Few subjects are more controversial today than immigration and the Christian debate reflects the discussion in the culture at large. There is still significant debate over what the Bible teaches on this subject and how the Bible's teaching should be applied. Markus Zehnder's new book, The Bible and Immigration, is a first rate resource not only on what the Bible says but how to properly use the Bible on subjects like this one. Join Scott and Sean for this interview with Dr. Zehnder, who brings his perspective from his European background to this issue.

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 Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Ray, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: I am your co-host Sean McDowell, professor of Christian Apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're here today with one of our own, Talbot Old Testament professor Markus Zehnder, who has written a wonderful new book entitled The Bible and Immigration. It's a comprehensive, all you need on the subject in one place. We really appreciate Markus coming on with us. Markus has had a distinguished academic career throughout Europe. He's taught at schools in Belgium, Germany, and Norway. He speaks multiple languages. He's as close to a Renaissance man as anybody I know personally, and then has been on the Talbot faculty here for the last several years. So, we've been delighted to have his expertise in Old Testament with us and particularly on this subject of immigration. So, Markus welcome really great to have you with us.

Markus Zehnder: Thank you very much. It's a privilege to be here.

Scott Rae: Now, Markus, you have made your reputation as an Old Testament scholar. You've taught, then written, lots of technical stuff on lots of different parts of the Old Testament that have to do with Hebrew and the language. But what is it about the subject of immigration that has captured your interest for so long?

Markus Zehnder: It's a combination of scholarly and personal reasons. Personal first, I watched the onset of mass immigration into my home country, Switzerland, when it really began, and then watched it continue, and saw the consequences of it, and saw the responses given by church and theology, and found there is something to add. So, that's where this scholarly side comes in because, as scholars, we should make sure to deal with topics that are relevant. Personally, I also think it's important to show the relevance of the Old Testament, in this question.

Sean McDowell: You have a unique perspective to this. You've lived most of your life in Europe, but also in the United States for a while too. What's the difference in how this subject is discussed and approached in Europe, as opposed to in the United States?

Markus Zehnder: The question would need to be nuanced in a way, because it depends on whom you're talking about, what kind of circles. So, are you talking about the broad societal discussion in the US as compared to Europe, or are you talking about the discussion within academia, or are you talking about the discussion within the churches? So, we need to make these distinctions. Broadly, covering probably all of these different groups, we can see that the fact that immigration has a different face here in the US as compared to Europe makes, necessarily, the discussion go in different directions. Another distinction is that, just broadly, the church is still comparatively stronger in the US than it is in Europe. So, in the European discussion the Bible is not really at the center anymore in any way. Whereas here, it still is in just not as it was of course 20 years ago, but still much more than in Europe. As far as the question of the immigration population is concerned, the main difference is obvious. You have in Europe majority of immigrants that come from the Muslim world, also from non Muslim countries in Africa. Then there's some inter European migration from the Balkans, especially. Whereas here, the population is broadly Latin American and East Asian as the major groups. So, that makes a huge difference.

Scott Rae: Markus, one that I think most helpful things in the book, it comes in the beginning parts of this, where you outline a number of pitfalls that people can fall into, particularly with respect to the way the Bible is used in this conversation. I think what I discovered in reading through this, and I've known this from talking to you too, that those pitfalls are encountered both for people who are on the political left side of the immigration issue, but also some pitfalls for those who are on the political right side of the issue. So, what are some of those pitfalls that people who want to study the Bible on immigration should be particularly careful about?

Markus Zehnder: I make a distinction between pitfalls that are related especially to the use, or directly to the use of the Bible, and those that are related to broader issues that are not related to the Bible. Perhaps I begin with the latter category. So, there are many presuppositions that inform the views of those who look at immigration issues that can't be taken for granted, like immigration, per se, is good or it's bad. It's uncontrollable. It necessarily leads to enhancement of diversity in a positive sense. These are all presuppositions that need to be questioned. So, we need to look at the specific data and then, a posteriori, not beforehand, look at how immigration really works. One of the most important presuppositions that are, in my view, wrong is that it's about welcoming or shutting out. So that you have the good people who are open and the bad people who are closed. In reality, it's about how to manage immigration. So, it's not the good versus the bad, but it's more a question of how can we wisely deal with these questions. That would be a help to overcome the split between right and left.

