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 preist 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 Ninevehite 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 husbands 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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