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"Biblical" Arguments for Border Control: Debunked

The case is clear. The Bible does not permit the civil government to set up massively exorbitant and heavily armed bureaucracies to infringe upon the movement of non-criminals. Immigration is both inevitable and protected; biblically, political and economic liberty is granted to residents and foreigners alike. In the words of David Chilton, "biblical law assumes that a nation which is materially blessed will attract immigrants. There is no biblical justification ─ and hence no economic justification ─ for prohibiting immigration."  In my time debating immigration control with fellow Christians, I have grown altogether accustomed to the same substandard arguments over and over again. Of course, in addition to these five “biblical” reasons to oppose free immigration, there is also more abstract reasoning involving such things as common fear and xenophobia. However, out of the attempts to use Scripture to justify strict border control, these arguments have been, by far, the most common.

GOD ORDAINS BORDERS
Much has been made of Scripture respecting borders, and, frankly, the Bible does make much of borders. Yes, God is sovereign over boundaries (Jeremiah 31:17), and in fact, God’s law condemns the man who dares to tamper with the boundary markers of his neighbour.

“You shall not move your neighbour’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”
─ Deuteronomy 19:14.

In a time before the widespread availability of accurate maps designed by professional surveyors, these landmarks were essential in determining the boundaries between family property lines, tribal territories, and national borders. To move these boundaries would necessarily be an act of theft, or perhaps even national treason. The clear scriptural and theonomic view is that God respects and honours boundaries.

We should be very clear about what we are discussing. In itself, borders are objectively and indisputably necessary, but borders do not necessitate a corollary restriction on the free travel of non-criminals. In other words, there is a categorical distinction between borders and border control. Borders form jurisdictional legal boundaries, while border control physically restricts the free movement of individuals by the use or threat of force. Borders are a crucial judicial tool for determining proper jurisdictions and, in the case of private boundaries, property rights. However, border control is a perpetual executive action.

Some strongly feel that having borders without strict border control is untenable or downright bizarre.

From history, however, we see that this was the standard legal position of most Western nations, up until the last hundred and fifty years. In Europe, the very idea of presenting identification papers at a border was, for many years, considered a nefarious act associated with Nazi Germany ─ certainly not a normal part of life. And in light of the contemporary political atmosphere regarding immigration in the United States, it should be highlighted that the first immigration law passed in the USA was in 1882! The law code restricted the immigration of the Chinese. More importantly, this means that the USA somehow existed for over a hundred years with borders, but without any notable border control. Crossing into Canada or Mexico was as easy as crossing from Kansas into Oklahoma. Allowing the free travel of peoples across national borders is a far cry from disrespecting, disregarding, or negating the borders themselves.

From Scripture, we see a plethora of texts honouring jurisdictional borders, yet we have no text prescribing any law or policy restricting the free travel of foreigners across national borders.

“You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you have made summer and winter.”
─ Psalm 74:17.

Another peculiar argument sometimes made is the idea that, since God sovereignly ordains borders, that must necessitate strict border control or else we are opposing God. In an attempt to support this conclusion, the above text is often used and abused. This faulty proof-texting makes about as much sense as saying we are rebelling against God if we get a haircut because God knows the number of hairs on our head. God is sovereign over all things, and he has ordained borders, with or without strict border control, simply because he is God. This text, in particular, has more to do with his supreme sovereignty and knowledge over all things than it has to do with a positive command to enact a modern system of border control policies.

FOLLOWING THE PAGAN EXAMPLE


Albeit there are no texts in all of Scripture prescribing a law or policy restricting the free travel of foreigners across national borders, there is a text describing this precise policy. The following biblical example of a border control policy is, by far, the most explicit text we have concerning this oft contentious issue. The passages describing this example are telling and precise. Without a doubt, the account ought to play a significant role in how we examine border control and immigration. Jephthah, judge of Israel, describes the events found in Numbers 20:14-21 and Numbers 21:21-24.

“But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh.

Next they travelled through the wilderness, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.

Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his troops and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.

Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and his whole army into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.”
─ Judges 11:16-22.