Markus Zehnder: Then, in these questions, right and left doesn't really work very well in many instances in the traditional sense, because it's rather globalist versus sovereignist, or those who propose that the nation state has still a role to play. So, that's more important than right and left. Actually, it crosses the dividing lines between these two traditional camps. Then when it comes to questions about the Bible, here I would say one of the problems is that there is a reduction when it comes to the use of the Bible. So, there are only certain passages that are selected and these passages are taken out of their literary and historical context. Then these passages are transferred, one to one, to the current situation. And all of this doesn't work.

Sean McDowell: It's a great segue in the next question. How should we use the Bible when we think about immigration? Is it that we can use it as Christians, even though this is the pluralistic society? Should we not use it or, like you indicated, should we use it but just make sure we don't pick and choose particular verses that support our political perspective?

Markus Zehnder: For us Christians, there should be no question that we use the Bible for each and every question that we face. That's why we have it. So, that's clear, but the question for Christian is how to use it in an appropriate way. That means, just as you mentioned, not doing the selection and all of it. So, looking at the whole message, because we have been given the Bible as a canonical whole. So, that's why we need to use it as such. For the broader societal discussion, we can't impose anything on the broader discussion. We can just try to show where there is wisdom that might appeal also to those who do not believe in the Bible, with regard to these questions.

Scott Rae: Markus, can you be a little more specific on the use of the Bible? How would you suggest that we use the Bible, in particular, in forming public policy decisions about immigration, because I think that's a little trickier matter.

Markus Zehnder: I would agree with those who say that we can't use the Bible to prescribe specific policies. So, on the lowest level that doesn't work because the Bible is addressed to a specific situation which is different from the one we have today. So, that wouldn't work. What will very well work, however, is to get general guidelines and principles that may reorient us in how we deal with these questions. Especially here, I would propose that we look at possibilities to reorient the dealing with immigration from the state bureaucracy frame to the frame of personal responsibility and personal relationship. Another very important point is to give weight to the fact that every human is created as an image bearer of God. That will be something we also need to keep in mind, and bring in to the public discussion. Now this, very importantly, means every human being. So, not just the immigrant, but also members of the receiving societies.

Sean McDowell: In your recent book on the Bible and immigration, you talk about how the Hebrew term underline the English words for migrants or immigrants carries a nuance that's often lost in these discussions, and that we can't just lump all immigrants into the same category. So, what are some of the different words that are used in Hebrew that describe different types of migrants?

Markus Zehnder: Yeah, that's a very important point. That is one of the pitfalls to lump all migrants in the same category, though they are different. So, here the Bible actually helps us to make distinctions. The main distinction we get on the individual level in the Bible is the distinction between what is translated mostly as a sojourner, as opposed to what is translated normally as a foreigner. The Hebrew terms, respectively, are [gaer 00:12:30] and [nori 00:12:33]. So, these are the main categories. There are some subcategories and other types of categories, but these are the two most important ones. Now, how is this important? It is important in the sense that the sojourner and the foreigner are treated differently in the legal collections. So, the sojourner is given a lot of support and protection. There is even a command to love the sojourner, and all of this is not true for the nori, the foreigner.

Markus Zehnder: So, the question then is how are they different historically in ancient Israel? The sojourner would be someone who comes not in search for a better life, but just to survive, and is ready to integrate fully into the congregation of Israel, not necessarily on the religious level from the beginning, but on all other levels and on the religious level, to some degree. There are requirements that he has to observe as well, though he is not yet in Israelite. Whereas the other category, the nori, this will be typically like a merchant from let's say Phoenicia or some other neighboring country, and he comes to Israel to do business and not to stay there permanently, and not to integrate himself. That's all okay. But because they are different, they are treated differently. That certainly should be an incentive for us to think about differences in the current immigrant population. Why do people come? What are their needs and what are their goals, in coming? Then we will quickly see that they are different people. So, that means we need to treat them differently. The problem we face today is that there is this overarching cultural prescription that we must not treat people differently. But life doesn't work like this, not just in the question of immigration, but generally. So, we need to just push back on this presupposition and look at how people are different and then react accordingly.

Scott Rae: I think we can make a distinction between treating people equally and treating people fairly. Those aren't necessarily the same thing.

