Book Review: “The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible” by James K. Hoffmeier

This review also ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum

The Book
I first heard about James K. Hoffmeier’s book The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible when a friend of mine, who knows my interest in issues surrounding immigration, emailed a brief review of the book that appeared in an April 30th edition of Publishers Weekly. I knew I had to read to book after the final sentences of the review made me laugh:

The book offers little in the way of sociological, political or economic insight into the circumstances surrounding modern-day illegal immigration, beyond advocating for a law-and-order approach. Missing from this analysis is an understanding of the Bible as a prophetic document more concerned with larger issues of justice. Still, Christians looking for a biblical justification for strict federal enforcement of immigration laws may find much to like.

First, let me say what I like about The Immigration Crisis. It’s short, easy to read, and intelligently written. While I remain steadfastly unconvinced by his arguments, Hoffmeier is a first-rate biblical scholar who has articulated a cogent challenge to the assumption that the God revealed in Jewish and Christian scriptures has a special place in the Divine Heart for immigrants, even if they cross international borders without proper documentation.

Yet, as well informed as Hoffmeier clearly is, his argument rests on a limited interpretation of what it meant to be an “alien” or “sojourner” in the Biblical world. Hoffmeier correctly notes that the Hebrew word usually translated in English as “alien” or “sojourner” refers to someone from one country who resides within the territory of another country, while the word often translated as “foreigner” is someone who is just passing through. Hoffmeier also demonstrates correctly that the Bible—particularly in the Jewish scriptures of the Christian Old Testament—contains numerous passages that require protection for aliens or sojourners residing in Israel. For example, Exodus 22:21 reads

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” and Leviticus 19:33-34 reads, “when an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

Hoffmeier is on shakier ground, however, when he asserts that the Hebrew word that English Bibles translate as “alien” or sojourner” refers strictly to legal immigrants. He bases his assertion on the fact that many of the Bible’s sojourners obtain permission from proper authorities before settling down in a foreign land as resident aliens; from this observation Hoffmeier dismisses the practice of providing sanctuary and other forms of help to undocumented migrants as “twisting biblical principles and subverting federal law.” (p. 84)

Hoffmeier contends that Christians wishing to form a Biblically-based, moral response to the immigration crisis should be guided not by Old Testament injunctions to treat sojourners with kindness and justice but rather by New Testament admonitions to follow the law of the land, such as those written by St. Peter in his general epistle, and by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 13:1-4:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

In his analysis Hoffmeier overlooks the fact that the Bible never actually distinguishes between those who reside in a place with permission and those who do not. It is true that many of the Bible’s sojourners live as resident aliens in foreign lands with permission equivalent to a modern American green card, but it’s also true that the Bible is silent on the issue of illegal migration. To read this silence as divine permission to deny justice to undocumented migrants—as Hoffmeier evidently does—is a stretch at best.

Nor does Hoffmeier address the fact that, within the context of ancient Israel, the Hebrew word we translate as “alien” seems to have referred to anyone who lived in Israel without ties to the Hebrew tribal system, including the descendents of the original inhabitants of the land. (See the Interpreters’ Dictionary of the Bible article on “sojourner”.) They were not immigrants but because they were not connected to Israel’s tribal system they therefore would have been designated as aliens. This leads to deeper questions we must ask about immigration in the United States, particularly as it relates to migrants who come north from Mexico: who is the immigrant? and, who resides legally in the land we now call the United States?

Most Americans do not question the moral validity of the border that separates the United States of America from the United States of Mexico, and few Christians express doubt that the border was—in some way—established by God, perhaps in confirmation of the old American notion of a Manifest Destiny through which the United States would be established as a single country from sea to shining sea.

Yet to say that the US/Mexico border was authored by God or even established according to generally-accepted moral standards is to say something remarkable about the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which set the international boundaries at the end of the Mexican-American war. Abraham Lincoln who, as a congressman from Illinois, pointed out that the first American blood shed in the war was spilled on Mexican territory, questioned the morality of this military campaign of conquest. Ulysses S. Grant said of the Mexican-American War that it was “the most unjust [war] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Robert E. Lee (who was seldom known to agree with Ulysses S. Grant) shared this sentiment. (Hubert Herring, A History of Latin America, third edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. pp. 312-313)

It can be argued that an immigrant from Mexico entering territory taken from his or her homeland in a morally reprehensible war has a legitimate right to sojourn in the American southwest. Adding to this claim is the fact that most Mexicans are descended—at least in part—from the original inhabitants of North America who were crossing the bit of land we now call a border thousands of years before the first Europeans set foot in the Americas. By contrast, my people (most of them anyway) came from the British Isles by way of Minnesota and Iowa. It’s not an heritage that would seem to give me an inherent right to own property on stolen land in California. This is not to suggest that the United States should give the American southwest back to Mexico, or even that we should open the border to anyone with a desire to cross, but the knowledge of how half of Mexico came to be part of the United States should inspire a certain amount of humility among those who, like Hoffmeier, are proponents of a “law and order” approach to the immigration crisis.

