Originally published in the Washington Times on June 24, 2018.
This week in the news: All of the sudden, the mainstream media, Hollywood, the liberal church, and other members of our national intelligentsia seem to care about what the Bible says. In particular, they appear to have suddenly acquired some affection for the Old Testament — a book that, heretofore, these proud members of the “smarter-than-thou” club have excoriated as laden with “hate-filled rhetoric.”
More to the point: These newly minted defenders of biblical orthodoxy seem to have suddenly fallen in love with the third book of the Jewish Torah (otherwise known as the Pentateuch), a book referred to in the Bible as Leviticus.
One of the passages quoted over and over again in recent days has been Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
As a Wesleyan university president and as a Christian, I am always thrilled when anyone wants to discuss Scripture. But let us first be sure we are taking every measure to be historically, theologically, logically, linguistically and hermeneutically accurate in our efforts. I hope we can all agree that any exegesis to the contrary, any misusing and misapplying the Bible for political gain, is a detestable and damnable practice.
Old Testament scholar and Wheaton college professor James Hoffmeier actually lived as an alien in the Middle East growing up. His family had to flee Egypt because of the 1967 war. For nearly two months, they lived in tents at a mountain camp in Cyprus. Not only does Mr. Hoffmeier know his Bible, he knows what it is like to be the “stranger” in a foreign land.
It is fair to say that he is not insensitive to plight of immigrants. Please read carefully what Mr. Hoffmeier has to say about the Levitical directive to care for the “alien” in our midst:
“What I learned in my study is that there are three relevant terms used in Hebrew [for the word ‘stranger’] (ger, zar, and nekhar). [Some translators] render them all as [simply] ‘foreigner.’ That is misleading and incorrect.
“Zar and nekhar, indeed, refer to foreigners or visitors passing through a foreign land. [But], ger refer[s] to foreign residents who live in another land with the permission of a host. The law is clear that ger are not to be oppressed, but they were also obligated to live in accordance with the laws, just like the Israelites.”
Mr. Hoffmeier goes further:
“The Law does not, however, extend to the zar and nekhar such [protections], benefits and services. From this I conclude that ger was viewed as a legal alien. The mistake of some well-meaning Christians is to apply the biblical laws for the ger to illegal aliens in America, even though they do not fit the biblical legal and social definition.”
Mr. Hoffmeier concludes:
“The Old Testament Law is very clear about the practice of sanctuary. The purpose of sanctuary was not to avoid the law or one’s sentence, but to get a fair trial. So, when American[s] offer their cities as sanctuary from federal law, or when churches offer their facilities as a refuge for illegal immigrants who have been tried and ordered for deportation, they are neither following the letter nor spirit of the Old Testament law.”
The biblical narrative is not one without borders. Just read the book of Nehemiah — it is a story about rebuilding a wall. Boundaries have existed throughout antiquity. Yes, Abraham was a sojourner who crossed borders, but he sought approval in order to do so, and such permission was granted contingent upon his agreement to honor and obey the laws of the country of his desired residence.
Yes, Egypt and Israel alike allowed “strangers” to travel in their countries, but they never stopped defending their own sovereignty and territorial integrity. Bottom line: Abraham was an alien who sought permission before entering Egypt, and there is no indication that, centuries later, Mary and Joseph did anything different as they crossed the same boundaries with the baby Jesus.
A quote this week from a Facebook friend named Nancy is perhaps the best response of any to those suddenly infatuated with Leviticus:
“Manipulating the definition of words is one of the hallmarks of genius propaganda. Take a sliver of truth and use misquotes or quotes out of context. Ignore history and facts. Get all the people who read the first few sentences of an article all worked up and sit back and smirk at the mayhem. Could [this] all be a giant power play at the expense of the children who are apparently just pawns in this game?”
Amen, Nancy. Amen.
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