Immigration remains one of the most divisive and debated social and political issues of our day. Understanding the Bible's teaching on immigration and applying it to current immigration issues is complicated terrain. Dr. Markus Zehnder, Talbot Professor of Old Testament, brings a wealth of research on the bible and immigration, as well as his experience of immigration issues from living most of his life in Europe, to bear on this complex and emotionally-charged issue.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Markus Zehnder grew up in Switzerland and is an ordained minister of the Reformed Church of Switzerland. After the completion of his doctorate, he moved to Jerusalem and then to Boston for postdoctoral studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Harvard University. He has held teaching positions in Switzerland, Germany, Norway, and Belgium. He has a passion to connect the Bible both with personal and societal issues. Questions relating to migration are at the top of the list of his research interests.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Scott Rae, professor of Christian ethics and dean of the faculty here at Talbot School of Theology in Biola University.

Sean McDowell: I'm your cohost, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're here today with Professor Markus Zehnder, who’s a professor of Old Testament at Talbot School of Theology, one of the leading experts in biblical studies, applying the Scripture to issues of immigration around the world. Markus, you come to us from Europe. Tell us a little bit about where you were raised and the different places that you've taught in Europe prior to coming over here.

Markus Zehnder: All right. Thank you very much for having me here. I grew up in Switzerland and then moved away from Switzerland after the completion of my studies. I first moved to Israel for the postdoctoral degrees and then to the U.S. for one year to Boston. The last 10 years before I came here, I spent in Norway mostly, and the last three of the 10 years both in Norway and Belgium where I taught at two different institutions.

Scott Rae: In other words, you commuted between Norway and Belgium.

Markus Zehnder: Right.

Scott Rae: Several times a year.

Markus Zehnder: Yes. Yes.

Scott Rae: Okay.

Markus Zehnder: KLM makes it possible.

Scott Rae: I take it you were glad to get to Talbot so you could actually be in one place.

Markus Zehnder: Yes, that's correct.

Scott Rae: We are delighted to have you on our faculty, and the contribution you're making to students has been terrific. You see the immigration issue primarily as a European, and from the European experience. How is immigration in Europe different than what you've seen of the immigration discussion here in the United States?

Markus Zehnder: I would like to start by saying that they're both about parallels and differences. It's not just different. There are also many parallels. One of the parallels is that both Europe and the U.S. are part of the Western world, where currently we can talk about the crisis of self-identity. The whole migration debate is framed by this crisis. And this crisis consists in being overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt. The rest feels like being the worst agent in history ever. This then means that migration is one way of remedy this situation. We have to atone for our guilt by having other people come and live with us. That's the parallel between the two places.

A second parallel that is important for the question of migration is the fact that the sovereignty of the people that should characterize a democratic state is being undermined by the rule of the judiciary. On both sides of the Atlantic, it is now possible that churches can ignore or overturn specific regulations that the executive and legislative branches of government who are democratically elected have put into place. Another shared element is the rejection of the notion that any Western country would be allowed based on their historical background to positively discriminate Christians and give them preferred access to their countries, which is, of course, a break from all the historical patterns that were in place before these days.

Scott Rae: You say that because it's primarily Christians around the world who are being persecuted, and who are –

Markus Zehnder: Right. That's correct.

Scott Rae: ... who are the majority of migrants coming into Europe.

Markus Zehnder: No, not at all.

Scott Rae: No?

Markus Zehnder: The numbers are ... Open Doors speaks about 200 million Christians in 2017 being either actively persecuted or in some way discriminated against in 2017, so 200 million people. This compares to about 66 million people that have been forced from home according to UN statistics, and about a third of them being classified as refugees. Interestingly, and that's the biggest difference between Europe and the U.S., the largest amount of migrants into Europe are not Christians but Muslims, whereas the composition of the immigrant body here in the U.S. is more varied, more complex than in Europe.

Now, for Western Europe, this means basically, as many point out, the end of the European nations as we have known them for centuries. It's happening before our eyes, just within the horizon of a few decades. Now, of course, the names of these countries will probably be in news for a long time, but everyone who has a little knowledge of history will know that that place looks different when there is a Muslim majority as opposed to a non-Muslim majority. The demographic trends here in Europe, or in Western Europe are unambiguous. That's what is happening right now.

