Hoffmeier’s Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate

Ruth, the illegal immigrant (nekhar), according to Hoffmeier

Ruth, the illegal immigrant (nekhar), according to Hoffmeier

“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:24).

The common saying, “Best is the enemy of better,” has its inverted version in the mission field, known by heart by all who have ever attempted to do the work of a missionary: “Better is the enemy of best.” Translated in a layman’s language, it means, “The better a culture is, morally and judicially, the more resistant it is to the full message of the Gospel.” If that culture has some Christian roots – long lost in practice but still present in the collective memory – and has some knowledge of some Biblical truths, the resistance is even greater, especially when it comes to cherished cultural myths and stereotypes and prejudices which have mingled with the remnant knowledge of the Bible into the cultural consciousness. I have personally discovered that truth in practice in my missionary work in Eastern Europe, hearing more than enough the objection, “We are good people here and we go to church [once or twice a year to hear a priest mumble incomprehensibly while performing meaningless rituals]. Why do we need missionaries here?” It’s often much easier to convert an ignorant pagan by pointing to the sharp difference between his pagan practices and the Biblical message than a person who is relatively good, or has some knowledge of the Bible: The pagan has no excuse; the good, almost Christian person has a million excuses, and very often supported by Biblical verses.

The Apostles discovered this truth in their work with the 1st century Jews: The nation that had the Scriptures and should have been perfectly educated and prepared for the coming of the Messiah turned out to be the worst enemy of the Christian faith and persecutor of Christians. As a community, the Jews were better than anyone else, in their personal morality, in their collective judicial rules, in their religious purity, in their economic growth. They had no need for a Savior or a Christ to tell them what is best. Besides, they knew the Scriptures and they had their own idea of how Messiah would look like and what He would do when He comes.

That’s why I didn’t expect much effect from my lectures on immigration.1 The current popular views on immigration have been hammered into the thinking of American Christians by two decades of skillful political propaganda, and no alternative Biblical view has ever been presented, comprehensive, covenantal, and consistent with the full message of the Bible. That skillful political propaganda has been richly supplied with false statistics and biased interpretations of events; real data have been dismissed as irrelevant. Fear tactics (“This is the end of America!”) has been used to soften any possible resistance and rule out any rational arguments. And of course, once American Christians and conservatives in general were conditioned to think in a certain way about immigration, any dissenting voice – like my lectures – will stand no chance.

Add to this the fact that American Christians and conservatives in general are left with the impression that they have the best – compared to everyone else – Christian or Biblical understanding in any topic or issue out there, and anyone who dares contradict the dominant anti-immigration ideology will have the same experience as the Apostles had against the Jews. American Christians know better, and therefore do not recognize the best when it is presented to them. That the Bible doesn’t mention any laws for restricting immigration is ignored; that the practice of Christian Europe and America rejects the current laws and policies is ignored; that the current immigration laws were all passed by politicians opposed to the Christian faith and therefore were based on pagan ideas is ignored; that just 30 years ago Christians and conservatives in general had the opposite view is ignored; in short, every single rational argument is ignored in favor of whatever irrational propaganda has been offered in the last 20 years.

And of course, attempts were made to make that dominant view on immigration sound “Biblical,” that the Bible actually supports the current immigration laws (passed by fascists, socialists, and liberals). Those attempts, in general, start with assuming the modern ideology and policies as legitimate, and then try to find Biblical verses in support. Some are more simplistic and openly political. Others make more elaborate attempts of digging deeper into the Bible to find little details here and there in support of their political ideology. The most successful are those that can come up with some obscure linguistic detail in the Hebrew language and overblow it at the expense of the more fundamental principles of the Word of God. They ignore the ethics of the Bible in favor of the linguistics of the Bible, using the linguistics to prove things contrary to the ethics. In short, they swallow the camel and strain out the gnat.

This is what James Hoffmeier, Professor at Trinity International University has done in his article, “The Use and Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate.” (And in the book he advertizes.) In order to give some Biblical support for the current immigration ideology among Christians and conservatives in general, he has emphasized a linguistic difference in the Bible between the several words translated as “stranger” and “foreigner” in the English versions. His claim is that of the three words used for “stranger” in the Bible, one – ger – must be taken to mean “legal resident,” while the other two – zar and nekhar (or nokhri) – must be taken to mean “illegal aliens,” or at least “aliens without a legal status in the land.”

