Dr. James Hoffmeier challenged the evangelical community’s use of Scripture to push amnesty for illegal aliens in a lengthy panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation on Friday. Hoffmeier is on the staff of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and an expert in how to understand the context of the Bible. The majority of the mainstream media and political arena have unquestionably accepted the viewpoint that somehow the Bible fits the left’s political agenda when it comes to immigration legislation.
“The fact that the Bible has been used in the present immigration debate has both interested me and fascinated me because of how it’s been used and by whom it’s been used,” Hoffmeier, an expert in Hebrew and Biblical “exegesis”–what he describes as the study of how “to interpret Scripture in its ancient near-Eastern context”–said at the event.
Hoffmeier detailed for the audience how the Bible actually has three different words for what are commonly translated now into English as one word: “foreigner.” Those three words are “ger,” “nekhar” and “zar.”
“The term that is most frequently used and most frequently quoted–in fact, it occurs as a verb and as a noun 160 times in the Old Testament, so this is not some little idle passive word, it’s a significant word,” Hoffmeier said. “The word is ‘ger.’ But in some of the most modern translations, like the TNIV [Today’s New International Version] or the New Living Translation, they take all three of these words which have very different meanings in Hebrew and translate them by the same English word ‘foreigner.’ I think that’s creating some confusion when people start reading the Bible and they look at these words. And so what I’ve tried to do is clarify.”
Hoffmeier has written a book on the topic, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible and has published scholarly articles on the topic with the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank focused on immigration policy. In the book, he details how the word “ger” in ancient Hebrew is like what Americans would consider a legal immigrant or green card holder.
“This common word ‘ger’ is precisely what Ancient Israel was in Egypt,” Hoffmeier said at the panel. “Now, if you remember, in the book of Genesis, the Hebrews experienced famine–Jacob and his family–and want to go to emigrate to Egypt. Brother Joseph is already there working for the administration, and he is interested in bringing his family. Well, when the brothers and the family arrive, they ask the Pharaoh: ‘We want to sojourn in your land. We want ger. Want to be sojourners in your land.’ And they get official permission. What happens then, of course, is a new Pharaoh comes along who knows not Joseph sometime later and as you know all hell breaks loose. But the point is what happened to the Israelites is they had been invited guests living in a country and then they had been turned away and abused. God reminds them again and again, ‘You were in the land of Egypt, you know what it’s like to be abreast, don’t do that to others.’ And I think, based on a number of occurrences, that this ‘ger’ is a person who we might call a holder of a green card–a legal immigrant who has been formally recognized into a country.”
The two other words, “nekhar” and “zar,” Hoffmeier noted, were clearly distinguished from the legal immigrants, or “ger,” in Biblical times. “There are two other words used in Hebrew that are translated as ‘foreigner,’–‘nekhar’ and ‘zar,'” Hoffmeier said. “Both of these words mean foreigners. And in Biblical law, you can see all of the protections go to the ‘ger,’ what I call the legal immigrant. They get the social benefits, and to join in the community worship and they have to observe Kosher dietary laws. Now, the foreigner, you can charge them interest. They can eat non-Kosher food. They’re not a part of the community. The Biblical law clearly makes a distinction.”
Hoffmeier said that pro-amnesty advocates from the Evangelical community have been mistakenly using selected passages to push for the passage of the Senate “Gang of Eight” bill or a plan like it into law. He singled out Sojourners president and CEO progressive Christian activist Jim Wallis, whom he described as a “gadfly.” Wallis is and a leftwing activist who operates with funding from leftwing billionaire and self-described atheist George Soros.
“What has happened, I regret, in the recent discussion is that two different ideas have been blurred and the distinction between categories of foreigners has been lost,” Hoffmeier said. “It’s because of maybe the good will of people who want to treat people well that they misuse these Scriptures to advance a case. I think it’s fair to say that the ‘ger,’ I would call them the legal immigrant–and I was for 10 years an immigrant in Canada and I grew up and lived as an immigrant in Egypt, I’ve been an immigrant in two different lands, and I know what it’s like to be an immigrant–but you abide by the laws of the land. And that’s precisely what Biblical law is advocating. It clearly demarcates between these two categories of people. I think what’s happening today is that the people who are advocating using Scripture for the undocumented illegal immigrant or whatever the last catch word is that we can use are trying to credit the non-legal resident with the same rights that Biblical law calls for with the legal foreign resident. There, I think, lies the problem.”
Specifically, Hoffmeier said he is personally not someone who advocates using the Bible to make public policy–“the last thing I want in the world is Ruth Bader Ginsburg telling me what the Torah says and means,” he joked.
“But if clergy and thinkers are going to use the Bible in some way in this debate, then they have to use it responsibly and properly,” Hoffmeier continued. “So when I hear a Unitarian universalist clergy person quoting from the Book of Exodus and we hear an evangelical Southern Baptist pastor friend of mine who gave testimony before Sen. [Jeff] Sessions’ committee [the Senate Judiciary Committee] some months back using the same verses, I find that very interesting. What was more interesting to me was hearing Sen. Sessions sort of rebuke this pastor from Houston, and saying ‘Do you know Dr. Hoffmeier’s book?’ and he began the quote from it. And of course the pastor happens to know me but apparently hadn’t read my book.”
Hoffmeier was referring to an exchange Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) had with Dr. David Fleming, a Texas pastor who testified in favor of amnesty in the Senate Judiciary Committee before the Gang of Eight bill eventually became law. “I think it’s not healthy to lead little ones astray,” Sessions told Fleming then, after the two quoted Scripture back and forth at each other. “Some people have been citing Scripture, I think, very loosely.”
After that, Fleming responded to Sessions by saying he “couldn’t disagree at all with what you’ve said.”
“I completely agree,” Fleming said. “That’s why we’ve been asking for legislation that respects the rule of law, that secures our national borders, I wholeheartedly agree with that. And by the way, Dr. Hoffmeier is a personal friend of mine and so I appreciate you quoting him today as well.”
Despite the admission that Scripture does not call for amnesty, Fleming came back to say that he still thinks there should be some kind of a focus on what to do with the illegal aliens already inside America.
After the back and forth between Sessions and Fleming, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) joked that he does not care what the Bible says. “I enjoy being the chairman of Judiciary,” Leahy said. “I just want to amend the U.S. Code, I’m not trying to amend Genesis or any other part of the Bible.”
“You don’t have that power,” Sessions chimed back in at Leahy.
“Nor would I suggest I do,” Leahy responded.
Other experts at the Friday panel included Kelly Monroe Kullberg of the Veritas Forum, Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and Dr. Carol Swain of Vanderbilt University. The event was hosted by Derrick Morgan of the Heritage Foundation.
WATCH: Sen. Jeff Sessions discusses the Bible and immigration policy with Dr. David Fleming in Senate hearing:
Photo credit Adam McLane