Biblical Hospitality and Immigration

Anyone who follows the national dialogue surrounding immigration issues in the USA, especially as it relates to illegal immigration, is sure to have encountered the so-called “biblical” arguments advanced by theological liberals for unlimited, unhindered immigration.  One of the stock-in-trades of the pro-amnesty, anti-borders, pro-globalism side of the argument is to put some left-wing religious figure before a microphone and have them repeat out-of-context biblical citations, mostly drawn from the Pentateuch (which is generally the only portion of the Bible with which their Jewish handlers are familiar).  These verses typically include,

“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)


“Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)


“And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him.  But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)


“And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee.” (Leviticus 25:35)


“Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

One must admit that it seems a bit odd to see theological leftists, who at no other time would believe what the Bible says or take its words at face value, suddenly morph into textual literalists on this one, specific issue.

The average person looks at these progressive arguments and thinks that there’s no way the Bible is really telling us that we should take in unlimited numbers of immigrants while ignoring the laws of the land and replacing our own populations with inassimilable foreigners.

The average person would be right. As the reader probably suspected, these interpretations are completely out of the context in which the Bible approaches the set of issues surrounding “strangers,” otherwise being foreigners dwelling in the land of Israel.  Specifically, the liberals who make these arguments evince essentially no recognition of the widely used hospitality motif which these verses form a part of in the Scriptures, and which is very similar in its overall form to that found in literature from across the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean basin.

An excellent overview of this motif as it intersects with larger epic elements within ancient literature, both biblical and secular, can be found in Chapter 2 of Bruce Louden’s book, Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East.  In this chapter, he discusses the theme of theoxeny, which is a literary element in which mortals entertain or otherwise show hospitality to God/gods who are in disguise (sometimes knowing who they are, but often not).  Involved with this discussion is an analysis of the overall theme of hospitality as it pertained to the relevant ancient cultures.

In the ancient world, hospitality was an integral part of maintaining social stability and safety from outsiders.  As it was typically exercised, hospitality involved the temporary acceptance into the host’s household of outsiders (who may or may not have been cultural outsiders, but were still considered xenoi, even if from a neighbouring city), placing them under the host’s protection while simultaneously obligating the one receiving hospitality to implicit loyalty and obedience to their host,

Hospitality was the creation of a temporary patronage relationship with the host as patron and the guest as client. The motivation behind offering hospitality to a stranger lay in the increased honor one had in assimilating a potential threat into the community by asserting one’s superiority over the newcomer. Guests played their role in this arrangement by acceptance of the offered hospitality. The practical benefit of this arrangement was that it defused a confrontational moment with the potential for violence. Reciprocity was essential to the arrangement’s success. Hosts honored guests by extending favor and protection in order to increase their own honor. Guests accepted the honor of the host and, in doing so, added to the host’s honor as patron. For either party to be denied its due in the relationship created the situation of injustice.” (Louden, pp. 30-31, citing T.M. Bolin, “The Role of Exchange in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and Its Implications for Reading Genesis 18-19,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Vol. 29:1 (2004), pp. 37-56, at p. 45)

Essentially, hospitality was a way of “taming” a potentially hostile or divisive element (a foreigner) and bringing them within the social system of their host household or society.  Hospitality involved much more than the shallow, flippant sense of “being nice” that drives the thinking of most modern expositors.  Instead, it served as a way of making potentially hostile aliens acceptable to the community.  It was a way of bringing those outside of fellowship into that koinonia.

The biblical witness serves as testimony to the fact that God considers hospitality to be very important.  The motif is often used in the New Testament, especially as a picture of acceptance for salvation and being brought into fellowship with God.  For instance, the Lord Jesus Christ uses it in Luke 7:36-47 to draw an implicit contrast between Simon the Pharisee (who did not show Jesus even the most basic of customary acts of hospitality when having Him in his home) versus the repentant prostitute who humbled herself to show Jesus every manner of hospitality.  Jesus said of this woman,

“Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” (Luke 7:47)

She, whose acts of hospitality were indicative of a truly repentant heart desiring salvation and fellowship with her Creator, was the one whose sins were forgiven and who was made right with God.  Salvation is also depicted in hospitality/fellowship terms in Ephesians 2:12-13 where Paul discusses the access which Gentiles have to the promises of God through Christ,

“That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”

Gentiles, who were once the enemies of God (c.f. Colossians 1:21), have been “tamed” by faith in Christ and brought into the fellowship of God in His churches.  A similar sense is also seen in Revelation 3:20, where Christ is in turn depicted as knocking on the door of His people who need to repent, desiring the restoration of fellowship with them.

However, all of this must be understood with the full biblical record in view.  In the Old Testament, while the law of God does include the verses given above exhorting Israel to show kindness to the stranger, this cannot be rightly understood apart from what the Law also said about the need for strangers to assimilate themselves and be brought into fellowship with the laws, traditions, and culture of Israel.  Several examples from the Law should suffice to illustrate my point here,

“And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.  One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.” (Exodus 12:48-49)


“Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood.” (Leviticus 17:12)


“Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you.” (Leviticus 18:26)


“One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourneth with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations: as ye are, so shall the stranger be before the LORD.” (Numbers 15:15)

And so on.  The necessary synthesis that needs to be made here is to understand that God exhorted Israel toward kindness to strangers within the context of well-understood customs and ideology relating to hospitality rules that anyone in the ancient world would have rightly understood.  Granting hospitality to strangers was not “being nice” and “caring about people,” it was an act designed to prevent strangers from disrupting the unity and social cohesion of the Israelite polity.  If a stranger came to Israel, he or she was (as Ruth did) to reject their former culture and become completely Israelite in every way.  Let us also note here that the context ALWAYS seems to imply individuals or family groups, not large masses of foreigners as a body – which would rightly have been understood to be an invasion.