After all, if one is to believe that international borders are divinely established or, at the very least, are protected by a morality that respects national sovereignty, then how can a citizen of the United States possibly reside legally and morally within territory that once belonged to another country? Who among us is willing to say that the invasion of a foreign land by a nation drunk with power and consumed with imperial lust is both legal and moral while crossing a desert in search of menial employment and a better future for one’s family is neither?

But even if it can be argued that the United States properly exercises dominion over the land that once belonged to Mexico, Hoffmeier misses the fact that immigrants from Mexico—legal and otherwise—are not newcomers from a far away place who are analogous to foreigners from distant lands who took up residence in ancient Israel. They are like the Canaanites, a people almost certainly protected as “aliens” under biblical standards of justice, who resided (and, indeed still reside) in the land of Israel before Joshua led the conquest of the Promised Land, and who remained in the land after the establishment of Israel. The status of the Canaanites—and therefore immigrants from Mexico—is not addressed by James Hoffmeier in The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible. It is the book’s greatest weakness, a flaw which, for all of the intelligence of Hoffmeier’s argument, renders the book nearly irrelevant in the current immigration debate.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible” by James K. Hoffmeier

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “The Immigration Crisis” by James Hoffmeier | Property | Properties

  2. Does it matter if one is an an alien or not. What is Christ’s response to any stranger? Be it an alienated relative or an emigrant. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures respond…with love and compasion.

  3. H.N.,

    That’s certainly how I see it as I read what transpires between Genesis and the Apocalypse, part of my problem with opinions like those expressed by Hoffmeier is that they place too much emphasis on human law over and against the law of God, which, as you point out, is a law of love and compassion.

    Ben

  4. I understand Biblical strictures for compassion for the poor, and so forth.

    I have not read the book; I don’t think I need to. I understand Biblical strictures for compassion for the poor, and so forth. But this is as much a geopolitical question as it is a theological one. For the most part, wee have to live in the world as it is, and do what we can to change it.

    but first and foremost: If you cannot protect your own borders, what can you protect? And if you can’t protect your borders, are you in fact a country?

    Additional questions:

    1. What, if anything, do we owe illegal aliens? (Yes, they are illegally here; they are not “undocumented” unless you adhere to political correctness. “Alien” is an internationally recognized term, under international treaty, to which both this country and Mexico are signatories. BTW, do a web search and find out how Mexico treats its illegals from the south.)

    2. And what do the illegals who come here and manage to stay, usually because of a baby born here who is a US citizen under current law — hence, an anchor — owe to this country? Current practice amounts to serial amnesty They get an incredible amount of “free” services. Depending on whom you believe and how you calculate it, it amounts to about $1,200 to $1,800 per year, per California citizen.

    3. What role should Mexico play in all this? As currently practiced, our immigration policies re: illegals, are a sweet deal. Mexico gets on the order of $24 billion pumped back into their economy every year from Mexican illegals in the US sending money home. So of course, Mexico encourages illegal immigration to the US.

    4. Is it possible that if we closed our borders (and it can be done, if only we have the will to do so), all those marching north might march south on Mexico City to oust the oligarchs that run that third-world — third-world not because of any lack of resources or talent, but because of the policies of the ruling oligarchy — nation? Wouldn’t that, long-term, be a good thing?

    5. What does effective serial amnesty — the sum total of programs now in place — say to those who have come here legally, or those who are trying to do so? It is not an easy process to get here legally. And perhaps it ought not to be; but that item is another discussion. Nevertheless: I have inlaws who are emigres from Colombia; they worked hard, came here legally, worked hard after they got here, and have prospered. Should an illegal go to the head of the line in front of those folk — which is the practical effect of the current serial amnesty programs? If so, why?

    Bill

  5. Bill,

    I don’t think it’s a question of “if” a country can and should defend its borders but rather a question of “how.” In today’s paper there is an interesting piece about how immigration north from Mexico is slowing significantly due to the recession. It seems to me that if the enforcement of immigration law focused upon making jobs in the north unavailable by targeting and punishing the employers rather than the employees, than we might be able to enforce laws without such dire human consequences inflicted by the border fence and the ICE raids. That’s just one example.

    Regarding your other questions:

    1) We owe undocumented migrants what we owe everyone and that is compassion and the understanding that comes from knowing history.A knowledge of how half of Mexico came to be part of the United States should have an affect on how we talk about and approach issues of migration across the border. (And I like to say “migration” rather than “immigration” not to be PC but because it is an issue that effects the lives of people on both sides of the border.)

