I speak from experience: life as an immigrant is often very harsh. An immigrant is eminently vulnerable, relying always on the generosity of others and on the whims of nature. Currently, there are millions of immigrants who are displaced because of conflict, war, and natural disasters.
Migration is not a new phenomenon. According to the Bible, human mobility began with Adam and Eve, who were expelled from the Garden of Eden because of sin. The story continues with Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of jealousy and became a perpetual fugitive. Then came the first biblical deluge. Noah and his family were relocated because of a great flood. Noah’s experience is similar to many people today who are forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods because of climate change or natural disasters.
The book of Genesis essentially recounts tales of the earliest human families as migrants, strangers, and refugees, moving about the earth seeking a land to settle and a home in which to dwell. They risked everything for a better life. Abraham and Sarah, for example, never ceased being sojourners in the land of Canaan. The same is true with Isaac and Rebekah, as well as Jacob and his entire family.
The Genesis readings this week focus on two immigrants: Jacob and Joseph. Their stories are filled with sadness and suffering, dislocation, famine, and despair, but also promise and hope, reunion, reconciliation, and love—a typical immigrant saga that is familiar to millions who are presently on the move.
Israel’s memory of their founding ancestors is fundamentally as gerim, a Hebrew designation that can loosely be translated as strangers, sojourners, or (more appropriately) immigrants. They are to always remember that their ancestors were wandering Arameans “who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as immigrants” (Deut 26:5).
Even though immigrants are often powerless, they are not nameless and faceless. They are human beings and should be treated with the dignity that has been divinely bestowed upon them. In the Bible, those who showed kindness to these folks did not go unnoticed but were rewarded abundantly. Consequently, biblical writers remind us to treat the strangers and immigrants in our midst with respect and dignity (Exod 22:20; 23:9; Lev 19:33-34; Deut 5:15; 10:19), for to neglect the needs of these migrants makes one liable to punishment (Deut 24:14-15). Jesus memorably sums this up in Matthew’s famous judgment scene (25:31-46).
Migration is a major crisis of our era. Every day countless people are displaced or trafficked. This global phenomenon is growing in scope and complexity, affecting most countries, families, communities, and almost every aspect of modern life. Unfortunately, the world is witnessing an increasing level of anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiments. Stereotypes and myths about immigrants have greatly fueled xenophobia and caused racial tension and unrest. How should Christians respond to this troubled sign of the times? We need not be paralyzed by the complexities of the migration debate. Just when racial tensions and fear of foreigners continue to run high, we are encouraged to take the path that God has clearly shown—the way of hesed, tender-loving-kindness.