Markus Zehnder: Absolutely. Yes.

Scott Rae: Let me be a little more specific about this, if I might, Markus. What was the expectation on the gaer, as the sojourner, in terms of the way they would become a part of the community of the people of Israel?

Markus Zehnder: I'm not absolutely sure whether the term expectation is really right, because-

Scott Rae: I'm open to you sharpening my question as necessary.

Markus Zehnder: Because a sojourner isn't administered by a state bureaucrat, and the bureaucrat will tell him, "These are our expectations." Rather, the sojourner would join an Israelite extended family. So, you see here, this changes the whole perspective. So, now it's not the expectations, but it's what is natural to happen in this kind of circumstance. So, he joins a family and then he will live with the family, and the family will naturally teach him what it means to live as a member of the Israelite people. Then there is an expectation, but it's more than an expectation, it really is a requirement, that he observes some of the religious regulations, like not working on a Shabbat and things like these, but he still has some Liberty in how he wants to participate fully in the religious area. All the rest he is just supposed, and there is no other way for him practically, to follow the generally applicable rules.

Scott Rae: Okay. It would not be unusual for an immigrant, say from Phoenicia or some other part of the Middle East, to be maybe not fully, but somewhat integrated into Israelite society, culture, and even religion.

Markus Zehnder: Yes. So, from the very beginning, Israel was not an ethnically, hermetically divided, or separated group. From the very beginning, that's Exodus 12, when the emerging people of Israel leaves Egypt, there are other people with them. So, it was always possible to join Israel coming from outside. Think also of the book of Joshua, when the conquest begins, the very first episode is Rahab and her family, these are not Israelites, but they are allowed to join the people of Israel. Then they [inaudible 00:18:38]. These are the longest stories in Joshua. So, that's very important.

Scott Rae: You also made the point that in ancient Israel there was no central government that regulated immigration. It was done more on an extended family or on individual basis. So, that would seem to put some limits on how we could directly transfer some of the Old Testament law to a central government today, right?

Markus Zehnder: Yes. So, that shows the limits of the transferability, but it also gives us an incentive to think how we could perhaps change the system, to some degree, more into the direction of dealing with these things on a more personal level. I do see that this is happening, here for example, when churches are used, so to speak, by the state, as entities that will help integrate people, and then just take it down to the even more personal level of a family. So, if someone coming from outside lives under your roof, integration will be so much more quick and easy, and natural, than in a situation where these immigrants live in an asylum center among themselves, and then move into some ghettos where there are people from their home country, that doesn't work.

Sean McDowell: What contribution do the Creation accounts in patriarchal narratives in Genesis make to the discussion about migration?

Markus Zehnder: In my view, huge contributions. They are, normally, completely overlooked with one exception that I already mentioned, that everyone is created in the image of God. That is all over the place in the discussion among scholars and in churches. But the Creation accounts are much more rich than just this specific point. So, the other side of the same coin is that we have, when we talk about immigration, also to take into account that people who already live in a place. So, those who are the recipients, also are created in the image of God. So, they need to be taken seriously as well. That's one point. The other point is that we see that man in the original plan is not meant to migrate. Except for the process of filling the earth, migration as a way of life comes in only in Genesis 4 as a punishment. So, in Genesis 2, in the ideal situation, man is set in a garden to work it, and not to move around.

Scott Rae: To work it and to stay there.

Markus Zehnder: Yes. Then his descendants will gradually move out and fill the earth. But you see that something different from the propagation of migration as an ideal. No, the ideal from a Creational point of view is to stay. We see it in the history of Israel. Israel, yes, at the beginning has to migrate away from this oppressive society in Egypt, but not to be permanent migrants, but just to move to the place that is promised to them, and then to stay there. Again, migration happens but, like in Genesis 4, as a punishment. So, the real goal, the real ideal is not migration.

Scott Rae: You're referring there to the exile.

Markus Zehnder: Yes.

Scott Rae: Right. So, they had what? 400, 500 years settled, living in the land.

Markus Zehnder: Yes.

Scott Rae: And then they came back.

Markus Zehnder: Yes.

Scott Rae: After exile as well.