He has then overblown the significance of that linguistic difference, and has attached to it judicial meaning concurrent not with the Biblical evidence in the Law of God, but with our modern political and judicial ideas. Based on that linguistic detail, he has built a theory explaining why the general principle concerning ethics, and the specific applications concerning strangers and immigration policies should not be taken at face value, but must be understood in a way agreeable to our modern theories. In short, Hoffmeier has strained out the gnat, and has swallowed several camels.

This article is a rebuttal of Hoffmeier’s position. I will start first with the camels he has swallowed, showing how Hoffmeier has missed certain important implications of his theory that would entirely invalidate much of what the Bible says about righteousness and justice. Only then I will proceed to showing how even his attempt to build a case on linguistic differences is fallacious, for it is too simplistic and misses the diverse uses of the Hebrew words in the very Biblical text. In both general ethics and specific applications and even detailed linguistics, the Bible disagrees with Hoffmeier’s analysis. So let’s start.

Legitimized Oppression?

Hoffmeier’s legal argument is based on his claim that in the Law, only the ger was given legal protection, while the nekhar or the zar were not given such protection:

The delineation between the “alien” or “stranger” (ger) and the foreigner (nekhar or zar) in biblical law is stark indeed. The ger in Israelite society, for instance, could receive social benefits such as the right to glean in the fields (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22) and they could receive resources from the tithes (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). In legal matters, “there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the LORD. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you” (Numbers 15:15-16). In the area of employment, the ger and citizen were to be paid alike (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). In all these cases, no such provision is extended to the nekhar or zar. . . . These passages from the Law make plain that aliens or strangers received all the benefits and protection of a citizen, whereas the foreigner (nekhar) did not. It is wrong, therefore, to confuse these two categories of foreigners and then to use passages regarding the ger as if they were relevant to illegal immigrants of today.

But Hoffmeier doesn’t stop to consider the implications of his position. If legal protection is limited to certain classes of people, what of those left outside that protection? He – deliberately or not – fails to mention the most important verse in this regard:

You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 23:9).

The word used here is ger, as in the examples Hoffmeier gives above. The question now is, following Hoffmeier’s logic, does the Law give moral and legal permission for oppression of certain groups of people? Certainly, if the nekhar and zar were excluded from legal rights, based on the omission of the specific words in the specific laws, this law would free the Israelites to oppress the nekhar and the zar. Hoffmeier doesn’t mention any other specific law that would protect the basic human rights of these categories, he just says they don’t have legal protection.

Well, then, are they protected against murder, theft, kidnapping, rape? Could an Israelite freely commit sin and crime against a nekhar and not be responsible to either God or the civil government? That’s what follows logically from Hoffmeier’s logic. Even worse than that, since he specifically says that modern illegal immigrants are excluded from the category of ger – and therefore ineligible to have legal rights – this must mean that modern immigrants should be completely left without any protection of life and limb whatsoever. If he is not saying that, he must have some place in the Law that gives those people at least some protection. But there isn’t such a place in the Law. The Law only protects the ger. Are the nekhar and the zar beasts to be hunted at will, then? If not, why?

The unique proposition in the Law of God, compared to the customs of the pagan nations was that God was the God of all, not just the God of one people, and His statutes applied to all. The universal power of God was to be manifested in the universal applicability of His Law. Moses said that the nations around Israel would see all the laws and in their wisdom would acknowledge the majesty of God (Deut. 4:5-8). The nations in Canaan were driven out by God for violating His Law (Lev. 18:24). The prophets in Israel declared judgment against the surrounding nations because of their violations of the Law of God. Under the Law, there was no privileged position for this or that individual, for this or that group of people, when it came to responsibilities and legal protection. (There was discrimination only in terms of privileges: political participation.) How would God’s Law appeal to a stranger if that same Law declared that stranger unworthy of protection and open to oppression? If even a runaway slave from another nation was supposed to be left alone and not oppressed (Deut. 23:15-16), how could the case be built for anyone to be left without protection in Israel based on our modern bureaucratic notions?

Solomon declared in his prayer of dedication of the Temple:

Also concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name (1 Kings 8:41-43).