Scott Rae: Okay. That's a pretty significant difference between these two.

Markus Zehnder: Right. Right.

Scott Rae: Let me raise another question, Markus. The Christian community has been really significantly involved in the immigration debate for some time. There have been disparate Christian voices in the immigration or in the immigration debate. Are there some specific Christian or theologically-based misunderstandings of what's going on?

Markus Zehnder: I'm afraid there are. Christians may have a simplifying view of the complexity of the issue of migration by just focusing on the element of compassion as the only one guiding principle, and by seeking out just a limited number of Bible verses that are then applied directly one-to-one as if the situation described in the Bible and the situation today were the same, which is not the case.

Scott Rae: Let me take an example. Leviticus 19:34 says, "You love the alien as yourself. You welcome the immigrant as you would welcome your native-born." Matthew 25, one of the primary identifying marks of the followers of Jesus is that we take strangers in. He said, "I was a stranger. You invited me in. Whatever you do to the least of these, including the strangers, you do for me." Doesn't this suggest sort of this open arms, welcoming ... maybe not technically open borders, but definitely not building walls, for sure. Then that kind of attitude ... how do you understand those passages of Scripture?

Markus Zehnder: These are very important examples of how things can actually go wrong. You just made up a Bible verse by saying that Leviticus 19 talks about welcoming strangers, which it does not. It just says you love the ger, which is a technical term for a specific type of foreigner, as you would love yourself. There's no talk about welcoming. That's important because –

Scott Rae: Oh, okay. It's been a long time since somebody has accused me of making up verses in the Bible.

Markus Zehnder: Well, we have to face reality. This verse is not about who shall be allowed to come in, but how do we treat those who have come. That's an important difference. There is actually very little verses in the Bible that talk about the first question. Now, I already mentioned that it's not talking about foreigners in general, but a very specific group. Now, the term ger that I mentioned means someone who comes from outside, likely from outside of Israel and has come to stay among the Israelites permanently and will do so by assimilating to Israel. There is no question that he would be allowed to build up his own parallel society to stick to his former culture and build a little Moab or a little Egypt within Israel, but he is forced to assimilate.

Now, then there is a correspondence between the assimilation and the giving of support. Because he assimilates, he is also given support. What is important here is that the support is not given directly by the state and not in terms of free handouts, but he will, for example, be given the right to glean, which means he has to go out to the fields himself and glean what is left over there. The only thing that will be directly given to him is the tithe. But then the tithe, again, is not given to him by the state in the framework of a redistributive type of economy, but by individuals. This is one of the most important points of difference between the biblical situation and the present situation.

Migration in the Bible is dealt with on the personal level. There are no state bureaucracy agencies that would manage this, but a ger would be living directly with a family. Now, this changes the whole picture because then questions about justice that we have now is it just that the state allocates so much resources for the support of immigrants. This question doesn't arise because the state doesn't do anything. It's you personally as an Israelite who decides to have this ger living with you and support him. It also means that questions about the difficulty of integrating and assimilating, they disappear because, of course, it will be easy for this individual ger to assimilate because he lives with you, as opposed to living somewhere in the ghetto where he's just among other immigrants.

Scott Rae: That's actually a really helpful distinction that what the Scripture addresses is at the individual level, not at the public policy level. You think that's a dangerous thing biblically to draw public policy conclusions based on what's intended for an individual responsibility.

Markus Zehnder: That's exactly right and extremely important. The transfer is wrong if we take biblical laws that are meant for individuals and make them into state laws because what happens then is it's a change from your own willing contribution to a forced contribution which you haven't chosen to give. That's ethically completely different.

Scott Rae: You said the ger is one term that's used to describe a migrant.

Markus Zehnder: Yes.

Scott Rae: Well, I take it the Scripture has other terms that are used to describe people who come into Israel from outside its borders.

Markus Zehnder: Right.

Scott Rae: What are some of those?

Markus Zehnder: Yes. The most important second term would be a nochri. Now, the problem for normal Bible readers is that they wouldn't see the difference between a ger and a nochri in a translation. Some translations try to reflect the difference in the terms, but it's not always possible.

