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The Bible: A Library Written by Migrants

Dominik Markl, SJ-La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Feb 6th 2023

The Bible: A Library Written by Migrants
We have all seen too many migrants being pulled out of the sea: men, women and children who have drowned during their journeys. Many schools now have refugees in the classrooms: children and young people who by the grace of God have survived the crossing. And in many European countries there are now many who are born with migrant backgrounds. These are sufficient reasons to reflect on flight and migration. A look at the history of humanity shows to what level we are all migrants. In the Bible we can see how frequently people thought of fleeing and migration already 2,000 years ago.

Human beings as migrants

The human race reached Europe from the African continent 40,000 years ago. It had its origins there and spent 100,000 years of its evolution there. Humans were forced into being travelers to follow the herds of animals and horses to escape the other mammals. They were able to chase down gazelles and knock them out with stones. Only when the deserts of North Africa and Arabia began to appear did they cross the rift, the continental tectonic border, to India and then Australia and later to Europe. At the end of the last Ice Age Homo sapiens meandered even farther, crossing Siberia to reach America. And so it was as migrants that human beings discovered the world.

In evolved civilizations humans organized themselves into large groups and left to find and conquer new lands, causing other populations to flee or become prisoners. In ancient times thousands of people were forced into exile through violence. And in times of peace hunger drove populations to move to new parts of the earth. Those seeking better opportunities became economic refugees, thus avoiding the freezing European winters. The people we now call Americans were mostly economic migrants and refugees from Europe. Those dwelling in the North transported millions of people from Africa to the America’s pushing the original inhabitants into the remotest corners of the continents.


Whether by force or temptation, humanity shaped its own existence with these travels and quests and depicted its great mobility in the ancient myths, touring the Mediterranean in the Odyssey, across the sea and the desert in biblical exodus. And the Bible too is a small library written by and for migrants that can be carried in your carry-on luggage.[1]

Adam, chased from Paradise: the origins of humanity

Adam or “man” and Eve or “life” were forced to leave their dwelling place, Paradise, after the temptation to be dishonest overcame them, forcing them into a cowardly game of “hide and seek” (cf. Gen 3:8) and, after the shame of the vulnerability of their being naked, led them to hide themselves (cf. Gen 2:25; 3:10). This account of our origins in the Book of Genesis seems to fathom the psychic depths of the restless and unsettled nature of humankind. It has something to do with distrust, with an incomprehensible fear that stops the human person from standing up before God in freedom and truth.

This appears evident as soon as guilt takes on real and dramatic form. Cain kills his brother Abel and after a brief period of insolent, arrogant denial – “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9) – he is soon overwhelmed by fear: “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me” (Gen 4:13-14). So just as God clothed Adam and Eve with leather garments (cf. Gen 3:21) in the same way God protects Cain with a mark to make his life bearable (Gen 4:15).

The remainder of the Book of Genesis is brimming with episodes of flight and migration. Only the family of Noah survives the flood. Crammed into the ark on Mount Ararat, humankind starts anew under the sign of the rainbow (8:13-9:16). The construction of the Tower of Babel – by which humankind sought to make its own name – actually resulted in division by language and land (11:1-9). Abraham, the patriarch of Israel, came from Ur in the south of what is now Iraq and emigrated with his father Terah to Haran in the north of Syria (11:31). Then came the call from God who led him into a new land (12:1). But his family had to flee again. Famine forced him and later the entire family of Jacob (Israel) to head for Egypt (12:10; 46:6).

The great biblical stories like those of Joseph and his brothers, and Naomi and Ruth, all take place in foreign lands. In a land of strangers and insecurity, relations reach dramatic depths. It is in a foreign land that the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers occurs (cf. Gen 45:1); there, absolute faithfulness is seen in two women (The Book of Ruth). On the basis of resolved conflicts, the family of Israel grows in Egypt and becomes a people (cf. Ex 1:1-7); and King David comes from the faithfulness of Ruth (cf. Ruth 4:22). In foreign lands, in exile and diaspora we see the wisdom of Daniel, the strength of Esther and the religious faith of Tobias.