The Hebrew word for “foreigner” here is nokhri, akin to nekhar, of the same root. It is not ger, which for Hoffmeier means a “legal alien.” Even if we lay aside the question of how exactly an “illegal alien” is expected to openly stand before the Temple – in the middle of the nation – and pray without being deported, we are still faced with the question: How could a nokhri pray and fear God and call to His name and evangelize the nations, if the Law of that same God declared him unworthy of legal protection, and therefore open game to criminals and oppressors?

The inverse problem is also present: If a nokhri could legitimately travel through the land to come to the Temple, what law was he bound by while being in the land? If “one law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you” (Num. 15:16), and if according to Hoffmeier this only includes the ger and excludes the other categories, does that mean that a nekhar is free to disobey the laws of Israel? Can he rob and murder and steal and destroy, and excuse himself with Num. 15:16, declaring himself free not only of the protection but also of the obligations of the Law of God? If not, why not, if Num. 15:16 only covers the ger and not the nekhar?

And then, of course, the next logical step: What if an Israelite surrenders his right to citizenship and seeks a nekhar status? Does that free him from obeying the laws of Israel?

In his desire to give some Biblical justification to our immigration laws today, Hoffmeier seems to have missed the total implications of his own position. He is actually arguing for legal chaos in the land. His position makes it impossible to protect foreigners in the land, but also makes it impossible to bring to court foreigners who violate the laws of the land. While it is true that the law establishes certain discrimination, it is certainly not the discrimination Hoffmeier imagines. His discrimination is not only un-Biblical, it is also self-destructive, and will only lead to social destruction.

What Is the Biblical Function of Borders?

For some reason, when it comes to the Biblical meaning and function of borders, modern American theologians and church celebrities seem to trip over each other to show who can be more childish and simplistic in interpreting the Bible. The common perception is that if borders are mentioned in the Bible, this surely must confirm our modern ideology and policies on immigration. Joseph Farah, for example, comes up with one of the most childish “proofs” for his theory of immigration control:

For starters, I challenge anyone to check an exhaustive online or offline concordance for the word “border” or “borders” to get an appreciation of how many times God’s Word references these terms. While not all of them are relevant to our discussion, I count 169 references, most of them making the point that God really cares about them. Is that surprising? He cares about boundaries between nations. In fact, it is God Himself who invented nation-states back in Genesis 11.2

Uhm, no. God did NOT invent the nation-states back in Genesis 11. He scattered them over the face of the whole earth. It was a curse, not an “invention.” It was the same curse as the one pronounced in Deut. 4:27; 28:64; and 30:3, using exactly the same Hebrew word: “the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth.” In these curses in Deuteronomy, God was not promising to “invent” the Hebrews nation-state; He was threatening judgment. Nor is mentioning “borders” in the Bible of any use to Farah: while borders are mentioned, there is not a single instance where borders are connected to immigration restrictions. Farah is quick to make his conclusions not in accordance with the Biblical message but in accordance with his own political and cultural bias and stereotypes. Not to mention that some of those cases of borders have to do with private property. As I asked in my lectures on immigration: Do we want to give the government the same authority over the land as we give a private owner over his land? What happens when the government decides to use such power against its own citizens? When did God appoint the government to be the owner of the land so that we allow the government the same rights as private owners have over their property?

Hoffmeier is not as simplistic as Farah but is just as careless when he comes to discussing borders in the Bible. He asks the question in a more elaborate way:

1) Was there such a thing as territorial sovereignty in the second millennium B.C. when these laws originated . . . .

And then answers it:

Regarding the first, the answer is unequivocal. Nations small and large had clearly recognizable borders. . . .

He continues then to make conclusions about immigration control, as if borders necessarily mean immigration control. But the two are not necessarily connected. Christian Europe before WWI had recognizable borders, and yet, there was no immigration control and individuals traveled freely between states. Medieval Germany was a conglomerate of over 400 different states, small and large, and individuals traveled freely without immigration control, even in times of war. (This saved Luther’s life.) The United States before 1921 (and Texas before 1953) had recognizable borders and yet those borders were open for immigration. The 50 states of the USA all have recognizable borders but no person needs permits or visas to travel from Maine to California. The connection between borders and immigration/travel control is only natural for the modern American mind, conditioned by 20 years of political propaganda. For most people in history, it is not that obvious.

