Warfare, displacement, exile, refugees. It’s the drumbeat of modern times. Thousands of people are on the move to other countries, fleeing destruction and hardship. How often do we see them on the telly and blank out, shrug our shoulders and think ‘It’s not my business. I have enough to care about?’
But I’ve been challenged recently to rethink and to look at the Bible for answers. To me, today’s world seems to be not far removed from the sometimes crazy, sometimes horrific events that took place in the Bible.
Each story points to a God who cares greatly for the displaced and lowly, and that includes the refugee.
Let’s look at the Old Testament. Exile and movement is one of the biggest continuous themes of the Bible. In fact, the whole story of redemption can be explained in terms of our exile from God, and Jesus bringing us back! But it’s the ancient wanderings of Israel that really help to explain the experience of resettlement.
The first five books of the Bible lead us from Abraham’s initial call from God, to the Israelites breaking free from persecution in Egypt. The journey was all about the people of God looking for a home where they could worship without compromise.
Yet they often failed to properly worship God. The books of Kings are filled with monarchs who did ‘evil in the sight of the Lord’ and who would not turn back to Him, even with the urgings of the prophets. Eventually, Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Israelites were marched into exile, both to escape the devastation and because the Babylonians forced them to.
So often, we gloss over the book of Lamentations as it’s such a tricky read. But in the last few weeks, I’ve come to really appreciate the way it helps me to understand the true impact of Jerusalem’s destruction in human terms. The writer sees the devastation of his home, and feels great sadness for Jerusalem and for his fellow people. Speaking of them, he says:
‘All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. ‘Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised’ Lamentations 1:11
It is a picture of absolute devastation: the impact of the Babylonians on Jerusalem in 587 BCE. This scene of people in a devastated city groaning for bread and in utter despair could well have come out of modern day Aleppo.
Even if refugees, both then and today, are able to flee to a place of relative safety, they may suffer emotionally, with a heart-wrenching desire for home. Those who were in exile in Babylon longed to return back to Israel, as Psalm 137 demonstrates.
‘By the waters of Babylon, there we say down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ Psalm 137:1
‘Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!’ Psalm 137:6
We can often take advantage of our home, and don’t realise its worth until we move away, or head to university and leave our family and friends behind.
But imagine having to flee from your home with no end date.
As it says in Exodus 22:21:
‘You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’
The horror of movement, and heartrending yearnings for home can be seen in all refugee movements today. People like Hosein, who suffered through shipwreck to reach the Greek shore. He was the one of the lucky ones, making it to France, though separated from two of his sisters in Germany, with no idea if his mother and other sister also survived that shipwreck.
We need to come alongside the stranger in our land, and that includes refugees. That’s why a number of the Levitical laws promoted love for the foreigner because ‘(you) yourselves were foreigners in Egypt’ (Leviticus 19:34). God cares about the refugee in our lands.
And these experiences, like much else, find their fulfilment in the life of Jesus. Even Jesus was a refugee. Just look at Matthew 2:13-23, which shows Mary and Joseph fleeing from the brutal hand of Herod to Egypt, before returning home.
In the same way that Jesus stands up for the broken and oppressed, we must learn about what we can do to stand with refugees, speak up and help build a culture of hospitality wherever we find ourselves today.
Written by André Woolgar. This article was first featured on Tearfund Lifestyle on 9th May 2017