The opening chapters of the book of Genesis are of great importance when it comes to determining fundamental ethical guidelines, as rooted in the order of creation.
In this short essay we want to ponder what the guidelines are that can be drawn from these texts (Genesis 1-4) as far as the issue of migration is concerned. In a subsequent piece we will need to investigate how the following chapters (especially Genesis 10-11) contribute to the understanding of migration in a creational perspective.
Of course, the observations made here are not only limited in terms of what they can potentially bring to light as far as Genesis 1-11 is concerned; even more importantly, it has to be acknowledged right at the beginning that crucial new perspectives on the topic of migration are offered in the subsequent parts of the Hebrew Bible (and of course, even beyond the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament). The call to Abraham to migrate from Ur to Canaan in Genesis 12 is a remarkable first piece that shows how important migration has been in salvation history. The subsequent discussion, then, can only present one perspective among many others when it comes to attempts to shed some biblical light on the complex issue of migration.
1. First and foremost: It can be deduced from Gen. 1:26-27 (taken up in Gen. 9:6) that each person, regardless of his/her ethnicity, because of his/her character as image of God, has infinite value. This, of course, is also true for each migrant.
This does not only mean that migrants as individuals must be treated in ways that respect their dignity, but also beyond this that there is no room for racial pride at the cost of others. There is, then, no biblical-creational justification for racism.
However, it must be pointed out that the term "racism" in the current situation is used in ways that do not only refer to racial pride at the cost of others, but to virtually all types of demarcations between groups and criticism of groups that are not identical with the own group, even if the groups in question are not racially or ethnically defined. Along such lines, critical questioning of liberal immigration policies are per se labeled "racist." Evidently this use of the term goes far beyond its traditional semantic content and functions to discredit without further discussion divergent opinions.
2. In the larger biblical context it becomes clear that the ascription of the status of image of God and the concomitant dignity of the human person primarily refers to individuals. It does by no means exclude the possibility of certain historical peoples or nations being evaluated and treated in different ways, often (after the Fall) negatively. One example among many others are the Canaanites.
3. If all persons are endowed with the dignity derived from their status as bearers of the image of God, this applies, of course, also to the population in countries that are destinations of migration movements.
Therefore, an ethically responsible manner of handling migration issues will never focus exclusively on the needs of migrants, but also on the needs of the residents of the receiving societies.
To the degree that one can presuppose a biblical "option for the underprivileged," one will need to analyze carefully in each situation who the underprivileged are. It cannot simply be presupposed that the weak persons being in need of protection are always (or exclusively) the migrants.
This is lost in the migration debate when migrants per se are imagined virtually exclusively as weak and victims.
4. The fact that all humankind is depicted as descending from one couple, Adam and Eve, in the light of Genesis 3 also means that every person, regardless of his/her ethnicity, is a sinner before God, not simply "good." Again, this also applies to all migrants, no less than to the members of the receiving societies.
This point is lost in those instances in which migrants per se are ascribed a special spiritual quality, representing the presence of God in an elevated way, or instances in which they are imagined as "more precious than gold" or the like.
5. Adam (and Eve) are placed in the garden of Eden to till and protect it (Gen. 2:15). The implication of this is that migration was not part of the original plan for the first couple. Only as a consequence of the Fall does (one-time, forced) migration occur: Adam and Eve must leave the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:23-24).
However, according to Gen. 1:28 (taken up in Gen. 9:1, 7) the descendants of the first human couple are commissioned to fill the earth and subdue it, which necessarily includes movements of migration during subsequent generations. These movements, however, would be necessary only as a series of one-time events, with the purpose of settling uninhabited areas, and they would come to an end once the boundaries of the globe were reached.
A permanent existence as a migrant is ordained only for Cain, as part of the punishment for the killing of his brother Abel (Gen. 4:14).
The result of these observations is that generally migration is not an ideal established in creation. Migration as a positive factor can only be implicitly detected as a provisional part of the process leading to the implementation of the command to fill the earth and subdue it. As opposed to this, within the first four chapters of Genesis the explicit practical examples of migration are related to human sin.
6. The first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, makes clear that God loves order and that accordingly his creation is marked by a high degree of order. Creation in important ways consists of the overcoming of chaos, the tohu wa-bohu that is mentioned in Gen. 1:2. The ethical implication of this trait is that human societal life must be organized in a way that avoids chaos. This means that migration, which always includes a disruption of order, cannot be the "default position" or the preferred and primary recourse in terms of addressing specific needs, and that migration movements must be organized (if at all possible) in ways that prevent chaotic situations from occurring. One aspect of this order is the distinction between legal and illegal immigration.