Throughout the Old Testament, God reminds His people of who they were. He often told them: “You were slaves (or aliens) in Egypt” (see Lev 23:22; Deut. 5:15; 10:17-22; 24:17-29). And while the word for slave (‘ebed) and alien (gér) are different, they were often interchangeable.
If you were a gér, you were often an ‘ebed as well, or at least you held a similar social status. God told Abraham that his descendants would be “aliens” in a land, and as such would end up being enslaved and oppressed. While you could simply be an alien living in a foreign land, to an Israelite recounting their past, both terms would remind them of their time in Egypt.
This particular moniker, “slaves in Egypt,” served a rhetorical and ethical function for God. God wanted his people, in the process of understanding who they were, not to forget who they had been. These two identities were inseparable.
Remembering that they were aliens and slaves in Egypt served a two-fold purpose. It should make them appreciative of what God had done for them so that they would respond appropriately to His grace. God had delivered them while they were slaves.
Secondly, it also served an ethical role. In reminding them of who they were, God reminds them that they themselves were immigrants, migrants, and slaves. They were the outsiders, the very people that they might find themselves looking down upon, taking advantage of, thinking less of or even abusing as “the other.”
And often, within the context of reminding them of this, God used this as the basis for an ethical command: “Do not deprive the foreigner (alien) or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of a widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this” (see Deut. 24:17-18; Ex. 23:9).
As they considered God’s instructions for how to treat the most vulnerable in their society and those that “did not belong,” they should remember how God treated them when they were in the same situation.
Slaves and outcasts, orphans, widows, and foreigners no one wanted to be. Those people arrived at that status as the result of war, defeat, poverty, famine, and death. They were the most vulnerable and the least valuable.
God was challenging His people to consider who He was and to remember who they were: “I am the God who brought you up out of Egypt.” He insisted that He is the God who rescues these types of people. God was also making the point that how you act toward them should not be a reflection of the values expressed around you or even what you think about those “others;” they ought to be a reflection of the type of God that you serve and what that God has done for you.
It is as if God were saying: “I am the God who rescues these types of people, and as my people you must be the type of people who rescues them as well.” The one they served and who claimed them as His own, called them to represent (or even better enact) His salvation and love to these types of people.
We Must Also Love the Alien
Lessons like this are forged in the school of humility, trust, and sacrifice, and we tend to avoid those classes. That school calls God’s people to think and act differently, because it starts with remembering who they were and what God had done for them in a way that compelled them to reach out to the types of people whom they often overlooked.
Thinking of themselves as the foreigner (alien) became the basis for commands as to how they should plan their income. They were to set aside income (before the tithe) to care for the poor and the stranger (Lev. 23:22; Deut. 24:17-22). This is what Boaz did for Ruth (see Ruth 2:14-16).
The tithe was to be offered to care for the Levites and the aliens, orphans, and widows who lived among them (Deut. 14:29). God even pronounced curses on those who cheated people out of land, took advantage of the blind and distorted justice for the alien (Deut. 27:17), and He insists that He will testify against them (Mal. 3:5).
Even Job, in defending his righteousness, maintains that no alien was forced to stay in the streets because Job opened his house to them and took care of them (Job 31:32). Foreigners were to be treated as natives, and they were to be loved, because the Israelites were in the same situation (Lev. 19:34).
The aliens living among the Israelites were even to receive an inheritance of land in the reconfigured Promised Land (Ezek. 47:22). God cares for the alien by supplying them with food and clothing, therefore His people ought to show their love for the alien in the same way (Deut. 10:17-22). Ultimately, the Israelites were to understand that as recipients of the Promised Land, they were still foreigners, because everything that they had ultimately belonged to God (Lev. 25:23).
Objections could be raised about the contemporary application of these texts. However, New Testament authors insist that Christians should view the Israelite story as their story (Rom. 4; 1 Cor. 10; Gal. 3; Heb. 4, 11; James 2). And while the term “foreigner” (xenos or paroikos) in the New Testament typically has spiritual residency connotations, other texts can quickly be recalled.
Jesus challenged His hearers that if they want to be like their Father, they will bless those they would rather despise (Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:31-36), because that is what their Father is like. We can also recall the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), James’ description of pleasing religion (James 1:27), or Jesus’ description of his sheep who showed kindness to the stranger (xenos) in Matthew 25:35.
What about the immigrants and refugees all around us today? We often refuse to treat them in light of who we were and who our God is. God is still the God who rescued us out of Egypt, who delivered us from bondage, and who calls us to treat our enemies and those who are the most vulnerable in our society as He does: as persons in God’s image who are deserving of our gifts, love, and mercy as we represent God to them.
When we refuse to care for the 3.4 billion human beings who find themselves in these situations, we de-personize them and misrepresent our Father who rescued us. I fear that our problem is that our foreign mission trips inoculate us. Too many of our popular Christian heroes tend to live in lavish homes in gated communities rather than in a hovel in Mumbai or in tents on the borders of Myanmar or Bangladesh.
The Bible calls us to change our attitude. We must love the immigrant. Richard Stearns says we must repair what he calls “the hole in our gospel.” He wrote:
Christ has no body on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out;
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good;
And yours are the hands (and I change the quote here a bit)
Which represent God to foreigners and aliens who are valued persons in God’s kingdom.
This was originally published in the Encourage magazine.