Out of the House of Slavery

Bible study on “immigration"

by Ken Sehested

This material was delivered in 2010 to a North Carolina Council of Churches-sponsored series of clergy gatherings in various cities.

      My assignment is to do a Bible study relevant to the intense conversation underway in our nation over the question of immigration. Others will offer social analysis and practical strategies. But I should mention three presumptions I bring.

      First, I believe we have a powerful witness to bear from our Scriptures, one that is surprisingly relevant. It’s not more information that we need. We don’t so much need to be convinced as to be convicted.

      Second, while I believe we have some unique sources of conviction, that doesn’t mean we have privileged insight or expertise when it comes to shaping specific policies. For that we need to come to the table with other people of faith and conscience to forge workable policy options that take into consideration what has happened in the past and what is happening now as leverage for what could happen in the future.

      Third, our analysis must be informed by an intelligent reading of the economic realities shaping immigration policies and patterns. I firmly believe there is a kind of economic magnetism at work: a negative force, characterized by desperation (particularly in Latin America), shoving migrants across the border. And a positive force drawing them here: A lot of people make a lot of money employing migrants. In fact, people like you and I need to count the cost: Our standard of living depends on cheap labor. We, too, are implicated in this system.

      Several years ago, to supplement my income, I began a new career as a stonemason. I was paid $10.00 an hour doing very strenuous work. After a year, my boss laid me off, saying he could hire a Mexican for $8.00 an hour. “Nothing personal,” he said, “just business.” But in biblical terms, nothing is just business. In the long run, the only sustainable business is just business.

      Some of you may recall hearing the story of Manuel Jesus Cordova. He was in the news a couple years ago.[1] While sneaking across the border from Mexico, Cordova happened to find a 9-year-old boy, Christopher Buchleitner of Rimrock, Arizona, alone and injured in the desert. As it happens, Christopher and his mom had been in a single-car accident when their van went over a cliff on a remote road in southern Arizona. His mother had been killed, and Christopher went looking for help. Cordova gave the boy his sweater and some chocolate and built a fire to warm the boy. It was that fire that drew the attention of the border patrol. Authorities say Christopher would likely have died had Cordova not stopped to protect him.

      Cordova was honored for the rescue by U.S. and Mexican officials at a border crossing station. Then he was arrested by federal agents and returned to Mexico.

      I mention that story not to romanticize those who enter the U.S. without legal sanction. No doubt that within the ranks of immigrants—whether legal or illegal, documented or undocumented—there are the same proportion of saints and scoundrels as are already here. I mention his name—Manuel Jesus Cordova—as a reminder that each immigrant has a name and a story. They’re not simply statistics.

      By the way, Beatriz Lopez, the Mexican consul general for Nogales, had this stunningly prophetic insight in her comments to the press about this incident: “The desert has a way of rearranging priorities.”

      I have four brief points to consider for this Bible study.

      1.  There is a stunning amount of material in the Bible about “immigrants,” and all of it underscores the special attention that God commands on their behalf. In Scripture the commonly used words are “strangers” and “aliens.”

      •“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

      •Among Job’s complaints was this assertion of holiness: “I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger” (29:16).

      • “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field. . . ; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien” (Lev. 23:22)

      •The prophet Malachi explicitly links refusal to “fear” the Lord with the mistreatment of marginalized people: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. . . . Those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan [two other classes of uniquely vulnerable people in ancient Middle Eastern cultures], against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (3:5, italics added).

      •Jesus included “strangers” among those whose fate was tied up with his own: “. . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35).

      •Even the Apostle Paul echoes this persistent theme throughout the Bible: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. . . .” (Eph. 2:17-22).