Making such automatic but illogical connections can be a dangerous thing leading to serious abuse of the Bible, and it is usually done by theological and political liberals. Other examples of such abuse are (1) taking the multiple commands to care for the poor and misconstruing them to mean government welfare; (2) taking the command to love your neighbor and misconstruing it to mean legitimization of sodomy; (3) taking the warning against a rich man who withholds wheat from the market (Prov. 11:26) and misconstruing it to mean government regulation of the economy; etc. While Hoffmeier would probably object to the above misconstructions, he is guilty of the same in his misconstruction of borders to mean immigration control.

The Biblical principle Hoffmeier misses here is that simply crossing a border doesn’t equal violating that border. And yes, the principle is valid even for borders of private property. Deuteronomy 23:24-25 makes that clear:

When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied, but you shall not put any in your basket. When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.

It is obvious that this law talks about entering another person’s property in the absence of the owner – otherwise the rules about eating or picking would be set by the owner. So not even crossing into another person’s property but also eating of it without express permission is considered legal and not a violation of that property. (This law is still in force in many states in the US; one can enter an orchard and satisfy his hunger without being liable for theft.) What is considered illegal and violation is only taking economic advantage beyond the simple basic needs of the body. So if borders in the Bible teach us anything, it is that individuals should be free to cross them at will, without interference, as long as they do not take illegal economic advantage of private property. (And no, government welfare is not private property, it is stolen money, and it can’t be used as an excuse to create and maintain another government bureaucracy to control people’s movements.)

Borders Are for Restraining Governments, Not Individuals

So what is the function of borders, then? As Hoffmeier says, they are for establishing territorial sovereignty. But territorial sovereignty is a judicial term, and a nation is also a judicial term, and it has to do not with the movements of individuals but with the practical dominance and enforcement of a judicial system over a territory. In short, borders are for restraining governments, not people. Individuals can freely change nations by abandoning the gods – and therefore the ethical and judicial system – of their nation and accepting the gods – and therefore the ethical and judicial system – of a new nation. That’s what Ruth the Moabite did. Her immigration to Israel did not mean she brought with herself the nation of Moab. That’s what’s happening every day today in the United States with millions of people crossing state lines: the states remain sovereign in their judicial systems controlling their territories, and a person crossing from Texas into Louisiana is now under the judicial system of Louisiana, not of Texas. We don’t think the presence of a Texas resident in Louisiana is threatening the territorial sovereignty of Louisiana, do we? Why would it be different for any other law-abiding individuals out there?

Therefore, the only case of illegal crossing a border would be when a person or a group representing the judicial authority of one nation crosses a border to declare the expansion of their judicial authority. Which usually means military invasion, but sometimes may mean peaceful expansion of judicial authority. This is what God meant when He promised Israel that He would “enlarge their borders” (Ex. 34:24): not that the Israelites would be able to travel freely as individuals but that the Law of God (which was also the law of Israel) would conquer new lands (Deut. 20:10-15). Territorial sovereignty is an issue of nations as judicial entities, not of physical travel and settlement by individuals. Immigration control, then, treats all foreign travelers or immigrants as criminals by default, automatically assuming them to be agents of foreign powers whose purpose is to undermine the judicial system of a nation. In the last century, such paranoia was characteristic only of the Communist and fascist regimes; in the 21st century, it is only characteristic of the American Christians and conservatives in general. The Biblical solution to this issue is to assume all immigrants innocent until proven otherwise; and therefore only deport or punish those who openly advocate the revolutionary overthrow of the judicial system. (Like the occasional Muslim imam who openly calls for the enforcement of Shariah.)

Hoffmeier doesn’t stop to consider this real function of borders in the Bible – judicial restraint of governments – and that’s why he tries to use the examples of Jacob’s family in Egypt and Israel’s passage to Canaan as examples of “immigration control”:

Perhaps the best-known story has to do with the Children of Israel entering Egypt. In the book of Genesis, we are told of how during a time of famine in Canaan, the sons of Jacob did the natural thing under the circumstances — go to Egypt where the Nile kept the land fertile. Even though their brother Joseph was a high-ranking official who had recommended to Pharaoh that they be allowed to settle in the northeast delta of Egypt, they felt compelled to ask Pharaoh for permission. . . .

But when they left Sinai, they needed to pass through Edom in southern Jordan, and permission of the host nation was necessary, as Numbers 20:14-21 reports. . . .