Scott Rae: The distinction, let's say, between a foreigner and an alien is maybe the way they try to do that.

Markus Zehnder: Yes. Right. Right.

Scott Rae: Those seem like pretty interchangeable terms to me.

Markus Zehnder: Exactly. Exactly. You really see the difference only when you have access to the Hebrew text. The ger will be a person ... By the way, we are, in both cases, talking about individuals on a low scale in term of numbers. It's uncomparable with the mass migration that is taking place in the West today. That's another important difference. Now, if I just may add, the distinction between ger and nochri — so the ger would be someone who comes to stay permanently, who comes because he is in dire need of coming to a place where he can survive, whereas the nochri stays in a larger distance to the receiving society, which is Israel, in our case. He may come, for example, to do business.

A typical nochri would be a Phoenician coming to Jerusalem and doing trade with the Jerusalemites. He would stay there until his pockets are filled, and then he would feel, now, I go and retire and have my villa on the Mediterranean. This is really two different types of migrants. That's not a very important point. The Bible doesn't have a cover term for all types of migrants but really looks at specific types which I find very helpful. We shouldn't talk about migration in general, but should really look at what type of persons are we really talking about.

Sean McDowell: Are there specific biblical principles or teachings that could help us today in our situation to find solutions to the challenge and the challenges posed by mass migration?

Markus Zehnder: All right, this question is difficult. What we first need to do is to have the differences of the situations in mind so that we don't jump too quickly from the biblical texts to our present situation. This being said, there will probably still be some helpful principles that the Bible offers us in approaching this question without giving us the one single recipe, but just to sort out different aspects of the question. The first one will be one that I just mentioned that we make a difference between different groups of migrants and that we actually treat them differently. Not one-size-fits-all, but we have to look at individual cases to the degree that this is possible.

Then we need to find out ways how we can transfer this question away perhaps in steps from this anonymous state bureaucracy to churches and individuals so that the treatment of the migrants is done on a more personal, local level. The next principle would be that for all those who come, of course, as has been normal in the West until relatively recently, assimilation is the goal. There can't be any question about this. If we give up this goal, they will by necessity, as sociology tells us, they will by necessity be the growth of parallel societies. This will be very disintegrative for any state. Now, this is important because the state is a very delicate thing. To keep stability in the state is not something that is easy. If we allow parallel societies to grow, it will be extremely difficult to keep up stability in a specific place.

Scott Rae: Now, I take it you've seen some of these parallel societies grow up in some of the countries in Europe that you've been a part of.

Markus Zehnder: I saw it personally and most clearly in Brussels, where I normally landed coming from Norway and left the train at just any station in Brussels. You walk out and you don't know that you are in Belgium. The only thing that reminds you of this fact is the number plates of the cars. Everything else will look like either Istanbul or Islamabad.

Sean McDowell: Are there extra-biblical, just common sense-based arguments or concerns that we should have against mass migration?

Markus Zehnder: I think there are. It's not just a biblical thing, but there are natural rational arguments that will help us sort out these questions, one would be the simple fact that people in need in the majority of cases can be helped much better, and especially much more efficient in terms of financial and psychological resources when the help reaches them near their places of origin, where there is a similar culture. In terms of finances, a dollar spent in or near the places of origin is somewhere between seven and 70 times worth more than when the persons migrate to a completely different place in the West.

Then there are the psychological issues and the challenges for the receiving societies. We can see that when we look at the specific example of Syrian refugees, most of them are Muslims, at least most of them that make it to the West. Both for them and the members of the receiving societies, it's a huge extra burden to have them resettle in a country where Islam is not dominant because, let's be clear about this, they're not feeling Islam, per se. It would be much easier to have them resettle, if necessary, say in one of the Gulf states where their religious and cultural compatibility is much higher than in the West.