While they were fleeing or traveling, Jacob (cf. Gen 28; 32:25-33), Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 17:1-7) and Jonah meet God who is very close, overwhelming and surprising. Amid the dangers of his journey Tobias feels the protection of the angel Raphael, becoming in turn a healer. Many stories in the Bible develop what Genesis shows as the history of the origin of humanity: journeying is the aim of humankind; it is prophetic and full of development as it opens up ever-new perspectives.

Exodus: founding myth and fundamental ethos

Before the burning bush, in the middle of the desert, under Mount Sinai with its red-brown granite, and with nothing on his feet and a covered face, Moses asks God for God’s name. God replied, “I am who I am,” or “I will be what I will be” (Ex 3:14). At that point the meaning of the name YHWH at the burning bush is mysterious and in a tangible way the very characteristics of God are presented. YHWH appeared to Moses because he listened to the cry of the Israelites in Egypt (cf. Ex 2:23-25; 3:7, 9) and wanted to engage with them fully and liberate them from the power of the Pharaoh (cf. Ex 3:8, 15-22). The flight across the Red Sea (cf. Ex 14) in fact leads to the birth of a people. It is as a people of refugees that Israel becomes the people of God.

With Mount Sinai, what seemed to be a romantic myth or tale full of suspense turns out to be an important principle of social ethics. In making the alliance at Sinai (cf. Ex 19-24), God asks from his liberated people a commitment that is connected to its liberation: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). The God of the Bible is a God of liberation, a God of migrants.

Laws protecting foreigners are found throughout the Pentateuch and increase as in a symphonic crescendo. While the Book of the Covenant (cf. Ex 21-23) limited itself to prohibiting the oppression of foreigners, the Holiness Code goes much further: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:34). While the Holiness Code recommends that human love be shown to the foreigner, Moses takes this further in Deuteronomy. It is indeed God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Dt 10:18-19). This fundamental phrase recurs as a refrain throughout the laws of the Pentateuch. The experience of the Exodus by Israel is the basis for its ethos (particular character), as is explained in the Torah, already at the beginning of the Decalogue (cf. Ex 20:2; Dt 5:6) and in the teaching given to children (cf. Dt 6:20-25). The experience of freedom brings with it a commitment.

The trauma of exile and the dream of a homeland

From Abraham setting out on his journey to the death of Moses, the Pentateuch brings our attention to the Promised Land that Israel finally reaches, being led by Joshua (cf. Gen 12:1; 13:14-15; Dt 34:1-4). The remainder of the (Deuteronomic) history of the people, however, precipitates the loss of that same land. Around 720 B.C. the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom were deported by the Assyrians to Mesopotamia (cf. 2 Kings 17), and the same destiny befell Jerusalem and Judah around 587 B.C. under the Babylonians (cf. 2 Kings 25). Those who were not forced to go to Babylonia fled to Egypt (cf. 2 Kings 25:26): it is the anti-exodus, prohibited by God (cf. Dt 17:16; Jer 42:13-19) but already foreseen by Moses (cf. Dt 26:68). This is how the story finishes. The reason for the catastrophe, according to the Deuteronomists, is the anger of God, at the end of the day the fault of the kings and the people (cf. 2 Kings 24:20). Moses had already foreseen, in his worst curses, the horrors of siege and of being a stranger (cf. Dt 28:48-68).

In what Moses says, however, hope for the future is clearly stated: “When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul, just as I am commanding you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back” (Dt 30:1-4). The choice between life and death depends on obedience to the Torah (cf. Dt 30:15-20) that nevertheless is very easy to observe as it is close to the faithful, “in your mouth and in your heart” (Dt 30:14). The Torah, written down by Moses (cf. Dt 31:9), becomes the word of life taken to heart by those who live in the diaspora and those who returned to the Promised Land (cf. Dt 32:46).