For all his attention to details in other places (like linguistic differences between ger and nekhar), Hoffmeier doesn’t care for details where details matter the most. What was the entity settling in Egypt? What was the entity passing through Edom? Was it individuals who accepted the judicial system of the host nation by default? Or was it a nation, a judicial entity of itself, with its own laws and its own court system and enforcement apparatus? Why did Joseph’s brothers ask such official permission only when the whole family-nation moved, and not before, when they traveled as individuals simply to buy wheat? In the case of Edom, was Israel asking to pass as a crowd of individuals? Or was it as a nation with its own judicial structure, different from the judicial structure of Edom?

Hoffmeier doesn’t seem to understand this important judicial difference, but Christian Europe and America in the past understood it very well. Even in times of war, private citizens of warring nations could travel freely across borders; and even military officers could visit an enemy country for private reasons. Medieval Europe had it as an established legal principle that private citizens – unlike government officials or military personnel – were not subject to border restrictions, which made many government officials, including kings and popes, prefer using private merchants for their correspondence with other officials. It wasn’t until the 20th century that totalitarian regimes started applying to private citizens the same legal rules as to their governments; after all, a totalitarian ideology doesn’t recognize the individual as a separate entity from his government. With his confusion of individuals and nations as judicial entities, Hoffmeier is closer to a totalitarian ideology than to the Biblical message.

Rule of Law vs. Rule of Man

But there’s a more serious problem in Hoffmeier’s use of Edom and Egypt as examples: It is in his lack of understanding of the very unique character of the Biblical Law compared to the judicial structures of the pagan nations around Israel. He points to the fact that Jacob’s family had to ask the Pharaoh for permission to settle, and that Moses had to send for permission to the King of Edom, and he makes conclusions about Israel. But if the same laws applied to Israel, who was it that would give such permission? What institution was charged with the responsibility to enforce immigration policy?

To start with, it is quite bizarre a proposition that God, giving such a detailed Law to Israel, would fail to include in it immigration laws but would direct the Israelites to the practices of Egypt and Edom. “Here,” God must have said, according to Hoffmeier, “I don’t need to give you laws about immigration because you can always copy from the other nations around you.” And that while commanding them to not do like the nations around them and setting them apart as a nation. That an Old Testament scholar like Hoffmeier would even venture to propose such a thing already casts a shadow either on his scholarship or on his integrity. And the Law really contains not a single bit of any laws for immigration control. (The laws for political participation in Deut. 23 are not immigration laws.) So, Israel had to go to the practices of other nations to know what to do about immigration? Well, why not apply the same to other practices, for example, government welfare and control over the economy. Egypt had government control over distribution of seed for planting (Gen. 47:23). The same can be said about taxes, standing armies, permanent slavery, and many other things: God didn’t include them in the Law because He wanted the Israelites to copy them from other nations. Hoffmeier’s logic here is outright bizarre.

Even the very practice of asking a king for executive permission already illustrates the abysmal difference between Israel’s judicial structure and the judicial structures of the pagan nations. And that difference consists in the fact that while the pagan nations were based on Rule of Man, Israel was to be based on Rule of Law, a completely revolutionary proposition in the ancient world.

It is significant that the words “law” or “laws” never appear in the Pentateuch in relation to the pagan nations around Israel. The first mention is of Joseph who “made a law” in Egypt. Outside this act by Joseph, we do not have anything to tell us what exactly the laws were in Egypt, Edom, or any other pagan nation. There’s a reason for it: the concept of “law” as an independent entity separate from the royal power was not existent in the pagan societies. The King was the law in himself; his every whim was the law of the land. There was no independent set of legal principles to which the King was subject; as a divine ruler, his personal will ruled over all. Therefore, when Jacob’s family arrived in Egypt, there was no law to which they could appeal to get legal status; there was only the Pharaoh’s personal whim. In the same way, with Edom, there was no “law of Edom” to which Moses could appeal to get permission for his people to pass; there only the personal whim of the King of Edom. As I argue in my articles on the legal revolutions in Greece and Rome, the pagan world didn’t have any knowledge of objective, universal, self-existing law before God declared it from Sinai; and after Solomon became known throughout the whole world, all the civilizations started copying the concept of universal law (if not the very Law itself). It is much later in the Bible, in Babylon and Persia, where we see pagan kings referring to the laws of their nations as bounding even the kings themselves. In those earlier times, such concept was unknown to the pagans around Israel.

