Book Review: The Immigration Crisis by James K. Hoffmeier
James K. Hoffmeier. The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2009. 174 pp. $14.99.
To say that the issue of immigration in the United States is a “hot topic” would be an understatement. There is strong rhetoric on either side of the debate at the national level. But even within the Church there are strong opinions that resonate with cries of “compassion” on one side, “submission to the government” on the other, and every shade in between.
James Hoffmeier, professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School takes up his keyboard to address this “hot topic” not only as a scholar of the Word of God but also as a an immigrant to America, a refugee from war, and an alien in two different countries. He thus writes as one with firsthand experience of the world of the immigrant.
Hoffmeier lays out his three-fold goal in the book in the preface. First he seeks to examine what the Bible says concerning the issue of immigration. Secondly he desires to read the Bible in its historical and cultural context and to consider the relevant passages through the lens of Christian ethics and the theological affirmation that immigrants are people made in the image of God (17, 18). Finally, he desires to look at the role that law plays and the obligations of citizens in general, and Christians in particular (not to mention immigrants) to the rule of law (18).
Hoffmeier claims that the New Testament is virtually silent on the issue of immigration and thus he spends the bulk of his time examining passages of the Old Testament that he feels are relevant to the debate. But one immediately wonders how ancient, Old Testament, religious, Mosaic injunctions to a now defunct theocracy can shed light on a predominantly modern, secular, democratic, national matter of policy. Hoffmeier seems to be advocating that we look to the relevant theological and ethical passages on immigration in the Old Testament and seek to “apply” those ethics, in a general manner, to the current political climate (26, 27).
Hoffmeier then takes chapters 2 through 7 examining how the concept of immigration and the words “alien” and “foreigner” function in the Old Testament corpus. He starts with Abraham in chapter 2 showing that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph all abided by and were sensitive to the immigration laws and customs of the lands where they traveled. In chapter 3, Hoffmeier highlights the Israelites' time in the land of Egypt, up to the Exodus and then considers their time of “wandering” in the wilderness. In chapter 4, Hoffmeier considers the Mosaic laws concerning “aliens,” essentially stressing that they were part of the people of Israel. In chapter 5 he expands on that theme showing the social and religious involvement that “aliens” enjoyed in Israelite society. In chapter 6 Hoffmeier spends just a few pages speaking about the prophets’ call for justice in Israel society. Hoffmeier points out that the prophets were not “social reformers” but “theological reformers” (119). In chapter 7 Hoffmeier surveys the role of Israel in Assyrian and Babylonian exile highlighting that they were not thought of as “aliens” in that land since “aliens” were, by definition, those who came of their own will to settle in a country that they considered their own. In chapter 8 Hoffmeier turns to the New Testament claiming that it is virtually silent on the matter of immigration. This is so because of the “already/not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God. The people of God are not longer a nation but a Church full of many nations who view themselves as “aliens” of this world and citizens of the Kingdom of God. Hoffmeier then addresses the relevant New Testament passages that touch on the immigration issue, namely, Matthew 25 that speaks of doing good to the “least of these” and Romans 13 where Paul commands Christians to be in submission to the government whom God has ordained. In chapter 9, Hoffmeier concludes by speaking of the relevance of the biblical datum to the current immigration crisis.
Hoffmeier’s conclusions can be summed up in the following statements: First, the Bible distinguishes between immigrants who abide by the laws of the land (“aliens”) and immigrants who do not abide by the laws of the land (“foreigner”). In the Old Testament, it was the “aliens” who were welcomed into the society of Israel, participated in the religion of Israel and were protected by the laws of Israel. The “foreigners,” on the other hand, experienced none of these benefits. These two types of immigrants are roughly equivalent to the legal immigrant (“alien”) and the illegal immigrant (“foreigner”) of today. Secondly, the New Testament is silent about how immigrants are to be treated in a theocracy because the theocracy no longer exists. Thus, the Church, who are “aliens” on this earth, are to abide by the laws of the land in which they find themselves, unless those laws conflict with the Bible. Third, nations are fully within their right to set up borders and enforce them. Fourth, therefore, Christians must submit to the immigration laws of the country they wish to enter and cannot claim that such immigration laws are unjust simply because the country doesn’t let them in. It is not unjust for a country to deny a man the right to enter said country in order to increase his economic status. Fifth, while the church should seek to help immigrants in practical ways, this does not militate against the church equally urging professing Christians who are illegal immigrants to rectify their immigration status whereby assuaging their conscience before God and man in obedience to the Word of God. Finally, though somewhat disconnected to the foregoing, it is unjust for American businesses to exploit the illegal immigrants by paying them extremely low wages.
It seems to me that Hoffmeier partially accomplished his goal stated above. He sought to determine what, if anything, the Bible has to say concerning the current immigration debate. I say that he partially accomplished his goal because many things were unsaid that should have been said. For example, it would have been much clearer had Hoffmeier given a robust Biblical theology of the place of the law in the Old Testament as over against the New. He spent six chapters talking about the use and place of “alien” and “foreigner” in the Old Testament but was less than clear about what those “insights” had to do with the current immigration debate. He gave numerous illustrations and pictures of archaeological dig sites and ancient Roman Forts (for example) that seemed virtually irrelevant to the discussion at hand. It is not until he gets to the New Testament that he actually gets to the issues. When he gets there, I found his answers to be helpful, particularly his treatment of Matthew 25 and Romans 13. But the long circuit, from Old Testament to New Testament to the immigration crisis, made me feel like I was a “sojourner” wandering in a foreign land of disconnected facts. If someone is looking for a book dealing with the idea of “alien” and “foreigner” in the Old Testament, then this is a great book. However, if one is looking for a book that biblically and theologically analyzes the immigration crisis in the United States, then he/she should either skip to chapter 8 and 9 of this book or look elsewhere. In other words, this book, even with the handful of good insights on the immigration crisis, was not as advertised.
That being said, Dr. Hoffmeier writes as one existentially aware of the anxiety, unrest, and desire for a home that plagues the psyche of the immigrant. The book is full of personal stories that testify to this. His compassion for the immigrant is genuine and sincere. Yet he is also a pastor/scholar who is convinced that the Bible must direct his conscience and convictions on every issue under the sun and for this he is to be heartily commended.
Joshua B. Henson
M.Div. candidate (2012)