Markus Zehnder: Yes. Always with the goal to stay. There's a deeper reason, also from a Creational point of view, migration is always disruptive. Now, everyone who has been a migrant knows this. And disruption is not something that is an ideal. It may be necessary as a step on the way, but it's not the purpose that God has with our lives.

Scott Rae: Markus, let me go from the Creation account to the early life of Jesus. I know in a lot of the literature on immigration, the fact that Jesus spent his first couple of years on the move is often taken as a theologically significant point. What, in your view, is the significance of those early years of Jesus' life as a migrant to the entire discussion of immigration?

Markus Zehnder: It is in fact very important theologically. So, the move of Jesus to Egypt and back, means that in Jesus we see the life of the people of Israel reflected. We see the life of Moses reflected. So, he is the new Moses. He is the new Israel. So, these are deep theological points. But these are points that are far removed from the question of, "Shall we open the border for this or that group of immigrants?" That's on a completely different level. Obviously, in terms of number, we have a single family here that is persecuted and escapes persecution and then, once things are better, move back. So, we cannot use this episode as a guiding principle to say, "Well, generally we need to have open borders." It's on a different level. If it's used for the view we need to open our borders, we need to see that Jesus didn't just move to Egypt, but he actually moved back. This is the part that is never then taken up.

Sean McDowell: What about the commandment to love your neighbor? What contribution does this make to the immigration discussion, and what do the demands of justice involve for how immigrants are treated?

Markus Zehnder: Now you are opening really such a central and infinite box here. There are many layers here that are important and much more difficult than we normally think. So, love your neighbor in the Old Testament is love your fellow Israelite. The foundation is we are all members of the same covenant community, and there is no single word in the Old Testament love on a universal scale. It's not there. Now, interestingly though, you have also love the sojourner. But you see love the sojourner and not love the nori, the foreigner, that's not there. So, it's only the sojourner, and that is because the sojourner is part of the community of Israel. Now, then there other very interesting observations. We see that the love for the sojourner, so the person who is normally somehow identified with modern immigrants, is defined very precisely in Deuteronomy 10 as giving him bread and clothing.

Markus Zehnder: So, it's the minimal survival things that he gets, and that's it. So, not more. That's one very interesting observation. The other one is that when it comes to people outside, instead of love, the Old Testament talks about giving loans. So, for all those people who may fare worse than the Israelites, the solution proposed is not lovingly opening the borders and let them all come, but sending them loans, that's Deuteronomy 15. So, these are hugely important distinctions that the Old Testament makes. Moving to the New Testament, it's somehow different. The love command in the Gospels is just a quote of the Old Testament, and it's probably still just for the people of the covenant. Then you have some passages in Paul where it looks as if now love is just for everybody, but that's actually a matter of exegetical discussion.

Markus Zehnder: That's not clear. What is clear in the New Testament is that there is also a layering. So, the primary responsibility ... That's for example, explicitly said in Galatians 6, the primary responsibility is for the brothers and sisters in Christ. Then we have Matthew 25 at a passage that is quoted very often in these contexts where we read, about among other things, a criterion to distinguish between sheep and goats in the Last Judgment is how they dealt with foreigners. The passage actually specifies these foreigners are from among the least of my brothers. So, again, it's talking about brothers and sisters in Christ, and not beyond. That is something that we just need to take seriously. Obviously, reading again the Bible as a canonical whole, it doesn't give us any pretext to say, "Okay, that's it. We just despise and forget everyone else."

Markus Zehnder: But the Bible is surprisingly restrictive in the use of the term love. Now, as you already hinted it, there are other terms like justice and compassion that can much more easily be applied to just everybody. But everybody always in the Bible means there is a layer in responsibility. So, the primary layer is those who are close to us. That's the primary responsibility. And justice here means to not oppress anyone, not maltreat them, not abuse them. But you see, that's not the same as saying you have to give them the same rights and they are basically on the same level. That isn't found.

Scott Rae: Let me clarify one thing though. When Jesus talks about the command to love your neighbor, he does use the Samaritan as the example of sort of broadening their concept of who constitutes your neighbor.

