Like most evangelicals, I believe very strongly in the authority of the Bible as the inspired Word of God. The Scriptures, though, were not written in English and it’s entirely possible to misunderstand the transforming truth of Scripture if it’s not translated clearly, or accurately, into language we understand.
For example, most (if not all) English translations of the Bible translate Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:33 as a command to seek first the kingdom of God and his “righteousness.” When I read the Bible in Spanish, though, I find Jesus calling me to seek first God’s kingdom and his “justicia,” his justice. While justice and righteousness are related, they are not exactly the same. Justice implies putting things right wherever they are wrong, whereas I might reach righteousness if I’ve merely kept myself from sin. I’m not a Greek scholar to be able to tell you which is correct—Nicholas Wolterstorff, who does have some impressive scholarly credentials, makes a compelling case for the idea that the Greek dikaiosune is best translated as justice, and that we diminish the gospel if we make faithfulness just a matter of personal righteousness—but the question highlights how very important an accurate translation can be.
There’s a similar challenge with the Hebrew word ger, which usually gets translated in English translations of the Old Testament as alien (the 1984 New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version). It also gets translated as foreigner (the 2010 update to the New International Version, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the New Living Translation), sojourner (the English Standard Version), or stranger (New American Standard Bible, the King James Version). Those words are all similar, but I would argue that each is imprecise.
The ger was a foreigner, to be sure, but foreigners include anyone from another country. Contextual and historical evidence suggest the Hebrew ger, at least according to the scholars that I’ve read (again, I can make no claim to be a Hebrew scholar myself), implies a “resident alien,” a foreigner who is making his or her home in—not just passing through—a foreign nation. That’s an important distinction because there are other words in the Hebrew—zar and nokri—which refer to foreigners more generally, tourists and invading enemies included, who were not beneficiaries of the same special concern that God expresses toward the ger. While we probably should love “foreigners” in general (we’re commanded elsewhere to love our neighbors and even our enemies), that’s probably not the exact sense of the particular verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that refer to God’s love—and our command to love—the ger.
“Alien” has an additional problem. While it might have been a good word to describe a foreigner a century ago, as the English language has evolved, an alien has come, in quotidian parlance, to mean an extraterrestrial. A seminary professor friend of mine shared recently that when he taught on Leviticus 19 and God’s love for the “alien,” a student asked—genuinely—if there were really aliens in the Bible, apparently imagining three-headed green Martians.
Likewise, while there are other passages that would guide us to love “strangers,” the ger is more specific than just a stranger, which in English implies anyone unknown to us, not necessarily someone from another country. And a sojourner—as the English Standard Version has it (a translation I generally value for its careful word-to-word accuracy) implies someone who is on a journey, not settling in a new land.
The most precise contemporary English translation of the Hebrew ger, I would argue, is the word immigrant. Tim Keller says (in a footnote within his excellent Generous Justice) that the word immigrant “more accurately conveys to modern readers the meaning of the word. The word means ‘the outsider living in your midst.’” In fact, an immigrant, “a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence,” (according to Merriam-Webster) is quite precisely the idea of the Hebrew ger, a person whom we’re told God loves (Deuteronomy 10:18) and watches over (Psalm 146:9), whom he calls us to love and treat the same as we would a native-born citizen (Leviticus 19:33-34).
I’m not sure why English language translators have been so wary of the word immigrant—perhaps it carries a political charge in today’s environment—but I am grateful that there is now a translation that does translate the ger as immigrant: the newly released Common English Bible. I hope that as English-speaking Christians can now read these particular passages of God’s word in what I am convinced is closest to its original meaning—“Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34, CEB)—that we’ll be challenged to actually apply the Scriptures to the ways we interact with immigrants in our context.
Hundreds of young Christian leaders will be gathering at Cedarville University in Ohio next month to ponder that challenge: the G92 Conference takes its name from the 92 references in the Old Testament to the Hebrew ger. We hope you’ll join us as we reason together in an effort to help inform a distinctly biblical response to the arrival of immigrants to the U.S.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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