Here we see the Edomites, Moabites, and Amorites exhibiting the epitome of biblical border control policy. Now, when I say 'biblical', I only mean that the policy is found within Scripture, not that Scripture prescribes the policy. Though many social media pontificators have readily employed this text in favour of their heavy-handed border control policies, we find that the passage teaches us the polar opposite. These pagan nations were decidedly not being righteous with their border control policies. In a mirror of modern border control policies, Edom, Moab, and finally, the Amorites threatened the sword to anyone who dared cross their boundaries. The Amorites did more than threaten, and Israel conquered them.

Note here that Israel was not just a few families, but a mass profusion of individuals. Some interpretations estimate the Exodus’ numbers in the millions while other more conservative interpretations number the Israelite nation in the several thousands. Either way, these pagan nations were expected to allow the free travel of, at the very least, thousands and thousands of foreigners. You can just imagine the conservative pundits characterising this group as a “hoard of invaders.”

Why we would use the example of pagan aggression as a model for immigration policy is beyond me. Nevertheless, some will still unwittingly use this text to justify their restrictive border control policies. Suffice it to say we should not follow the example of wicked nations that were consumed by God's judgement for their warlike aggression and ungodly paranoia.

THE GIBEONITE VETTING


In the book of Joshua, we read an example of questioning and vetting. Looking at the fact that the conquering army of Israel questioned and vetted a particular group, some have creatively used this text as makeshift justification for modern border control policies. Let’s consider the text.

“But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly. And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.” But the men of Israel said to the Hivites, “Perhaps you live among us; then how can we make a covenant with you?” They said to Joshua, “We are your servants.” And Joshua said to them, “Who are you? And where do you come from?” They said to him, “From a very distant country your servants have come, because of the name of the Lord your God. For we have heard a report of him, and all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon the king of Heshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who lived in Ashtaroth. So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country said to us, ‘Take provisions in your hand for the journey and go to meet them and say to them, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us.”’ Here is our bread. It was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey on the day we set out to come to you, but now, behold, it is dry and crumbly. These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold, they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey.” So the men took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the Lord. And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.

At the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, they heard that they were their neighbors and that they lived among them. And the people of Israel set out and reached their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, Beeroth, and Kiriath-jearim. But the people of Israel did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel. Then all the congregation murmured against the leaders.”
─ Joshua 9:3-18.

The argument is that it is legitimate to set up restrictive governmental border control procedures simply because Joshua asked the Gideanites questions. It is really no surprise that there are several glaring issues with this misguided application of the text.

First, the Gibeonites were not immigrants. The Gibeonites were residents of the land. Joshua and the Israelites were the righteous conquerors.

Second, the Gibeonites were under special judgement by God and do not stand as a normative principle for how we are to treat other nations or peoples. Joshua was undertaking conquest according to the special instructions of God concerning the Holy Land. Joshua was not running about slaughtering people arbitrarily, nor was he targeting foreign lands not occupying the Holy Land. The Gibeonites, therefore, cannot serve as a prescriptive standard for public policy, but rather as an example of God's providential work throughout history.

Third, Israel’s “vetting” was not directed towards determining hostility; instead, establishing the people’s covenantal status in the Holy Land was the goal. Were they refugees from a far off land, or were they to be devoted to destruction before the Lord? Because perceived hostilities were not the basis for any “vetting,” no carte blanche “for the greater good” maxim can be artificially salvaged from this text.

Indeed, using the same logic, we could conclude that it is legitimate for the state to detain any person at any time for any reason. This argument proves far too much.

SOJOURNER vs. FOREIGNER


Some have come with a so-called “scholarly” argument insisting on a strict distinction between different Hebrew words for “sojourner.” Most cite this paper from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) as the source of this contention, and thus far, I have been unable to find older sources for this linguistic argument. The argument is that the Hebrew word for “stranger” (ger) semantically implies the need to obtain permission or an official invitation for one to be allowed into Israel. Pastor Gordan Runyan of Tucumcari, New Mexico, handles this argument well.

Gordan Runyan
“1. I was unable to find even one Hebrew language resource that would agree with that assertion. I’m sure I don’t have access to every Hebrew lexicon in existence, of course, but checking both Christian sources (conservative, liberal, pro-zion, anti-zion) and Jewish; reading scholars arguing back and forth, etc., the concept of a ger gaining prior permission is absent from everyone’s definitions. I’m open to correction, but from what I have seen, it looks like Hoffmeier’s assertions are unique to himself.

