Opponents of Pope Francis pushed back at him in March after his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate declared that immigrants, the elderly, the poor, and the abandoned should be seen as “equally sacred” to the innocent unborn. With this comment, Francis upended a divisive political strategy used to appeal to the Catholic right in the United States:
We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him?
This renewed a longstanding debate among Catholics on how to prioritize campaign issues in light of church teaching, with Francis’s critics maintaining that ending abortion has the highest priority. Their reasoning is that abortion is an intrinsic evil that violates the Fifth Commandment, while immigration is no more than a prudential matter.
This debate seems largely beside the point for me after reading the Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman’s engaging book The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters, recently issued in paperback. In the course of offering a historical account of the exodus, Friedman makes a compelling argument that love of the alien is the beating heart of the Hebrew Bible, the font of a revolutionary ethic: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). One takeaway from his book is that compassion for the migrant is not some secondary concern in Biblical tradition. It’s foundational.
It was not his intent, but Friedman’s research is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate over what the Bible means for immigration policy. The importance of this debate was highlighted in June when Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Paul’s Letter to the Romans in response to church leaders who had criticized his “zero tolerance” policy for arresting undocumented aliens at the border. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” he said. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
In a telephone interview, Friedman told me he was not trying to make a political statement about immigration in his book. “I deliberately did not refer to that in the book,” he said. “When I was writing the book, it was prior to the election where this became a big issue in the United States…. I really wasn’t going for anything political. I guess by definition it has implications.”
Friedman’s key finding is that there was indeed an exodus from Egypt, although not in the way the Torah explains it—with some 2 million people traveling across the desert. Archaeologists have found no evidence for such a mass movement, leading many to conclude it didn’t happen.
According to Friedman, Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, there was in fact an exodus, but only the Levite tribe made the journey; the other tribes were in Israel all along. He says this is reflected in the fact that only Levites, such as Moses, have Egyptian names. But more so, it is seen in the way God revealed God’s name to Moses as Yahweh. The tribes in Israel worshiped El, or Elohim, a name that Friedman says is simply a generic term for a god. When the Levites arrived from Egypt, the decision was reached that the two gods were One—with God’s name revealed to Moses as Yahweh—and the landed Israeli tribes accepted the Levites as a tribe of priests and teachers. The Levite exodus became all Israel’s story.
I will not go through the many strands of the historic, literary, linguistic, and genetic evidence in Friedman’s analysis; mostly, he probes Torah sources that he says derive from the Levites—identified by scholars with the initials E, P, and D— to reach his conclusion that the origin of monotheism is revealed in the exodus story.
Those who have read Friedman’s popular 1987 book Who Wrote the Bible? will recall that he does some deft detective work in his analysis of these biblical sources and a fourth, identified by the initial J. In this book, he hones in on how the exodus unfolds by comparing the Levite sources with the non-Levite J source.
He notes that only the Levite sources have laws that prohibit mistreating slaves, for example. Why? “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh, your God, redeemed you” (Deuteronomy 15:15). Friedman says such reminders are repeated constantly in the three Levite sources, but are unmentioned in the J source.
“Over and over—fifty-two times!—all three Levite sources command that one must never mistreat an alien,” he writes. Why? “Because you were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 22:20; Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:33–34; Deuteronomy 10:19). Friedman adds: “All three Levite sources of the Torah…command fair treatment of aliens. Just, equal treatment of aliens. Foreigners. Outsiders. Not members of the group.” This is not found anywhere else in ancient Near Eastern law, he says. Important ethical consequences followed from this compassion for aliens: the injunction to “love your neighbor” means to love everyone, a command rooted in the Levites’ migratory experience.