Do Refugees Understand the Bible Better Than Us?
The Bible is often touted by followers as the best-selling book in history. Of course, we are just as likely to be reminded how it has been used as a tool of power and oppression. The reputation of the Bible in the 21st century—whether one vehemently disagrees or passionately approves—does not accurately reflect its origins.
Despite its association with privilege, the texts that we call the Bible come from communities who experienced marginalization in various ways. This is especially true about the authors and audiences of the books known as the Old Testament, as Christians call it. Take, for example, the stories about Abraham and his family in Genesis, the first book of the Bible.
Abraham migrates to the area near Jerusalem from a place in southern Iraq (Genesis 12:1-10). Immediately upon arrival there (Genesis 12:10-20), famine forces Abraham to flee to Egypt. To survive there, he coaches his wife Sarah to lie about their relationship, presenting herself as his sister instead of his wife so that she might appear available to these foreigners. Moral ambiguity aside, the strategy closely resembles a ghastly choice many involuntary migrant women still face today: engage in sex work to provide for their families or face the real possibility of not surviving at all.
Later in the story, Abraham’s son Isaac faces another famine (Genesis 26:1). Rather than return to Egypt, Isaac drifts about within his country, residing in various places to survive. He resembles millions of internally displaced people in our world, like those in Syria and Colombia. These people are often overlooked simply because they have not crossed a line on a map, but their lives are no less disrupted and full of challenges for that geographical happenstance.
Isaac’s second son Jacob famously falls out with his brother Esau, who threatens his life. At the recommendation of his mother, Jacob proceeds to seek asylum with his family in a distant town to avoid the aggression of his brother Esau (Genesis 27:41–28:9). During the twenty years he lives there as a refugee, Jacob has to battle for his rights because his Uncle Laban, despite providing him protection, holds immense power over him (Genesis 30:25-43). Like all refugees, Jacob treads carefully with his host for fear that he might be returned to a dangerous situation.
If I failed to mention that this story claims to be about people who lived 3,000 years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would classify Abraham as an environmentally induced, externally displaced person and Isaac as an environmentally induced, internally displaced person, and Jacob as an asylum seeker who gains refugee status.
This summary of the book of Genesis is unusual. It says nothing about creation, does not include God at all, lacks any reference to theology, and offers no obvious connection to religion. Peculiar perhaps, but this simply reflects that when these stories were written 2,500 years ago their authors were involuntary migrants who were writing to other involuntary migrants in order to respond to and process the experience of involuntary migration. One could say these are stories written by refugees for refugees about their attempts to survive.
I could write similar summaries of so many other biblical books. Most of the well-loved passages from Isaiah and Jeremiah speak to people captured and forcibly deported to Babylonia. Less well-loved, but not less concerned with this issue, the fanatical figure of Ezekiel, with his apocalyptic visions, appears as a resident in what we would now call a refugee camp. Indeed, one cannot help speculating that this experience drives some of the book’s harsh pronouncements about other groups.
Even the most famous passage from the Old Testament underscores this profile. The command to "love your neighbor as yourself" is almost universally known, though few are aware it comes from Leviticus (Leviticus 19:18, to be precise). Even fewer people know that this command—which appears just once—is vastly outnumbered by the over 30 instances when people are commanded to "love the stranger," that is the foreign person who comes from an unfamiliar place to live in your community.
These observations highlight that one must be familiar with migration and know something about the experience of being an involuntary migrant in order to understand massive amounts of the Bible. And yet, as Western, comparatively affluent people, it is astonishingly hard for us to fathom what an asylum seeker faces.
All of this is why I have been developing ways to read the stories like those in the book of Genesis with people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. They possess valuable knowledge necessary to understanding the best-selling book in history that neither I nor most scholars or theologians do, and that we couldn’t gain even if we read everything on involuntary migration in the Library of Congress. These people have taught me an immense amount—and they can teach others too. Indeed, the powerful images you see with this piece are some of their responses to the stories about migration in Genesis.
In the midst of the current debate about migration and the argument over whether there should be a "religious test" to identify people for resettlement, it is essential to remember that behind the word "refugee" are real people who not only need help, but also have plenty to teach us. When it comes to the Bible, they have invaluable expertise. These people can teach us how to think better about some of our most pressing social and political issues, if we’ll take the time to listen to them.