of Trump should consider whether it is God’s kingdom or Egypt that they love, especially as his words aim to incite fear of refugees and immigrants.

Those who oppose Trump should also beware: it is possible to return to Egypt by other roads.

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One thought on “Some Biblical Reflections on Refugees

  1. Beautifully done! I love your “particular” points, including how Pharoah’s daughter raised the illegal immigrant right in the palace, and how fear of foreigners turned into state-sponsored infanticide. Good warnings when fear rules us. From the New Testament, we also know that God was pleased to use the scattering of Jewish refugees throughout the Roman Empire to bless that empire. We, as a nation of immigrants, would do well to remember our roots. And take heed to your last warning – there are many ways to return to Egypt.

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