But Israel was supposed to offer a completely different example of a society, one that would attract the nations to it (Deut. 4:5-8). That example was based on the fact that they had no human king but God was their King (Ex. 15:18; 1 Sam. 8:7). There was no human institution that was given the power to give permits; God gave His Law, and His Law was to be the objective legal standard of the land, independent from and above any human decisions, opinions, permits, licenses, registrations, etc. Even if the Israelites chose to have a king, that king should not be like the pagan kings but should be subject to the same law, like everyone else in Israel (Deut. 17:18-20). Israel’s sin in 1 Sam. 8 was not that they wanted a king but that they wanted a king “like all the nations,” that is, they wanted to reject the Rule of Law and establish Rule of Man, as the pagans around them.

In this context, there was no institution in Israel charged with the power to give immigration permits. Not even the king was allowed to usurp that power, for he had to obey the Law, and the Law had no immigration restrictions included in it. Even a runaway slave was to be left alone and not deported nor oppressed – which, as I argue in my lectures, meant possible international problems for Israel. Therefore, even if we take Hoffmeier’s examples of Edom and Egypt as relevant to immigration policies (which they are not, as I explained above), Hoffmeier is still guilty of trying to apply to Israel a legal system that is entirely pagan and foreign to the Law of God: Rule of Man over Rule of Law. He doesn’t seem to understand the radical difference between a godly society and a pagan society, and he claims a godly society is supposed to operate on the same statist and totalitarian principles as a pagan society.

Gaps in the Linguistic Analysis

So far I exposed the greater gaps in Hoffmeier’s analysis, the general ethical and judicial principles he has either missed or contradicted with his focus on the linguistic differences between the words for “stranger.” These are the camels he has swallowed while straining out the gnat. The question now is, But shouldn’t we pay attention to these details? Isn’t his linguistic analysis still valid and worthy of at least some consideration?

The answer is, No. His linguistic analysis may seem impressive at a first glance, but under scrutiny, it is exposed as incomplete and arbitrary, at best. First, it is based on unwarranted assumptions about legal definitions. And second, it misses specific examples of uses of the words ger, zar, and nekhar which contradict Hoffmeier’s interpretation of those terms.

First, the obvious problem is that while there are different words for “stranger,” there is no logical reason why we should attach to them our modern legal concepts of “legal” and “illegal alien.” After all, much of the Old Testament – or most of the Old Testament – has to do with legal principles, case laws, and specific applications of these principles and laws. The correct Biblical hermeneutics would require that we go back to the Bible whenever we need information on the definition of certain terms. Using modern definitions to define the ancient usage of certain words is always dangerous, mainly because of the cultural differences between our own day and times past. We have certain concepts today that would sound quite outlandish to people of ages past; for example, our modern term of “illegal alien” wouldn’t make any sense to Americans who lived in 1914. To try to attach the meaning of “illegal alien” to any word used 100 years would be useless at best: there was no concept comparable to it at all in the American jurisprudence.

In this specific case, to know if Hoffmeier’s interpretation of the terms is correct, we need to look not to our modern legal concepts but to the Bible. Does the Bible contain any practical example of the legal difference between ger and nekhar? Does it have an example of an illegal alien arrested and deported back to his land? Does it have any legal stipulation in the Law of God declaring “illegal immigration” to be a crime? Does it contain the specific penalties for such a crime? Does it mention an institution charged with issuing visas or permits? Does it mention a legal procedure that grants a ger status to foreigners? Simply sticking our modern concepts on top of those terms is poor scholarship; we need to be consistent with the Bible, not with our modern times, to know if a hermeneutic is correct.

The Bible has nothing like this. There is no such crime mentioned, no penalties, no institution charged with enforcement, no permits, no visas, no deportations. The very concept of immigration control is missing; it’s nowhere to be seen. If Hoffmeier is correct in his interpretation of the terms, where would the Hebrews take all these definitions he is proposing? Suck them out of thin air? Go to Edom or Egypt? But even Edom and Egypt didn’t have specific laws nor legal definitions of these concepts; all they had is the whim of a ruler. How would a Hebrew know all the specific details Hoffmeier claims were present in the terms? And how would the Hebrew society know how to enforce them?

