05/26/2010 02:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Hebrew Bible-Based Immigration Policy

One could immediately argue that, from the title alone, this is a misguided post. And in no way am I suggesting that the Bible, or any other sacred literature, be the basis for making public policy in the United States. But like all literature that inspires or informs people's lives, what the bible has to say will influence how many people, both liberals and conservatives, think about our nation's immigration policies.

In fact, the Bible is being increasingly used, by both the left and the right, to "prove" what a moral, ethical, spiritual, Jewish, or Christian (take your pick) stance on US immigration policy should look like. More often than not, such Bible thumping generates more heat than light. But it's especially interesting because the Hebrew Bible's commands that we welcome strangers may not even include today's illegal aliens at all.

The Hebrew Bible mentions obligations to so-called strangers on numerous occasions. The message is pretty much always the same and perhaps best summed up by the words of Leviticus 19:33-34: "When a stranger dwells among you in your land, do not taunt him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt -- I am the Lord, your God."

But who that stranger is that deserves such equality and even love is not necessarily a parallel to the millions of people who cross our borders illegally every year. Or perhaps it is. The stranger of the Hebrew Bible is better understood as a resident alien, a non-citizen who agrees to abide by the laws of the community into which he or she has come. To that extent, then, many, if not most, illegal aliens in this country would not qualify. On the other hand, there is no mention in the Bible of barriers to entry into the Israelite nation, so perhaps they do, especially if they skirt the law only to avoid being sent back.

What seems clear from scripture (that itself is a complex claim) is that loose borders or barriers to entry are only reasonable if accompanied by quite strict rules about participation once having arrived in the new community. That means that neither side in the current debate really understands what the Hebrew Bible intended.

Conservatives, generally obsessed with the "inappropriateness of rewarding illegal immigrants with any of the benefits of American life," miss the fact that how someone came to join the Israelites had no bearing on their status within the community once they arrived. There really was a sense of community as sanctuary -- precisely what those taking a hard line on immigration oppose.

Liberals, however, are just as off when insisting that biblical hospitality knows no bounds and asked no questions, that it was an unqualified right with no attached obligations. In fact, like all ancient sanctuaries, there were many rules to be followed and norms to be upheld. In other words, entry was open to all, and once in, they were treated as equals, but demands were made and failing to meet those demands was grounds for exclusion from the community.

While other biblical texts and traditions could be introduced into the debate on immigration, based on those verses bearing directly on the issue, the path forward is actually pretty clear: how one got here is largely irrelevant, though the obligations that must assume in order to stay are significant.

Biblical "immigration policy" was not about maintaining the purity of the community or fear of withholding the benefits of membership, but it was quite clear about the obligations that needed to be met to enjoy the privileges (not rights) of such membership. It would be quite a step forward to see people actually look to that model for guidance instead of simply thumping their Bibles to prove that which they already believe anyway.