One Law for Yourselves and for the Alien (Numbers 15:16) – An Exercise in Application

The Pentateuch is one key source for Christian debates about the treatment of aliens (especially illegal aliens) here in the United States. There are a number of commands that might apply, and they are interpreted differently, or perhaps seen as applicable or inapplicable, by the different sides in fairly predictable ways.

For example, Leviticus 19:34 – “Like a citizen shall the Ger who is living (cognate of Ger) among you be to you, and you shall love/befriend him as yourself, for you were Gerim (pl) in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (My literal translation). On the one hand it seems rather clear. The Israelites were instructed not to mistreat the non-citizens living among them. They were to treat them well. Milgrom notes that “…‘ãhab is related to its semantic cognates in the diplomatic vocabulary of ancient Near Eastern treaties which denote fidelity and loyalty pledged by a vassal to his suzerain as well as the reciprocal obligations of support owed by the suzerain to the vassal.” Thus the treatment of the foreigner was in a sense guaranteed as part of the covenant, as Israel’s obligation to God. This didn’t refer to an emotional response, but to lawful and principled treatment. (I commend to you all of Milgrom’s comments on the word “ger” in his Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2000, 1416-1420.)

So the first approach might be to simply transfer the command to the present. The Israelites were commanded to do this. God must think it’s a good idea. We should do the same thing. We would, of course, have to deal with details such as what today would constitute a ger, or resident alien, and the differences in borders and how they were handled then as opposed to now.

Of course, we are not Israel, we were not guided out of Egypt where we were once slaves, though we use those experiences as metaphors for elements in our spiritual lives. So this is also very clearly a command given to Israel. It may be applicable to us in principle, but it is not directed at us as gentiles. Thus one approach to application would be to say that it doesn’t apply to us at all.

Another approach is to deal with the niggling detail of defining what a ger would be in our society. Perhaps such a person is only a legal alien who has established residency. In that case, the text would have nothing to do with any illegal aliens at all.

I like to test people by asking them to apply Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 19:33-34. Very few people apply both equally. Generally they apply one but explain around the other. It’s an interesting test of your hermeneutics (the way you interpret scripture). Look at these two texts and ask if either or both of them apply to people in the church today. Why or why not?

The text that I was reading this morning, however, was Numbers 15:16 – “There will be one torah and one mishpat for you and for the ger who is living among you” (again my literal translation). Milgrom (op. cit.) identifies torah here as religious law and mishpat as civil law. The principle is again very clear, in my view. This puts in to practice the “love” that is commanded in Leviticus 19:34. By applying the principles and particular commands of the covenant to the foreigners living among them, the Israelites were obeying that command.

In practice, it turned out that foreigners weren’t subject to precisely the same religious laws. It was quite possible to adjust provide specific exceptions that derived from the fact that they were not Israelites and therefore lacked some of the obligations of Israelites. Note that the gerim were given relief from some laws. No extra requirements were imposed on them.

Again, quite clearly this command is not giving to us as modern Christians living in America. I would, however, suggest that it expresses a principle and gives us an idea of God’s intention. It’s an application itself of the principles contained in the golden rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you.

There are a number of things this leaves unanswered, but I think that this same question would apply in our Christian answer to each of these questions. Who should be able to come through our borders and settle and work here? Does it mandate open borders? I don’t think it answers that question and the nature of borders in the time of Israel was much different from what it is now. What about children born in our country of people living here illegally? Again, it isn’t explicit, because it doesn’t speak to a time when such a thing could occur. The person who was in Israel living and working was a ger, and the law would apply to him. For a certain number of generations, his children would be gerim, and the law would apply to them. We now have a legal situation in which someone can be a legal resident alien or, on the other hand, be an alien and residing but not legal.

I can see a number of ways to apply the law there, but at a minimum, I think it would mandate that we treat not just fairly but generously those whose situation is not of their own making, as in the children of illegal aliens.

What I do not think is that this passage mandates an immigration policy. Israel’s law provides us with principles and those principles are reiterated in other contexts by Jesus. (Jesus didn’t experience an immigration situation. The resident aliens of his day were generally in charge!) These principles are primarily applicable to each of us in the way we personally treat others, but I think they would also be applicable in the way we act in society as well.

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