I never knew there were so many immigrants in the Bible until I read this gracious though convicting book. Yes, gracious and convicting. Oh, I had a vague understanding that biblical characters such as Abraham traveled to new lands and that even Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had fled to Egypt to escape Herod.
But never before had I gone deep with those in the Bible who had fled their homelands, and never before had I made the connection to the events of the recent past (my father was a child refugee from Stalin during World War 2 and later, an immigrant from Germany) and the ongoing desperation today at the Southern border of the U.S.
Author Karen Gonzalez, herself an immigrant from Guatemala, weaves her own story of displacement, language barriers, and cultural misunderstandings alongside the stories of Ruth, Abraham (an illegal immigrant), Hagar, Joseph, the Syrophoenician woman, and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Rather than argue policy and throw out a bunch of data, her effective posture here is to say, “This has been my own experience.” Her storytelling disarms and perhaps will make readers consider these fraught, complex issues in a new way.
As she observes the lives of other “foreigners” in the Bible, she makes a compelling connection between them and the foreigners of today. Two of these stories stood out to me, that of Ruth and of Hagar. Ruth, an “economic immigrant” who would not have qualified for legal entry into the U.S. today, was a Moabite, a people group hated by the Israelites, who accompanied her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, to Naomi’s home country. Here she was treated “just as God’s law commands” in Leviticus 19:33-34. In fact, as Gonzalez points out, the Book of Ruth is “an entire book that deals directly with the just treatment and acceptance of the foreigner.”
Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s slave, appears in Genesis 16 and has so few rights that even her body and her child, Ishmael, are not considered her own. Hagar, an Egyptian, was given a name that translates to “Foreign Thing.” To Abraham and Sarah, who both conveniently forgot their own mistreatment in Egypt, she was just that—a “thing,” subhuman, worthless and contemptible. I wondered, is that how we sometimes see the nameless brown faces at our borders?
The God who sees views Hagar and others like her differently. When Hagar flees Sarah’s mistreatment not once but twice, God meets her in the desert, sees her, hears her, cares for her physical needs, and blesses her. To me, this is a stunning example of how we are to treat God’s image-bearers. As Gonzalez says, “God is present with anyone who is treated as a human resource instead of a human being.”
These illuminations of familiar Bible stories will stay with me for a long time, as will Gonzalez’s vulnerability in describing how she, like countless immigrants and their children, once bought into the “shut the door behind me” mindset. “Many North Americans have a kind of convenient amnesia when it comes to their own immigrant past,” she writes. For a time, Gonzalez adopted this same commonly held mindset, that since her family had become legal citizens, everyone behind her “in line” should just get with the program and do likewise. (As she also points out, there is no longer any kind of “line” in which to get into.)
Many people brag about their ancestors coming here “legally.” The truth is, especially for those with European descent, most of our forebears arrived decades before there were any federal immigration laws, so they could not have, as Gonzalez points out, come legally or illegally. She also points out that Ellis Island, that fabled clearinghouse for America’s newly arriving emigres, rubber-stamped almost everyone who arrived, with scant few exceptions for those with a communicable disease. How extremely different it is now for immigrants at our borders!
In many ways, the book is a unifying one, as Gonzalez takes great pains to speak to readers of all political leanings. Her winsome blend of biblical exposition, personal testimony, and immigrant advocacy makes for a book that is devotional and illuminating as well as challenging and thought-provoking. Her gentleness, wisdom, and passion for justice reminded me of the one who crafted us both with his two hands—the God who truly sees each one of us. (Herald Press)