Songs of lament and books of consolation

Even so, the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem was not forgotten. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). The Book of Lamentations illustrates the pain in detail with poems organized alphabetically. They culminate in a desperate appeal: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old, unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure (Lam 5:21-22).

The great prophets were deeply influenced by exile and flight. Ezekiel was among the exiles on the Euphrates (cf. Ez 1:1-3). Jeremiah disappeared among those who fled to Egypt (cf. Jer 43-44). The Book of Isaiah is like it is divided into two: a sort of abyss opens up between the proclamation of the imminent exile (cf. Is 39) and the prediction of its ending (cf. Is 40). There is an indescribable pain that unleashes heated words of consolation that bring to mind the dominant themes of the exile. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term … A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Is 40:1-3). The experience of prison transforms into a call to freedom. “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is 42:6-7).

Jeremiah is the one who relentlessly proclaims and develops the catastrophe of exile. But the central part of his extensive accusation against Israel contains a passage of consolation (cf. Jer 30-31), sometimes expressed with male images, at other times with female ones: “But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the Lord, and do not be dismayed, O Israel; for I am going to save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and no one shall make him afraid … I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers” (Jer 30:10; 31:3-4). The affirmation of Jeremiah about returning home culminates in the promise of a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31) that gives the name to the New Testament.

“Foxes have dens … Go and make disciples of all nations”

Israel’s flight to Egypt and the exodus are echoed in the infancy narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, according to Matthew (cf. Mt 2:13-21). Jesus himself, when he begins his mission, becomes restless. It is in Jordan – on the continental rift, the point of transit for the human race and where Israel entered the Promised Land – that Jesus receives baptism (cf. Mt 3:13)[2]. He becomes an itinerant preacher, he has no den as foxes do, nor a nest like the birds (cf. Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58). His disciples go all over the world with him. During his life he sends them to the villages and cities of Palestine (cf. Mt 10; Lk 10). After his resurrection he extends his mission to the entire world: “Go then and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).

Those who undertake this journey come to know all the dangers of the life of a wanderer: xenophobia, robbery, shipwreck (cf. 2 Cor 11:25-27). The early Church begins with missionary journeys, as the Acts of the Apostles narrates. There is no surprise that the earliest Christian documents are letters, written according to the stops made by Paul, motivated by concern for those who have remained behind. The politically subversive stubbornness of the Christians, who refused to kneel down before the statues of Roman emperors, forces them into exile again. For those who did not flee, there was the hope of one last journey: that toward the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. Rev 21-22).

We are all migrants, with the Bible in our carry–on luggage

We all come from Africa. Human beings are migrants by nature: since Genesis we have always been fleeing. Adam was chased from Paradise and remains restless, tormented by sweat and anxiety. In history the Hebrew diaspora and the Christian mission encounter Islamic expansion with the caravans, the Silk Road, colonization, the discovery of new worlds. The history of religion is intertwined with the history of the mobility of human beings.

What an enormous contrast there is between the story full of hope of the liberation through the Red Sea and, in our time, the flight across the Mediterranean! The latter has become the horror story of our times. This is the Mediterranean that since Phoenician times connected Africa, Asia and Europe in one single cultural area and allowed Rome to become a world empire on three continents. Now it has become the moat in front of the European Fortress. The founding Judeo-Christian myth reminds us of its foundational ethos. The entire world is entrusted for safekeeping to humanity in its entirety. There is no other alternative than to cultivate together this immense treasure.

We have always been migrants on the road toward eternity. We are guests on the Earth, and in our carry-on luggage we bring the Bible with its wisdom accumulated over thousands of years, together with other great books. Only on our lips and in our hearts can it become the word of life. The way in which we travel and are guests and reach out to other migrants shows our attitude before our mysterious origin and destination.

[1].This article develops an earlier work, “Flucht und Migration! Was sagt die Bibel dazu?” in Religion lehren und lernen in der Schule 17/2 (2017) 4-7.

[2].Cf. Jean-Pierre Sonnet, Le chant des montées. Marcher à Bible ouverte, Paris: Descle?e de Brouwer, 2015, 85-88.

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