In situations where these customs regarding hospitality were broken by the guest, the host was usually justified in punitive action against the offender (as with Odysseus destroying Penelope’s suitors at the instigation of Athena).  Likewise, when the host was the offender, God or the gods was called in to punish the transgressor (as with Laban losing the benefits of God’s blessings upon Jacob when he was abusing Jacob’s service).  This aspect of hospitality custom is also present in the Pentateuchal Law,

“And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, This shall be an holy anointing oil unto me throughout your generations. Upon man’s flesh shall it not be poured, neither shall ye make any other like it, after the composition of it: it is holy, and it shall be holy unto you. Whosoever compoundeth any like it, or whosoever putteth any of it upon a stranger, shall even be cut off from his people.” (Exodus 30:31-33)


“And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people.” (Leviticus 17:10)


“And when the tabernacle setteth forward, the Levites shall take it down: and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.” (Numbers 1:51)

Implicitly, these and similar passages are talking about strangers who were residing in Israel (most likely merchants or other “economic refugees”) who did not assimilate themselves to Israel.  These people occupied a much different place than did the others – while physically present, they were outside the covenant and congregation of Israel, and were not allowed to participate in the fundamental unifying rituals of the nation while still being required to refrain from positive violations of God’s Law.  Their behaviour was much less tolerated and they were essentially “on probation,” you might say.  Presuming to take to themselves the rights and privileges of homeborn Israelites resulted most often in death for the offender.

In general, inhospitality – the violation of hospitality customs and protections – was a grave sin in ancient traditional societies.  As seen above, it was certainly not unheard of for such violations to result in death for the offenders.  One well-known example given by Louden is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19.  It IS correct, generally speaking, to argue that the sin (or, rather, one of the sins) of Sodom was inhospitality.  This is clearly seen in the attempt by the Sodomites to rape (and kill, in the unspoken but very real subtext) the two angels who were under the protection of Lot’s hospitality (and in a more extended sense, under the hospitality of the city of Sodom itself).  Of course, to ignore the element of their homosexual behaviour – which is elsewhere in the OT explicitly connected and condemned through the use of the term “sodomite” in non-violent contexts, as well as the destruction of Gomorrah and the other cities of the plain, which were not involved in the specific incident involving the angels – is to ignore the forest for the trees.  However, the drastic violation of hospitality custom is clearly shown to be “the icing on the cake” demonstrating that Sodom merited the pouring out of God’s fiery wrath.

The opposite type of inhospitality – that involving guests going beyond the boundaries of their rights as xenoi and abusing their hosts – also clearly deserved and earned death in the relevant epic literature.  Louden repeatedly points to the situation in the Odyssey in which the suitors seeking Penelope’s hand (believing Odysseus to be lost or dead) are depicted as inhospitable louts, intimidating Telemachus (Odysseus’ son), eating up Odysseus’ wealth through their feasting and winebibbing, and physically abusing beggars (including the disguised Odysseus himself) who were also under the protection of the Ithacan kingdom.  Odysseus’ destruction of the suitors – “smearing the floor with their blood and brains” – is pictured as the righteous justice of Athena against them, using Odysseus himself as the goddess’ revenge upon their offences against the laws of hospitality.

All of this information puts the religious progressive into a bit of a quandary.  If they wish to accept one aspect of what the Bible says about hospitality, then they must necessarily also accept the rest of what it says as well, if they wish to be consistent.  The Bible says to be hospitable to strangers – but it also demands that strangers show hospitality by assimilating to the community and refraining from being a source of disharmony.  Likewise, it’s hard to accept that inhospitality was the sin of Sodom while refusing to accept the rest of what the Law said about the dangers of inhospitality.

All of this very clearly applies to the immigration situation in America and the West today.  What we see is that immigration (and really, this applies as much to legal as to illegal) clearly operates in ways which show a well-defined inhospitality towards the host cultures (i.e. white, Western nations):

  • A good portion of it is illegal, meaning it is done in complete contravention to our laws
  • Even the legal immigration is often simply done as a means of exploiting economic opportunity at the expense of native born Americans (or other Westerners), which creates a burden on our societies and introduces greater economic insecurity (i.e. less social cohesion).
  • Immigrants rarely assimilate fully, but often create parallel societies which operate under their own native cultural mores and rules, rather than our own.
  •  Many immigrants are arrogant and entitled, acting as if our societies owed them something and demanding ever-increasing allocation of resources, rather than being grateful for our hospitality and protection.
  • In many cases, immigrants directly contribute in socially detrimental ways through crime, disease, and other dangers.

Simply put, there is not really any sort of credible argument which can be made for applying biblical hospitality laws to the present mass immigration phenomenon in the West.  If anything, the situation merits the application of a negative understanding of ancient hospitality motifs – that which occurs when guests abuse their privileges and potentially incur penalties against themselves for their presumptuousness.  Far from enjoying the favour of God, we should seriously consider the proposition that God’s Word condemns the behaviour of the vast bulk of immigrants and “refugees” who have come to our nations. While I am certainly not advocating the mass destruction of immigrants and foreigners in our Western countries, we should seriously consider attaching penalties to their behaviour such as repatriation and the confiscation of goods and wealth wrongfully taken from our societies.




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