Hoffmeier doesn’t say. He just assumes. And his assumptions have as much weight as the assumption that 1 Sam. 19:7 or Dan. 2:49 prove that the ancients played tennis.

It gets even worse when we get to the specific examples of usage of the words in the Bible.

I already pointed above from 1 Kings 8:41-43 that Solomon expected the nokhri (the same word as Hoffmeier’s nekhar) to come to the Temple and pray and call to God, publicly. How can that be when he is an illegal alien, according to Hoffmeier’s analysis? How would he evangelize, if he himself at this very moment of standing before the Temple is not under any legal protection in the Law?

Ruth is another example. When approached by Boaz, she replied:

Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).

The word for “foreigner” here is again, nokhri, not ger. Was Ruth an illegal immigrant, according to Hoffmeier? Was she not under the legal protection of the Law? If she was, why didn’t Boaz correct her, “No, Ruth, you are not nokhri, you are ger”?

The use of nokhri by Ruth is even more inexplicable by Hoffmeier’s interpretation given the fact in the very next chapter we discover that Ruth is not only not an illegal immigrant, she is actually in her full rights as a Hebrew woman! She has a share in the land of her deceased husband, and she is entitled to marriage to a Hebrew man of her husband’s extended family!

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the deceased, in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance” (Ruth 4:5).

Stop and consider here: What if Naomi had died before she could sell the field? Who would rightfully inherit the field? Ruth! A Moabite woman would be the owner of a Hebrew estate by marriage, and would have the right to a levirate marriage. And yet, she calls herself nokhri, and Hoffmeier declares this to mean an “illegal alien,” an alien without any legal protection in the land.

What about the ger? Does the word mean what Hoffmeier claims it means, a foreigner who has legal status and protection and is a convert? Here’s what Hoffmeier says:

In a sense, the ger were not just aliens to whom social and legal protections were offered, but were also considered converts, and thus could participate in the religious life of the community, e.g. celebrate Passover (Exodus 12:13) and observe Yom Kippur, the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:29-30). They were, moreover, expected to keep dietary and holiness laws (Leviticus 17:8-9 & 10-12).

Sounds quite convincing until we discover at least one example contrary to Hoffmeier’s interpretation:

You shall not eat anything which dies of itself. You may give it to the alien who is in your town, so that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner, for you are a holy people to the LORD your God (Deut. 14:21).

The word for “alien” here is . . . ger. Seems like the ger can violate the dietary restrictions, and in at least one example he is just as unprotected by the Law as is the nokhri. There goes Hoffmeier’s theory about the “legal” ger and the “illegal” nekhar.

What about the zar? Is that another word for “illegal alien” as Hoffmeier claims? Let’s see:

. . . as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the LORD; so that he will not become like Korah and his company (Num. 16:40).

The word for “layman” here is . . . zar, which, according to Hoffmeier’s analysis, must mean “illegal alien.” But the word here indicates an Israelite! There goes Hoffmeier’s theory, again.

The Logical Solution to the Linguistic Puzzle

The question still remains: What is the solution? Why does the Bible use different words for “stranger”? If Hoffmeier’s interpretation is incorrect – and it surely is, based on careful logical, legal, and textual analysis – then how are we to take the difference between ger, nekhar, and zar?

The answer is: Technically, the three words are synonyms in the Hebrew language and are interchangeable. They have no attached specific legal meanings to them; after all, the very concepts of “immigration control” or “illegal alien” did not exist in the Law to start with. The only difference between them is semantics: the three words have different connotations:

Ger, coming from the root for “abide,” or “abide with,” carries a more positive connotation, and would usually be used in a friendlier, more amiable sense, as “sojourner.” It is not meant to exclude certain classes of foreigners based on their success in jumping through bureaucratic hoops; it is meant to present a more positive attitude to foreigners. This is the reason this word is used in the laws commanding legal protection for strangers: not to separate strangers into protected and unprotected (which would be absurd, given the character of the Law), but to express God’s attitude to the foreigner as far as his legal rights are concerned.

