The Mosaic Law, Foreigners, and the Church

A few days ago I posted Deuteronomy 10:17-19 on Facebook in reference to how Christians should respond to immigrants and refugees who come to America. It reads:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

A representative of the New York Bible Society distributing bibles and religious literature to the emigrants at Ellis Island
A representative of the New York Bible Society distributing Bibles and religious literature to the emigrants at Ellis Island

Predictably, my post was met with comments informing me that I was wrong to apply this passage to the current situation because it’s part of the Mosaic Law, and therefore, applicable only to Israel, not to the Church. Every major Evangelical commentary, however, disagrees with that sentiment.

In Be Equipped, for example, Warren Wiersbe writes that “God has a special concern for the helpless, especially the widows, the orphans, and the homeless aliens” and that “God’s dispensations change but His principles never change,” while the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary says, “Clearly the Christian is no different from Israel in this respect and the emphasis of this verse on social concern is equally applicable.” The Word Biblical Commentary says, “What Moses emphasized was simply a vital relationship with God that is worked out in terms of specific responsibilities toward our neighbors,” and the New American Commentary emphasizes that loving the foreigner is part of loving one’s neighbor.

The disconnect between what the commentaries say and what the average Christian says stems from the fact that we mistakenly teach Christians that the way to apply the Mosaic Law is to differentiate between moral, civil, and ceremonial commands, then apply the moral ones and disregard the ceremonial and civil ones (and in practice, many Christians disregard the Mosaic Law all together, outside of perhaps the Ten Commandments). Such distinctions, however, are arbitrary and are not made by the biblical text itself. Caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners may have been part of Israel’s civil code, but can we seriously argue that it does not have a moral basis? In fact, throughout the Mosaic Law, moral, civil, and ceremonial commands are intricately linked together, with the implication that the entire Law is moral in nature.

For example, in Leviticus 19, a number of commands are given, each one buttressed by the phrase, “I am the LORD [your God].” The argument that caring for foreigners (Lev. 19:33-34) was something restricted to ancient Israel is untenable in light of the context. Most, if not all, Christians would agree that we are expected to avoid prostitution (Lev. 19:29), keep the Sabbath (Lev. 19:30), steer clear of mediums and spiritists (Lev. 19:31), honor the elderly (Lev. 19:32), and have fair weights and measurements (Lev. 19:35-36). Why, then, would we conclude that we are not expected to love foreigners? An interpretive method that allows requires us to pick and choose, verse-by-verse, what we want to apply and what we don’t does a disservice to the text.

(A quick aside: the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard came to the conclusion that “Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.” This, it appears to me, is a good illustration of Kierkegaard’s concern.)

A better approach to applying the Mosaic Law is “principlism.” In this view, Christians are not arbitrarily bound to follow some of the Law and free to disregard the rest. Rather, none of the individual commands in the Mosaic Law are binding for Christians, but the principles behind the commands are still relevant. These principles are informed by and derived from the New Testament, which often restates, modifies, or expands on the Law. Thus, the Ten Commandments are applicable today not because they are moral commands as opposed to ceremonial or civil commands, but because 9 of the 10 are explicitly restated in the New Testament, as are principles related to the one that isn’t (keeping the sabbath). [For a more thorough examination of principlism, see J. Daniel Hayes, “Applying the Old Testament Law Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 629 (January-March 2001): 21-35.]

Thus, when approaching Deuteronomy 10:17-19, we cannot unequivocally say that the command to care for foreigners is or isn’t applicable for Christians today without examining the original context and broader biblical context, which we will do now.

One of the reasons we are so quick to dismiss the relevance of this passage is because of the phrase “for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” We were never foreigners in Egypt, we reason, so this verse obviously was meant only for Israel. But Israel’s sojourn in Egypt is not the only reason given for why they were to care for foreigners. We cannot excise verse 19 from verses 17-18, and those two verses make it clear that this command is rooted not in the character of Israel’s experience but in the character of Israel’s God.

In verse 17, God reminds Israel that he is a God “who shows no partiality,” and in verse 18 that he “loves the foreigner residing among you.” God is not telling Israel to love the foreigner because they were once foreigners, but to love the foreigner because he loves the foreigner. Their negative experience as foreigners in Egypt was the flip side of the coin. When it came to dealing with foreigners, they could either follow God’s example in loving them, or follow Egypt’s example in mistreating and taking advantage of them, and God makes it clear which example they were to follow. Israel was to imitate God, not the nations (Deut. 18:9).

The Psalmist makes a similar point when he transitions from glorifying God as Creator and Savior to write, “The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” (Ps. 146:9). The fact that the command to love foreigners is rooted in the very character of God makes the command relevant because God does not change (Mal. 3:6; Jas. 1:17).  Thus, we can question how this verse is to applied today, but we cannot question whether this verse is to be applied today. If God loved foreigners 3,500 years ago, then he still loves foreigners today, and if we are to be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1), then we must determine how we are to love foreigners, not if we are to love foreigners.

God’s impartiality is also a continuous theme throughout Scripture, and one that we are told to imitate (Jas. 2:1-13). The New Testament identifies God’s impartiality as key component of the gospel (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 2:11ff), but lest we think this has bearing on our salvation only, and not on our interpersonal relationships, Paul admonishes masters to treat their slaves well “knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Eph. 6:9). It makes little sense, especially in light of Deuteronomy 10:17-19, for us to argue that God’s impartiality has bearing on how a 1st-century master was to treat his slaves, but not on how a 21st-century American is to treat immigrants and refugees.

Finally, widows, orphans, and foreigners were the most vulnerable people in ancient Israelite society. They were the ones with no ordinary source of provision or protection. That is why in Deuteronomy 10:18, God mentions that he was providing them with food and clothing and Psalm 146:9 mentions that God protects and supports them; they had no one else to do it. God wanted Israel to look out for those who were the most vulnerable to being taken advantage of, mistreated, enslaved, etc. In America, as in ancient Israel, immigrants and refugees remain extremely vulnerable. It is only denial that keeps us from recognizing that fact. God is a God who uses his power and might and influence to protect and to provide for the most vulnerable. He expects his people today (the Church) to do the same, just as expected it from his people (Israel) who originally received the Law.

We find the New Testament restatement of Deuteronomy 10:18-19 in James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” When it comes to the most vulnerable groups in our society (orphans, widows, immigrants, refugees, the unborn, the elderly), we are to follow the example set by God rather than the one set by the world. We are to visit them in their distress rather than keeping them at a distance. We are to provide them with food and clothing and shelter rather than ignoring their lack of the same. We are to be as impartial with our love as God, who did not allow his love for his Son keep him from also loving his enemies (Rom. 5:10).

We can choose to ignore the plight of the immigrant and refugee among us, but we cannot use the Bible–or our own misinterpretation and misapplication of it–as an excuse.

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”

He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Mt. 25:42-45)

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