You won’t find the term “refugee” in the Bible. But the Word of God has plenty to say about people called “strangers,” “sojourners,” or “foreigners” in our translations.
In the Old Testament, “Strangers” and “foreigners” referred to anybody from another ethnic group who had chosen to live with the Jews in Israel – no matter what category they might represent in today’s terms.
For instance, the book of Ruth is about a widow from the tribe of Moab who chose to accompany her mother–in–law, Naomi, back to Israel and live there with her. In Ruth 2:10, we see her ask Boaz, in whose field she is gleaning, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?”
Ruth understood her status as being outside the tribe of Israel. The law required that farmers leave the edges of their field unharvested, so the poor could find food there (Leviticus 22:23). But Boaz did more than the law required for Ruth, asking his servants to take some of what they collected and give it to Ruth (Ruth 2:15-16).
“Sojourners” are people who are temporarily living in Israel or just traveling through the country, visitors to a country, who were to be shown hospitality:
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 19:33-34
Today’s strangers and sojourners
Today, we use many different terms for what the Bible calls strangers, foreigners, and sojourners. Here are a few:
- Displaced persons – those who have been forced to leave their homes and communities due to violent conflict, war, or a natural disaster. These people live temporarily in another country, or within their own country, and usually return home when things improve.
- Refugees – people who have been forced to leave their nation due to violent conflict or war and seek safety in another place. These people may intend to return to their country, once the war or conflict is over. These situations often lead to years of displacement.
- Migrants – those who have chosen to leave their home country, to find work, escape poverty, and pursue better living conditions. These people are often making a permanent move and would not return unless conditions improved significantly.
- Immigrants – someone who moves to another country for any number of reasons, including marriage or other family ties, employment/business opportunity, etc. Some distinguish between immigrants with legal papers to enter a country and those without legal permission. There would have been no distinction like this in Bible times.
- Asylum seekers – individuals who ask permission to live in another country to escape severe religious or political persecution or another violation of their human rights. These people would not return home unless the reason for their move came to an end.
- Stateless persons – those who are not a citizen under the laws of any country. People can become stateless in many ways, such as when a country ceases to exist or when a country adopts discriminatory laws that do not recognize certain ethnic groups within its borders.
- Visitors – people coming into a country or community for a defined period of time. Some come for a vacation or sabbatical. Others come for an education. These individuals return home when that time period is over.
There are principles in God’s Word about how his people are to treat strangers or foreigners.
Jesus said how his followers treated strangers should show disciple-like behavior
… I was a stranger and you invited me in.
– Matthew 25:35
Middle Eastern cultures are famous for their hospitality. For example, Abraham provided a lavish meal for angelic visitors (Genesis 18:1-15). But strangers among the different tribal groups in Old Testament times were viewed with suspicion, often conned or taken advantage of. They were often not treated well, especially if they were poor. God’s instructions in the Old Testament (to treat them as they would their own people – Leviticus 19:34) were counter-cultural.
Jesus follows the Old Testament pattern and takes it a step further by saying that how we treat strangers indicates whether we are his followers. We are to invite the stranger in if we are his disciples.
Foreigners or refugees are not to be oppressed
Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.
– Exodus 23:9
This is the basic rule of thumb: Don’t burden foreigners. Notice that the Scripture gives Israel a reason why – because they knew how it felt to be foreigners. Israelites were to call on their empathy for refugees, because they had been treated cruelly as refugees who became enslaved in Egypt. They weren’t to cheat them or take advantage of them in any way.
And since we, as believers, were once strangers outside God’s kingdom, we can identify with the idea of not belonging. Once outsiders ourselves, we recognize the importance of treating refugees or displaced people without discrimination.
Treat foreigners or refugees as citizens and with love
The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
– Leviticus 19:34
Most Christians are aware of Jesus’ instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but may not be as familiar with the law of Moses that has the same instruction for treatment of foreigners. The instruction to treat them as “native–born” would have been shocking to people in Moses’ day.
Refugees then and now can end up living elsewhere for a short time or for many years. Of the 25.4 million refugees in the world today, more than 14 million have been out of their country for more than five years. Of these, 3.5 million have been refugees between 10 and 37 years. And another three million have been displaced for 37–plus years – that can be a lifetime! This instruction in Leviticus is especially helpful when people end up staying for years as refugees or migrants. The Bible says we must treat them as if they were native-born.
God has set a high standard for how we treat foreigners. We, his people, are to love them like we love ourselves and to treat them as citizens. Why? Because God – the “I am” – commanded us to.
Make foreigners part of the community
Miscellaneous instructions in the Law made sure foreigners were included in the Jewish community. They included provisions for them to be treated equally under the law and to be included in festivals and celebrations of the community.
- Cities of refuge were available to Israelites and foreigners in cases of accidental murder (Numbers 35:15).
- Foreigners were to be included in festivals and celebrations mandated in the Law (Deuteronomy 16:14; 26:11).
- Some of the tithes collected by priests was to be used not only to feed the priests and their families, but also to help provide food for foreigners, widows, and orphans (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
- Farmers were instructed to leave the edges of their fields for the poor and the foreigner (Leviticus 23:22) and to treat the stranger as they would the poor among them (Leviticus 25:35).
Notice the last two points were about providing for displaced people’s needs, especially food. The truth, even today, is that people come to live in another country for a variety of reasons and with a mix of needs and resources.
What needs would someone have coming to the US with a job prearranged as a research scientist in a pharmaceutical lab? How about someone from Syria who had lost his business and home, then walked across Europe to reach asylum in Germany with his wife and three children? The inequalities are striking. But God provided for those with very little to have food and some income. They weren’t to be left desperately poor and hungry.
All believers are to show hospitality to strangers
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
– Hebrews 13:1-2
In this passage and a few others (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9; 3 John 1:5–8), hospitality is held up as a mark of those who follow Jesus. The church was to support one another, including strangers who came to worship with them. This became especially important once the Jews were forced from Jerusalem and Palestine in 70 AD by the Romans. Then and now, the church should be a welcoming community.
All believers are strangers on earth
… live out your time as foreigners here with reverent fear.
– 1 Peter 1:17
This is a principle for God’s people of all times. Moses instructed the Israelites not to sell any of the land permanently, because the land belonged to God and they were only foreigners living there (Leviticus 25:23).
Think of how graciously God treats us, the foreigners living in his world. His kindness to us can guide our thoughts and actions towards those living as strangers among us.
All believers in Jesus Christ belong to the kingdom of God
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.
– Ephesians 2:19
This verse follows the great passage that lays out how we have been saved by faith in Jesus (2:8–10). In it, the terms “foreigners” and “strangers” are used as metaphors for our condition before we came to faith in Jesus Christ. Before we believed, we were outside the covenant, considered foreigners or strangers to God’s kingdom (2:11–13). But because of our faith in him, we are now part of God’s community – strangers who have been welcomed in. Let us remember where we came from and extend to others the kindness that God has extended to us.