Debates about migration have never been simple – just look at the Hebrew Bible

Today, the Bible is often invoked during public debates about immigration. From former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to a group of 2,000 rabbis, people have referred to the Bible to explain their differing positions on immigration and refugees. Several specialists in biblical studies have spoken and written about what the text says on the topic.

One thing is clear: Migration matters in the Bible. Stories about it are common – from the Book of Genesis, where the patriarch Abraham obeys God’s command to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia, to the Moabite woman Ruth, who migrates to Bethlehem out of love for her Judean mother-in-law, Naomi, to the Jews’ forced migration to Babylonia.

But these many voices do not necessarily boil down to a single theology or ethical framework. As a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, I study how themes of migration mattered in the making of scripture, as well as in how the text has been circulated, debated and interpreted by readers across the globe.

Discussions about migration are always complicated, because migrants’ real-life experiences do not easily translate into simple bureaucratic categories.

Modern societies defined by the ideas of citizenship and borders tend to classify modern migrants into legal binaries, each with its own rights and restrictions: resident vs. nonresident, documented vs. undocumented, immigrant vs. nonimmigrant. Ancient Israel, too, relied on legal categories to try to make sense of migration.