Refugees in the Bible: An Overview

Even though the term ‘refugee’ has only been formally defined in the last century, families and individuals have been fleeing persecution, natural disasters, and war for thousands of years. There are many stories of these ancient refugees in the Bible. Through their experiences we can learn a lot about how we should treat refugees today.

On Monday, March 8th I will be releasing my first ebook, Refugees in the Bible: Understanding Today’s Refugee Crisis. Leading up to the ebook release I will be posting three articles about refugees in the Bible. Today’s article is a simple overview of the major refugee narratives in the Bible, from both the Old and New Testaments.

Refugees in the Old Testament

The Old Testament tells the story of the Jewish people, from God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, to their exodus from Egypt, their establishment in the promised land, their exile from the promised land at the hands of the Babylonians and the Assyrians, and finally their return to rebuild Jerusalem. In short, the Old Testament is the story of a refugee nation searching for a place to call home. Yet, through many years and generations of wandering, God never forsakes his people, and promises to bless them if they will obey his commands.

While the Old Testament tells the general story of the Jewish people and their search for a home, the narrative also focuses in on the refugee experience of individuals from time to time. Before he becomes the King of Judah, David must flee from King Saul to protect his own life (see 1 Samuel for more of David’s story). Naomi and her family must leave Israel because of a terrible famine. They resettle in Moab for a time where Ruth becomes her daughter-in-law and later returns to Israel with her (see Ruth). Esther is the descendant of refugees and prisoners of war who were carried away from Israel by the Babylonians and yet she is given the opportunity to save the entire Jewish diaspora in Persia from death (see Esther). These are some of the stories I share in more detail in my ebook. I also show how the stories of refugees today are really not so different from these biblical refugees.

Refugees in the New Testament

In the New Testament the focus changes from the Jewish people of God to the growing Early Church, which is made up of both Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. The Early Church faced persecution of various kinds, forcing many early believers to become refugees. Even now, centuries later, Christians around the world face serious danger for practicing and sharing their faith in Jesus.

Next week I will share a complete list of the refugees whose stories are told in the Bible. I will also share a brief theology of displacement that explains how these biblical stories work together to create a framework that can help us treat refugees well. If you haven’t yet subscribed to the Faith & Forced Migration newsletter, I would encourage you to do that below. Later this week I’ll be sending subscribers a sneak peek of the ebook, and when it is released on May 8th they will also be the first to receive it!