On the other hand, based on the same principle, it would make sense to bring a Syrian Christian to a Western country and not resettle him or her in one of the Gulf states. This is just common sense. Now, strangely, for no rational reason, such deliberations are more or less taboo in the public discussion. Now, those who advocate mass migration to the West as the preferred means to solve humanitarian problems in other parts of the world, they should be pressed to answer this type of questions. I've never, in the many years that I started this issue, heard a convincing answer. Why go for the one solution that is so inefficient, disruptive, and has so many collateral damages?

A further point would be that sociological studies show that numbers per time matter. If there are more than 20 percent of a population that do not share the same broad cultural background, a society will almost by necessity disintegrate. The appearance of parallel societies becomes reality. It's about numbers per time. It's not about migration yes or no, but it's about migration, mass migration or not mass migration. Sociology also shows something that everyone would understand easily that the bigger the cultural and linguistic and religious distance between newcomers and receivers, the more difficult the task of integration.

Scott Rae: Markus, let me raise another theologically-based quick question on this. I think it's fairly common in many Christian circles to hear the arguments that would go like this that since all human beings are made in the image of God and have an estimable value and since we are called to be compassionate, particularly to those who are the most in need. How can we turn away these desperate refugees who, in many cases, have nowhere else to go? I mean, the argument is how can we claim to be faithful followers of Christ and turn away these people who are in such desperate need?

Markus Zehnder: I think the question needs to be reframed. The question is not to turn away people and not help them, but the question is how do we help them best, and who is responsible for the help. Now, one of the points that we just saw is that it is very inefficient to let them come here. It's not a matter of love, but it's actually a matter of ideology to have this as the most important way of trying to help people. Now, this way has so many disadvantages that we should look for other ways.

Now, one of the disadvantages, which hasn't been mentioned so far, is that by letting people come in through open borders — when every day feel they have the need to do so — we are actually letting come those who have the best means to come. We are not reaching those who are in the direst needs because those in the direst situation, they will never be able to make it to our borders in the first place. Then by having the borders wide open to these people who do make it, we actually support the corrupt and inefficient regimes from which they try to go away because we help these regimes staying in place by having their problems easily solved for them by letting people go in mass. That's not something that will help in longer term to repair the damages that are done to these other places.

Then there is this, again, a very common sense point: our resources, whether we are Christians or not, are always limited. Each dollar spent for immigration will be lacking in the care for elderly and disabled and drug-addicted and other people in need. We don't have the means to fix all the problems. We have to make priorities. Love is about making the right priorities and not just following the political agenda.

Scott Rae: Okay.

Sean McDowell: Professor Zehnder, what about the passage in Matthew 25 that seems to indicate “I was a stranger, and you invited me in”? Does this mean we should just have open borders and invite in anyone who's a stranger?

Markus Zehnder: Yeah. We mentioned this text earlier, and I hadn't had the chance to respond to this. Thank you very much for this question. Now, Matthew 25 talks about the little ones of my brothers. It's most likely that the strangers are not just any foreign persons, but really members of the church, so other fellow Christians who come and are in need of some kind of being hosted and protected. It's also most likely that these are not immigrants but really they are on the journey from one place to another and just needs to have a roof over their head for a limited time and not for a permanent residency.

The most important point, really, it's not just foreigners in general, but it's really Christians. This points to a very important point that the Bible makes all the time. Now, we saw the Old Testament says, "Love the ger." First, it says, "Love your neighbor," which will be a fellow Israelite. It never says, "Love the nochri," this Phoenician guy, so the responsibility is layered. We do see the same point in the New Testament where, primarily, love is extended to those who also belong to Jesus. We have several instances both in the Gospels and in the letters of Paul and John that underline this. First, the co-believers, and then the others, and not the other way around. That's what's happening now. We are first extending our hand to, let's say, Muslim Syrian refugees, and then Christians, they rank second, and that's not biblical.

Sean McDowell: Professor Zehnder, these are very helpful clarifications that you brought, especially going back to the context, the difference between nation responsibilities, and individual responsibilities as believers. Go back to Leviticus 19, go back to Matthew 25, rather than just pull these verses out of context for maybe some political agenda that we would prefer, so very, very helpful. Thanks for coming on and lending your expertise. You've studied this a long time and made some wonderful insights.

This has been an episode of the podcast “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Professor Markus Zehnder, and to find more episodes, go to That's If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.

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