    2) The cost of having undocumented aliens in California is an interesting issue. It is absolutely true that they use services–from roads to schools to emergency rooms–that are paid for by taxpayers. Here’s the thing, however. All undocumented migrants pay tax in the form of sales tax, and many have payroll taxes withheld because they have provided their employers with fake social security numbers. Not only that, but as consumers they generate income for merchants and service providers which is then taxed. I haven’t personally run the numbers, but I am among those who suspect that immigrants make or economy stronger, even if they don’t have a visa.

    3) Personal opinion here: Mexico should work the with the United States on cross border issues, and should work on weeding out the corruption that has kept its economy in shambles for so many years.

    4) Joe the Plummer wouldn’t like your suggestion that wealth should be redistributed, but I think that Mexico certainly needs to continue on its path towards more openness, less corruption, and better democracy.

    5) I’ve never met an undocumented migrant who could have emigrated legally but chose to do so illegally instead. I have yet to meet someone who had legal residency and chose to give it up in order to go up to the head of the line with the undocumented folks. I don’t think there’s any measure by which it is easier to live in the United States illegally than it is to reside here legally. There are some definite inequities–for example undocumented immigrants can lie and get in-state tuition at junior colleges, for example–but on balance no one would choose to live here without papers rather than with.

    Ben

  6. Great post. I am in the middle of the book right now. I have been able to get a good sense of where Hoffmeier is headed – strict enforcement. One of the biggest things that Hoffmeier is yet to address – and from what others have said isn’t addressed – is the status of undocumented immigrants that are CHRISTIANS! It changes the game big time when federal, state, and local laws effect your sister or brother in Christ who worships at your church every Sunday.

    Other than this critique and probably more to come, I appreciate Hoffmeier’s historical analysis and regarding the status of aliens and foreigners so far.

  7. Seems a huge point is being missed in the arguments about US imperialism and taking the Mexicans’ land. All who are not of American Indian descent need to return to the land of their immigrant ancestors. After all, who was living here first. Not us. Which of you who offers the argument that the southwest really belongs to the Mexicans will be the first to leave the US?

    As far as the Bible is concerned, yes Jesus does tell us to follow the laws of the land. So, the illegals should be entering legally.

  8. Actually, Debbie, I don’t think that point has been missed. I would suggest that, given our common heritage as immigrants, we should be humble about our claims to the land. It’s odd that we took the northern half of Mexico by force and then told Mexicans they couldn’t cross a line that they and their non-Spanish ancestors have been crossing for thousands of years. This doesn’t mean that people like me have to leave places like California, it just means that we don’t get to pretend we’re the only ones with a legitimate right to be here.

    Sure, Paul (not Jesus) told us to follow the law of the land, but there are limits to this. If Jesus (or Paul, for that matter) followed the laws of the land there would be no Christian faith.

  9. Ben is right that the issue is HOW we should admit immigrants. If God established the border, aren’t God’s laws relevant, about who we ought to let cross it, and for what reasons?

    Ben quotes Leviticus 19:33-34: “when an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

    How can this be read as permitting us to deport an “alien” who does not want to be deported? How is that “loving the alien as ourselves”? In this verse is the answer to Ben’s question about how to treat “aliens”, considering we too were “aliens”: we not only were, but are, “aliens”. Just as Israel was, and is. This was brought about by God, and this also, according to God, dictates that we treat other “aliens” as we “aliens” would like to be treated ourselves.

    But there is profoundly more in this verse. I have already noted that the context of this verse requires that the word “oppress” be read to include “deport”. Viz, “you shall not deport the alien”. It turns out that the Hebrew word itself, translated “oppress”, specifically means “deport”, besides its general meaning of “oppress”. I base that on the fact that in each of the 21 times the word appears in the Pages of God, the context is about involuntarily removing people or things. And in Ezekiel 46:18, that is the meaning chosen by 24 of 24 translations because it is the only possible meaning in that context – which alone should have gotten that meaning somewhere in Hebrew lexicons. I explain this in depth at http://www.saltshaker.us/HispanicHope/Ye-shall-not-deport-a-stranger.pdf.

    It is sophistry to cite Romans 13:1-4, which tells us to obey laws, as a reason to ignore what God commands lawmakers to do, since “we the people” are the ultimate lawmakers, and since when we talk about this public policy we are in the early stages of creating the public support for admusting our laws. Besides, the “higher authorities” we are to obey are plural, raising the question whom to obey when a lower authority conflicts with the Highest Authority, which is answered by Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man”, even though God had not explicitly commanded them to go right to the seat of religious and political authority – the Temple – and rub their noses in the Truths they had murdered to suppress!

  10. American Immigration Control Foundation (AIC Foundation) is an American political group devoted to reducing “uncontrolled immigration.” It is a large publisher and distributor of publications dealing with America’s immigration crisis. AIC Foundation also conducts multi-media campaigns around the country to raise public awareness of immigration problems.Founded in 1983 and based in Monterey, Virginia, AIC Foundation received more than $190,000 through 1998 from the controversial Pioneer Fund.

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