Does the Bible say that people shouldn’t immigrate?

Q. When God tells the Israelites, You are not to go back that way again,” meaning that they shouldn’t return to Egypt, in what context are we to understand that? We know that the Israelites originally went to Egypt mainly because of economic hardships in the land where they were living. Abraham went there, and so did Jacob, both because of famine, which we can translate as modern readers to mean economic hardships. If this is the case, does this statement now imply that when we are in hardships, we should stay where Lord has put us? I ask this because we have seen a lot of immigration in our time, people leaving their places of birth, sometimes because of political persecution or economic hardships. How are we to navigate though hardships, remaining faithful to the Kingdom of God while at the same time seeking self preservation?

I’ll explore shortly what the statement you’re asking about means. But let me say first that it quite clearly cannot mean that people shouldn’t leave their countries of birth because of political persecution or economic hardship, because in the Bible we see God repeatedly commanding people to do just that, even after He has said here, “You are not to go back that way again.”

The clearest example comes from the life of Jesus himself. When he was just a baby, an angel of the Lord appeared to his father Joseph in a dream and told him, “Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So at God’s command, Jesus became a refugee in a foreign country to escape deadly political persecution. (We are filled with humble gratitude when we realize that Jesus willingly shared our human condition to such an extent.)

But this is not the only example in the Bible of God commanding someone to leave their country for reasons such as you’ve mentioned. The prophet Elijah announced to king Ahab that because of his wickedness, there would be no rain in the kingdom of Israel. This drought led to famine, and Ahab tried to kill Elijah. So God commanded him to leave the country to find both food and safety: Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”

The prophet Elisha, who was Elijah’s successor, himself commanded someone in the name of the Lord to leave the country to escape economic hardship. He told a woman who had been very helpful to his ministry, “Go away with your family and stay for a while wherever you can, because the Lord has decreed a famine in the land that will last seven years.” The Bible reports that she “proceeded to do as the man of God said. She and her family went away and stayed in the land of the Philistines seven years.”

So we can recognize that when, as you observed, Abraham and Jacob both left the land of Israel and went to Egypt to escape famine, this wasn’t something exceptional that happened before God established a commandment against immigration. Rather, it’s consistent with something that God does throughout the whole Bible. While we’re not told that God specifically encouraged Abraham to leave Israel to escape famine, we are told that God did tell Jacob to do this. His son Joseph had already urged him to come to Egypt without delay, “so you, your household, and everyone with you won’t starve.” Jacob had started out for Egypt with his extended family and on the way God appeared to him in a vision and said, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.

We might add that in the Bible God sometimes commands people to leave their countries for positive reasons, not just to escape extreme danger or hardship. For example, God’s whole sequence of redemptive covenants begins when he tells Abraham, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” In this new land Abraham and his descendants become a great nation and a blessing to all the peoples on the earth.

Later in the Bible a woman named Ruth leaves her home country of Moab and returns to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi (who originally left Israel to escape a famine) after they are both widowed. While God does not specifically command Ruth to do this, she is nevertheless commended for leaving her country for positive reasons. Boaz, her future Israelite husband, blesses her in the name of the Lord for showing compassion to Naomi and for choosing to live where she can worship the true God: “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

So if God repeatedly commands people to leave their countries (or they are commended for doing so), for both positive and negative reasons, then it cannot be the case that when the Lord tells the Israelites, “You are not to go back that way again,” this establishes a precedent for all subsequent believers never to leave their home countries, but instead to “stay where the Lord has put them” and deal with any hardships right where they are. What, then, does this statement mean?

The statement is actually found within the instructions Moses gives the Israelites, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, for the kind of king they may appoint. He tells them first that their king must not be a foreigner, who would not be familiar with God’s laws and ways, but an Israelite. In fact, the king is require to write out a copy of the law and read it every day so that he will follow it carefully. Moses also specifies that the king “must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold,” have a large harem, or build a large chariot force. Regarding this last provision specifically, he says that the king must not make anyone return to Egypt to get more chariot horses, “for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.'”

At first it sounds as if this prohibition applies to returning physically to Egypt, even to making short trips back to Egypt to get things such as chariot horses. But we discover that it has a broader meaning when we try to find out exactly where, in the story of the Bible, God has told the people, “You are not to go back that way again”—and we discover that he hasn’t!

Well, not in so many words, anyway. Most interpreters agree that this is actually a paraphrase of what God told the Israelites when they were hemmed in at the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army was closing in on them. They thought they were all going to be killed for trying to escape and they said, “It would have been better for us to stay and be slaves to the Egyptians than to come out here and die in the desert.” But Moses told them, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” And sure enough, Pharaoh’s whole army was drowned in the Red Sea while the Israelites passed through it safely to a new life of freedom.

As most interpreters see it, Moses is referring to that last sentence in his words of encouragement at the Red Sea—”The Egyptians you see today you will never see again“—when he tells the people in Deuteronomy that God had told them they were “not to go back that way again.” In other words, he means, specifically regarding the kind of king they might appoint, “You are not to go back to being slaves again.” That is, don’t appoint a king who will oppress you by seeking great wealth and building a large army.

This meaning is confirmed by a reprise of the statement later in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses warns that if the people don’t keep God’s laws, they will suffer various punishments and curses, and if they continue to rebel, ultimately they will be conquered by their enemies and exiled from their land. At the end of this long warning he says, “The Lord will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.

So the statement “you are not to go back that way again” means “you are not to go back to being slaves again.” It’s not a prohibition of immigration, it’s a commandment not to appoint a king who would be economically and politically oppressive. And so when we ask how we should translate the statement as modern readers and apply it to the conditions of our time, we realize that it is a call to resist and oppose economic and political oppression. If some people actually have to flee their own countries to escape these things, then the implications of the statement are that we should welcome such people and help them.

In fact, the book of Deuteronomy itself contains nearly twenty commandments that list specific ways in which the Israelites are to care for the foreigners among them. For example, when they harvest their fields, they aren’t to go back and pick up any grain that has been left behind; they are to leave it for foreign refugees, who may have no other source of support. (This was how Ruth was cared for when she came to Israel with Naomi.) Every third year, the Israelites were to give the “tithe” of their crops, the 10% that usually went to the priests at the tabernacle, instead to those who had no land of their own to raise crops: “the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” And so forth.

All of these commandments are summed up in a further statement in Deuteronomy: “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” In other words, the experience of Jacob going to Egypt with his extended family out of economic hardship was not an exception that was later ruled out by a rule against immigration. Rather, it was something that was supposed to give the people of God a sympathetic and practical compassion for those who’d had to leave their own countries themselves. So if we’re asking how we can and should live this out today, it’s by welcoming and caring for the immigrants and refugees in our midst.

Immigration is never a person’s first choice; they would always prefer to stay in their familiar country, culture, and language, surrounded by family and longtime friends. But sometimes they feel that for the sake of their very survival and that of the family they’re responsible for, they must leave. And when they must, our faithfulness to the kingdom of God is demonstrated in our help and support for them in this desperate situation.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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