Markus Zehnder: It's again very difficult and a long exegetical discussion. The Samaritans are still, to some degree, part of the people of the covenant. To some degree. It's the despised part. Then we see, there's another interesting twist here, the Samaritan is not the one who gets the help, but he is the one who gives that help. All of this is very important, but you are right. It does kind of make things more fuzzy than they were in the Old Testament. There is a very clear distinction, which is that brotherly love is no longer restricted to an ethnic community. That is a huge step, very explicit in the New Testament. So, the new people of God consists of people of all backgrounds, and they can be mixed together just like that. However, here is enough other caveat, and that leads us back to the question of Creation. We read in Genesis 10 that God separates people's nations. These nations are marked by the territory, the language, and by a kinship relationship.

Markus Zehnder: That's the three explicit elements that are mentioned in Genesis 10, and this needs to be taken seriously as well. So, there is something natural to having a kinship based community that is the primary layer of responsibility. Even in the New Testament, this is not pushed aside or overcome. It just loses its weight in terms of our relationship to God. But naturally, Creationally, we are still dependent on kinship relations as, again, all migrants will tell you.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Which why I think one of the reasons that the New Testament describes the church as a kinship relationship, which if we practice that we would take our church communities a lot more seriously than we do today. Markus, one more question. In terms of the overall immigration discussion, what are you encouraged about as you think about this conversation going forward?

Markus Zehnder: Frankly, I'm not too encouraged about much at this point.

Scott Rae: Okay. Well maybe I'll change the question then. What's the one thing that concerns you the most about this discussion?

Markus Zehnder: I just read the statements on immigration issues that the major American denominations published in the recent couple of years. What I see there is, unfortunately, what we mentioned at the beginning. The cherry picking and decontextualizing, and easy transfer. That's worrying because that's the published position of the leadership of almost all the major denominations. Now, I am encouraged when I look at the people in the congregation who are just ordinary churchgoers. They still realize that it's not like that. They still keep their common sense, and they are still aware of the problems that mass immigration can cause. Now, in terms of worries, I'm more worried looking at Europe than I am looking at the US. I'm worried at the situation in Europe, because there it's really just on the brink of an irreversible, deep, traumatic change of culture. So, these European cultures and peoples, as we just saw in the sense of kinship groups, they are in the process of not disappearing, but becoming minorities. That means that all these millennial old cultures are under threat to disappear. That's heartbreaking to watch.

Scott Rae: Well, especially that you are a European by upbringing?

Markus Zehnder: Yes. It should not, however, be just for Europeans. But, looking at history, Europe has been a channel of so much blessing by spreading the Bible to many places of the world, and by spreading concepts like equality before the law and many other things, which are normally now because of the culture where we are finding ourselves in just overlooked. The only thing that is given weight are the negative sides that absolutely do exist. So, we also need to retrieve and underline the positive sides. This is important also for the discussion in the US, because here also the European part of the US heritage is now criticized and, to some degree, understandably, but we shouldn't paint black and white, but keep a memory of what is good. Here, in the US, this situation is absolutely different and less threatening, because here the challenge is that it's becoming more diverse, but I wouldn't see a replacement as it is now taking place in Europe. However, we should not underestimate the challenge, as far as I can tell as a non-American, we shouldn't underestimate the challenge that this poses to the US as well, because at the point where the traditional ethnic cultural homogeneity is dissolved, the question arises, what holds us together?

Scott Rae: And what would replace that.

Markus Zehnder: Yes.

Scott Rae: So, wow. There is so much to talk about here. I wish we had another hour to do this. I think Sean will have to have a follow up on this.

Sean McDowell: Let's do it.

Scott Rae: It's hard to envision, but we have just really scratched the surface of what's in this terrific book. I want to recommend this to our listeners, The Bible and Immigration, by Dr. Markus Zehnder, just a terrific work. There's just a lot of good food for thought. I'm sure it will provoke some interesting responses across the political spectrum, which I think you're expecting.

Markus Zehnder: Yes. I'm sure about that.

Scott Rae: You wouldn't be surprised with that. Markus, thank you so much for coming on with us. I suspect there's a follow up discussion in the future here on this, but so appreciate your work on this. It is as comprehensive a work on the Bible and immigration that I've seen out there in print. So, very grateful for your time, for your expertise, and for coming on with us today.

Markus Zehnder: Thank you very much.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our new fully online Bachelor's degree in Bible Theology and Apologetics. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our guest, Dr. Markus Zehnder, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think Biblically about everything.