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God’s story with the refugees

He is much more than a fellow traveller: God the Father feels particularly close to the refugees, so close in fact that His Son made Himself equal to them. Let us take a look at what the Bible has to say about this as we observe World Refugee Day today.

There is nothing to live on. The man takes his family and flees: Abraham. – Was he a freedom fighter or a terrorist? The man who killed the Egyptian has to flee: Moses. – Preserving power through a mass murder, parents flee with their child: Jesus. Can we tell the story of biblical refugees and migrants? It is practically impossible, the Bible is full of them.

Fugitives and immigrants in the Bible

It already starts with the small stories of individual fates: Isaac takes his family and goes to Gerar to flee from a famine. Elijah, a political fugitive, flees into the desert, and David to Gath. First, Naomi lives in Ruth’s homeland as a foreigner, then Ruth lives in Naomi’s homeland as a foreigner.

And this does not stop at the central themes of biblical history, far from it: the homesickness of the deported in Babylonian exile, the historic exodus of a whole people from Egyptian slavery and, of course, the very first banishment—the one from Paradise. The Old Testament is a history of flight.

A formative experience

Those who think they need to can dismiss every single incident as a fairy tale. However, one thing is indisputable: a collective memory testifies of a collective experience. And this past shapes society for the present and the future.

You shall not “mistreat a stranger nor oppress him” (Exodus 22: 20), but accord him the same legal status (Numbers 15: 15) and, finally, “love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19: 34). These are just some of the many commandments and laws which constitute the legal texts of the books of Moses.

Loved by God

The reasons are interesting. On the one hand: “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” it says in Deuteronomy 10: 19, for example. And although the people were treated badly here, they were not to apply the law of retaliation, but do better.

On the other hand: “The Lord watches over the strangers” (Psalm 146: 9). And: “The great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality … loves the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10: 17–18). God is a God for the refugees, a God who accompanies and protects. Many of the biblical stories that tell of individual fates attest to this in detail.

God makes Himself equal

The New Testament does not rescind any of this. On the contrary, as is often the case, the New Testament takes it even a step further. Here it is God who becomes a refugee: by fleeing from the child murderer Herod, Jesus shares this aspect of human destiny already at the very beginning of His life as a human being.

That this is not a coincidence but a clear message is demonstrated three decades later when Jesus explains the criteria of the judge of the world to His disciples. These include: “I was a stranger and you took Me in” (Matthew 25: 35).

Protected citizens with obligations

You shall love the stranger as yourself. Everyone can—and must—decide for himself how he will observe this commandment. However, the Bible also places certain requirements on the foreigner. The Hebrew term ger, which could also be translated as “protected citizen”, demonstrates this. He does not only share rights, but also has obligations and duties.

What is decisive for our relationship among one another is the relationship we have with God. There is, after all, one thing that we all have in common. In the end, we are all strangers and foreigners, as Psalm 119: 19 affirms: “I am a stranger in the earth.” For our homeland is elsewhere, Philippians 3: 20 says: “For our citizenship is in heaven.”


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Andreas Rother
20.06.2019
bible, refugees, World Refugee Day