Aliens, sanctuary cities and refugees


Regardless of what you and I might think about President Trump’s immigration policies recently protested and now also litigated, we at least should be able to agree, against some commentators, that the Bible’s references to such things as aliens, sanctuary cities, and refugees are to things different from what those terms mean today.

The aliens or strangers in the midst of the people of the Old Testament were non-blood relatives, not illegal immigrants or undocumented workers, for the people then did not have our modern understandings of borders and immigration. Aliens then shared with residents some (but not all) privileges, in keeping with special laws about them, which also certainly expected them to keep all the other laws of the land or to suffer penalties, including death (for example, Leviticus 20:2).

Sanctuary cities or cities of refuge in the Old Testament were places to which those who had accidentally killed someone could flee and potentially be safe from a revenge killing for a period of time (for example, Numbers 35:6-34). The cities then certainly did not ignore other laws and protect illegal immigrants from deportation, as the so-called “sanctuary cities” do today.

Lost in most English Bible translations is that the “refuge” of the cities of refuge is a different Hebrew word than other Old Testament kinds of “refuge”. For example, in Psalm 46:1, God figuratively is said to be our refuge, the One in Whom we confidently trust for protection. The idea apparently originally relates to people hurrying to safe heights or strong rocks for protection from pursuers. God is always the sole refuge of His people, and trusting in Him is better than trusting in human rulers (Psalm 118:8-9).

To be sure, God and His Word today are most concerned about forgiving all sins, not only involuntary manslaughter, of all those “refugees” who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, that is, in His death and resurrection for all people. As believers so seek refuge in God, they are aliens and strangers on earth, patiently waiting for their heavenly city, where they have true citizenship (Ephesians 2:19; Hebrews 11:9-10).

The Rev. Dr. Jayson S. Galler is Pastor of Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Kilgore. You can reach him through the congregation’s website:


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