2. His main case for his assertion that “gers” need official permission is that he thinks scripture shows this definitively by example. Which, of course, is a perfectly legitimate way of establishing a term’s meaning. As D.A. Carson put it in his book on Exegetical Fallacies, “Usage determines meaning.” But as you read the examples he offers, only one really shows anyone receiving a government invitation (that is, when Joseph’s family was invited to live in Goshen.) Even in this instance, however, there is never a connection made between this invitation and the use of the word “ger.” They were in fact invited. Afterwards, they did in fact call themselves “gerim.” But their claiming of that designation fits perfectly fine with all the standard lexical definitions. Meaning, there is no reason to assume they meant anything by “ger” that goes beyond what all the resources say. Unless you have an agenda. (“Ger” means you’re living in a land that is not your peoples’.)

Every other example he gives either has nothing to do with immigration (as in Israel hoping to move their entire nation through Edom) or makes zero mention of permission (the permitting has to be assumed.)

In fact, one of the latter actually spells disaster for his case. See, he believes that when Moses named his son Gershom, in memorial of his having lived in the land as a “ger,” Hoffmeier speculates that this must mean that he is thinking of his father-in-law’s insistence that Moses stay with them. That was the permission that made him a legitimate “ger.” But if this is the case, then unless that you believe that Jethro was a king (which I don’t think anyone believes) then that means that the invitation of a single individual living in the land is enough to qualify you as a “ger”. I doubt this was the intention (at all) of the Center for Immigration Studies, which published the article.

Although there are noun distinctions made between foreigners and converts, and perhaps foreigner residents and foreigner non-residents, there is no scriptural argument for an illegal immigrant and legal immigrant distinction. Once immigrants cross the border, there may be distinctions, but none of those distinctions have anything to do with gaining permission to enter or barring individuals from entering. This textual argument, notwithstanding its popularity on social media, is not one to be taken seriously and does not appear to have any support within church history.

BUT THE WALLS OF JERUSALEM!


It is true. Jerusalem had walls and those walls were significant. However, do these walls meet the necessary criteria to serve as a relevant pro-border control example?

The answer is no. Those walls, frankly, have nothing to do with immigration or border control policy. Christians must do better than looking at one text that speaks of the importance of a specific wall and then flippantly extend that principle to vindicate vast swaths of extraneous scenarios. Exegesis means that one does not simply look at the mechanistic letter of the law, but the heart and intent of the law. For instance, Scripture speaks of just war and just killing, but that cannot be recklessly applied to any war and any killing wherever we deem as fit. That is an abuse of Scripture and is precisely what those who make this argument are doing.

In lieu, we must look at the ethical purpose and function of the walls of Jerusalem.

First, one painfully obvious trait of these walls is that they were not national or even jurisdictional walls; they were city walls. Was the city of Jerusalem attempting to stifle immigration into the city from Israel’s other cities? No. Do we have any textual or historical evidence that these city walls were built to limit any kind of immigration whatsoever? No.

Second, similar to other city walls from this time period of history, these were walls used for military defence. The express purpose was to protect the city from hostile invasion or worse. Therefore, when modern Mexico decides to raise a hostile army armed with ancient siege weaponry, Trump's border wall may be relevant and justified. Until then, it's anything but.

Some cite Nehemiah 7:3 as a prooftext for restricting immigration.

“And I said to them, “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.”
─ Nehemiah 7:3.

However, if we are to take this text as a prooftext relevant to immigration (hint: it is not applicable), then all it proves is that immigration should be relegated to the daytime, not at night time. A text concerning a security protocol for a rebuilding city under direct military threat is not a prooftext for immigration policy.

In short, merely asserting that “the Bible has walls” is ludicrously insufficient. The Bible also has wars, but that doesn’t justify all wars. Can we seriously, with a modicum of intellectual honesty, say that the purpose of the city walls or the temporary closing of city gates was to restrict sojourners?

CLOSING


Immigration can be an impassioned issue. Far too often, fear is used against the Church and, just as often, we are naive and gullible. Party politics and tribalism play too much of a role while, instead, we are called to be Christians first. Whatever view we take on immigration, we should be consulting God’s Word as our authoritative standard. Despite the fact I could spend pages writing about terrorism, economics, xenophobia, fear, and so on, there are only two questions that must be answered.

What is our standard?

And,

What is the Biblical prescription for closed borders?

These run-of-the-mill arguments fail to answer that question, and fail miserably.

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