Nekhar or nokhri, coming from the root word for “disaster, misfortune, calamity,” carries a more negative connotation, and would usually be used in a more hostile sense. Again, it is not meant to denote a legal class of foreigners, it is only meant to express a more negative attitude to foreigners. This is the reason Ruth called herself nokhri: to express humility and submission, for the same reason Job, for example, used similar derogatory words about men in Job 25:6. This is the reason the word nekhar is used in Lev. 22:25: to express God’s displeasure of the ritual uncleanness of the foreigner.

Zar, meaning simply “other,” is the neutral word, carrying no specific connotation, simply separating members of a group from other groups, whether foreigners from homeborn, or Aaron descendants from the rest of Israel.

There is no magic in the linguistics of these words, and there is no hidden legal meaning which we need to interpret through the lenses of our modern culture. The solution is simple, and it doesn’t support Hoffmeier’s theories.


James Hoffmeier’s linguistic separation between ger, nekhar, and zar has become very popular with the anti-immigration crowd among American Christians and conservatives in general. Of course, on the surface it sounds very authoritative: The man knows Hebrew, he plays with those words in Hebrew, he must be right. However, a careful Biblical and logical scrutiny of his position shows that it rests on a very shaky foundation, and is, at best, poor or careless scholarship. He ignores the weightier matters of the Law by his focus on a linguistic detail, overblowing that detail to the proportions of important theological and legal principle. In Biblical terms, he has swallowed many camels while straining out a gnat. But even when we look at his linguistic claims and compare them to the Biblical testimony, they turn out to be incorrect at best, or deliberately misleading at worst. The Bible doesn’t offer any support for his legal definitions of the terms, and in fact, it uses the terms in ways contrary to his definitions. That so many churchian celebrities in the US have accepted his claims uncritically is just another testimony to the disastrously low level of Biblical understanding and scholarship prevalent in the American churches and seminaries. The truth is, the three terms are interchangeable, and the difference between them is semantic, not legal.

Therefore, Hoffmeier’s analysis can’t be used as a reliable tool to prove Biblical support for the modern policies of immigration restrictions. The Bible is very clear: The Law of God contains no immigration restrictions, and no mandate for the civil government to control the movements of law-abiding individuals; neither does it contain a mandate for the civil government to make up new categories of crimes (“illegal aliens”) and punish people based on them. The immigration restriction laws of the US in the last 95 years were the product of pagan ideologies – racist, fascist, and socialist – and Christians who support them today have become allies with the enemies of God. The real immigration policy mandated by the Law of God is the same as what the US was before 1921: open borders and limited political franchise. Anything else is a violation of the Law of God and will inevitably produce more chaos and bring more judgment on America.

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  1. http://bit.ly/MarinovImmigration []
  2. What Bible Says About Illegal Immigration.” []

About Bojidar Marinov

A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, homeschool group or other organization, contact him through his website: http://www.bulgarianreformation.com/

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3 Responses to Hoffmeier’s Abuse of the Bible in the Immigration Debate

  1. Rick Behrens March 15, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

    Thanks so much for this. I have been working for positive immigration reform for 11 years now and pastor a congregation with many ‘ger’. We are very afraid now and doing all we can to protect ourselves. I had never heard Hoffmeier’s definitions. In fact, I have several rabbincal friends who have never mentioned a distinction and who use Lev. 19:33 in the same way I use it. I appreciate your thoroughness in addressing his errors. Thanks so much!!!!

  2. COHikerGirl July 9, 2018 at 8:03 pm #

    I am deeply thankful for your thoughtful dismantling of Hoffmeier’s deliberate mis-translations. I volunteer in work to restore immigrants and refugees to their families who have been missing for years or decades, and understand the difficulties they face in joining a new country and culture. I have been deeply dismayed at the decidedly un-Christian attitudes of those who purport to be Christian, in the immigration debate. Your essay is enormously helpful in countering the presumptions of those who swallow such misinformation whole, happy to have found seeming justification for their prejudices and xenophobia.


  1. Ralph Drollinger Says He’s Not a Christian Nationalist But Exhorts Legislators to Please God with Immigration Policy – Warren Throckmorton - February 20, 2019

    […] The heart of Drollinger’s message is a rigid classification of non-natives based on different Hebrew words. He apparently hasn’t done the study himself; he based his classification on the work of James Hoffmeier. Hoffmeier’s work on these words has been criticized as overly rigid attempts to apply modern legal concepts of citizenship to the ancient Hebrews (see this article). […]

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