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If the Gibeonites rode into America today…

June 16, 2007

I’m trying to free myself from conventional political perspectives on immigration and look to the Word of God to develop a thoughtful assessment, for my own purposes, of whether or not America has an “immigration problem,” and if so, what is a reasonable approach to take to defuse it. I expect to have exactly no influence whatever, but thoughtfulness is its own reward.

Immigration policy, which has never been well thought out in this country, is a political litmus test, a political football, a political wailing wall, and a political propaganda dispenser: it is a very political issue. At stake are issues of national sovereignty and security; corporate and business labor interests; the nature of rights that a nation determines inhere in individuals found within its borders; and the individual quest for improvement of life.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to who has what rights, and this is far from straightforward, because historical and legal convolutions, distortions and unintended consequences flummox the experts, if there are any experts. I took exactly one course in immigration law in law school, and I didn’t encounter what I would unequivocally call expertise in anything I would unequivocally call policy. American immigration policy has been more like a “flexing normative.”

I turn to Scripture to apprehend life and values because God has all rights over his creation. Scripture doesn’t provide instructions for a specific immigration policy any more than, as my pastor is fond of noting, it provides a method for carburetor repair. But it provides, I think, an example worthy of note and extrapolation, at least to a point. This example is the Gibeonites, who enter Israel during the time of Joshua, and remain with consequences we continue to observe, through the reign of David.

In Joshua 9, the Gibeonites get wind of Israel’s might and contrive to survive. Fearful that the Israelites will destroy them, they enter the camp of Israel under a deceptive ruse. Once within Israel’s borders, they ask for a league of peace with Israel. Joshua grants this covenant. Then it is discovered that they were not from far off, as they had represented themselves to be, but from a neighboring city that would have been Joshua’s next target. But the covenant prevails, and the Gibeonites are permitted to remain in peace. However, they are not given all the benefits enjoyed by the children of Israel. They are suffered to live within Israel’s borders as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” They must work for the right to live on the land or risk enmity and destruction.

There was simply no such thing as welfare in ancient Israel. God required charity to the needy, under penalty of his wrath:

“7 If there be among you a poor man of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:
8 But thou shalt open thy hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.
9 Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee.
10 Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto….
15 And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee: therefore, I command thee this thing to day.”–Deuteronomy 15:7-10, 15

And so, compliance brought blessing, and disobedience brought wrath. The reference is to brethren, presumably countrymen and fellows of the covenant. But the final admonition of v. 15 would seem to imply impoverished foreigners as well. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and God redeemed them; likewise, they are reminded to show compassion. Joshua made peace with the Gibeonites and did not slay them when he learned of their deception. But nor did he reward them with privileges.

The Gibeonites went off radar, but likely served the Israelites and lived peaceably within their borders until Saul, in his zeal, apparently attacked and slaughtered a number of them. We don’t see this campaign occur, but have reference to it at 2 Samuel 21:1-9. The incident was odious enough to God that he caused a three-year famine, and disclosed the reason for his anger to David. David set about making things right with the Gibeonites, who initially told him, “…neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel.” (2 Samuel 21:4) They had no expectation that they would be avenged, because they were servants without rights in the land. But David pressed, “What ye shall say, that will I do for you.” (loc. cit.) And then the Gibeonites suggested it would be fair to hang seven members of Saul’s family. David had seven of Saul’s descendants executed to avenge the slaughtered Gibeonites; he also retrieved the bones of Saul and Jonathan from where they had been left by the Philistines: “And after that God was intreated for the land.” (2 Samuel 21:14)

The vignette of the Gibeonites is probably not the most important event in the history of Israel. But it strikes me as an important vantage from which to view God’s expectations for the treatment of foreigners.

America is very different from Old Testament Israel. We have a Constitutional republic, not a king, and our nation’s charter principles abhor disparate treatment of people found within our borders. We have no right to enslave them. This should imply a greater duty of care in determining whom we admit within our gates, because they will enjoy substantial rights and freeflowing benefits within. They cannot be compelled to chop wood and carry water, but they can be compelled to demonstrate an ability to pay their way, and be escorted out the gate if they will not.

But what if they arrive in fear of destruction–especially, as with the Gibeonites escaping destruction by Joshua–destruction due to an uprising to which our government has contributed? Wars imply refugees, and refugees imply the moral necessity for prospering nations to open their gates. A nation may remain neutral and turn away refugees, but then it was not involved in the conflict that produced the refugees and does not have the same duty as a nation that did contribute to their plight. But for prosperity to continue, refugees have a duty to become workers and provide for themselves, and eventually participate fully in the economy they have entered. And there is no implicit necessity to confer every benefit of citizenship on a foreigner.

The immigration problem in America is the direct result of the problem of giveaway rights in America. At some point public education, welfare, income, health care, housing, and political participation all became rights in this country. And America is terrible at tolerating multi-tiered systems of rights. We have surrendered to the irrational dicta that the public must unconditionally give, and what it gives to any, it must give to all. Without government sponsored giveaways of all we have come to call “rights,” there would be no immigration problem. All people found within our borders would find work to support their families or they would go elsewhere. All people would pay for their own children’s education, their own health care, finance their own cradle-to-grave lives, and even pay for their own housing–but I drift into right-wing utopian fantasy.

The Gibeonites entered Israel essentially illegally, but once in a covenant with their hosts, were permitted to remain in productive peace. I see nothing terribly ingenuous about using this example as a starting point from which to extrapolate a rational domestic policy.

One Comment
  1. Ruben Zartman permalink
    June 20, 2007 11:26 am

    For obvious reasons, this is a topic which has some importance to me –and where I am not satisfied by a lot of the posturing that passes for thought.

    I think the solution is probably to be found indirectly. If we want immigrants who work hard and contribute to the economy, the elimination of public giving would do much to ensure that it was that kind of person who wanted to come (barring special cases like refugees). If it is impossible for the able-bodied to live without working, then the able-bodied immigrants will work. And on the whole, that seems like a national asset.

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