      2. The holiness of God is attested by just relations within the earth. The story of the Hebrew people’s escape from Pharaoh’s brickyards is so familiar to us that we forget that it’s hardly a “religious” story at all. Rather, it is an ancient civil rights movement, a rebellion against empire, a stunning escape from slavery. The very memory of this liberation movement is asserted as the rationale for obeying the commands of Yahweh God: “Thus God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is the preamble to the Ten Commandments and all the law of Torah. It begins with: “You shall have no other God before me,” and ends with a prohibition against covetousness, which is to say, against hoarding life’s provisions. Over and over again in Scripture idolatry and exploitation are paired as frequently as are “fear of the Lord” and doing justice.

      “Having no other God” is finally played out by refusing monopoly and exploitative economic practices—something which later gets spelled out in the “Jubilee” laws, describing the year of the Lord’s favor as a time that slaves be freed, debts be canceled and land be returned to original owners. The great prophet Isaiah returned to this “jubilee” theme several times, as did Jesus when, in his inaugural sermon, he spoke of his mission “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19).

      3. To understand who these “strangers” are, we need to know a little more about the practice of slavery in Egypt. Among the many unfortunate distortions of Scripture caused by Hollywood movie-makers is the notion that those Egyptian pyramids were built by legions of slaves—the kinds of slaves that used to be imported to the U.S. from Africa for sale as chattel property. There simply is no historical evidence for this. There are no records of markets in Egypt for the buying and selling of slaves. Nor were Egyptian slaves primarily like “indentured servants” who worked for a period of time as servants to pay off a debt. Maybe the closest analogy is that slaves in Egypt were something like serfs in medieval Europe: a more or less permanent underclass who, merely because of the accident of birth and family history, were destined by economic and social sanctions to live at the very edge of material existence. Rulers’ domination was by divine right—much the way, currently, the “free hand of the market” is considered self-evident and unassailable. (Whether theistic or not, “God made it that way.”)

      You remember the story of Joseph’s clan who came voluntarily into Egypt to avoid starvation. In other words, they were very much like the majority of modern immigrants fleeing lives of desperate poverty.

      It’s important to also remember than the origins of the “Hebrew” people were not primarily racial or ethnic. Biblical scholars believe the biblical term “Hebrew” is an alternate rendering of the word “habirû.” “Habirû” was the sociological designation for outsiders, people with no claim on the land—vagrants and vagabonds, the hoi polloi—people who at various times were merely an inconvenience, possibly a worry, and occasionally an overt threat to ruling authorities. [2]

      The word “Hebrew” comes from a root word meaning “to cross over.” Thus, the Hebrew is one who crosses borders, who have no social power and no legal claim on resources or status, whose desperate efforts of sheer survival push them to ignore the boundaries of assigned bounty. [3] (And some of them, like some of us, just long for expanded consumer options.)

      Recall Joseph’s story. Captured by a trade caravan after being left for dead by his brothers, Joseph was sold into bondage but then, remarkably, managed to rise through the ranks to become a key political operative in Pharaoh’s court. He became an insider. Recall how the text reads when his brothers come begging: “[The household servants] served [Joseph] by himself, and [his brothers] by themselves, because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 43:32). Joseph had been co-opted, had become a part of the power elite. We know about that, don’t we?

      4. Theologian Douglas Meeks has suggested that much of Scripture—and particularly these teachings about care of strangers—depicts God through the metaphor of “homemaker” [4] I like this image a lot. Think of it: God as the one who makes a home for strangers and aliens. A God who takes a nameless and homeless people and gives them an identity and a place to call their own. A God who provides hospitality and welcome to those who find no room in the inn. A God who jumps into action at the sound of groaning slaves—not because of some special moral quality or devotional purity, but simply because they cry out. A God who undermines empires, who feeds the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty-handed. A God who befriends the unworthy, the unwashed, the untouchable, a God who eats with “trashy” folk. A God who turns enemies into friends—and who invites us into the fray.

      “Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).

      This—I am suggesting—this is our story, this is our song. Such is the praise we raise all the day long.

1. Associated Press story in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Wednesday, 5 December 2007.
2. Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living, p. 291.
3. Ibid., p. 292-293.
4. God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, cited by Ibid., pp.298-299.