DEERFIELD, Ill. (RNS) Around 40 cities and hundreds of counties in America have joined the “sanctuary cities” movement, which means they offer limited or no cooperation to federal officials carrying out deportations.
President Trump’s executive order on Jan. 25 to halt federal funding to these local governments has reignited the debate over the practice.
While immigration laws require local governments to inform federal officials when undocumented immigrants are held in nonfederal prisons for various offenses, the practice of sanctuary — a place of legal protection — is rooted in laws of the Torah or Old Testament.
That leads some Christians and Jews to think that offering such a shield from the law to illegal immigrants is a noble thing. Most advocates, however, seem totally unaware of the conditions prescribed in the Old Testament for receiving such protection.
Sanctuary is among the laws given to Moses at Mount Sinai, according to Exodus 21:12-15:
Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, … he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death.
This passage, along with others in ancient Israelite Law, show that murder was a capital offense, hence the well-known commandment “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). The Bible does, however, distinguish between premeditated murder and accidental death or manslaughter and negligent homicide. Only intentional or premeditated killing was punishable by death.
The reason why people in Bible times sought sanctuary was because of the lex talionis, the law of retaliation, or the “eye for an eye” principle. The natural human impulse is to extract more than “an eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” Put another way, the punishment exceeded the crime. When the Old Testament law introduced the law of retaliation, it was to limit punishment to fit the crime, as Exodus 21:23-25 specifies: “if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
Should an individual be killed, a family member, known as a redeemer or avenger, was obliged to seek justice. In later biblical law specific cities would serve as a place of sanctuary:
When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly. These six towns you give will be your cities of refuge … so that anyone who has killed another accidentally can flee there (Numbers 35:11-15)
The purpose of the practice of sanctuary at the temple or the cities of refuge scattered throughout Israel was to provide safe zones to which the person who had accidentally killed someone could flee, be protected from excessive retribution and have the case heard by an impartial judge. A contemporary analogy for this practice is when a defendant seeks a change of venue to ensure a fair trial. The person may be guilty of killing, but not murder according to biblical law. A defendant was to flee ahead of the avenger to one of the sanctuary locations where he could “state his case before the elders of that city” (Joshua 20:4).
The biblical practice of sanctuary, then, was to protect the offender from vigilante justice and to guarantee one received a fair trial. A person who was found guilty of intentionally murdering someone should be removed from the protection of the sanctuary and receive his punishment. This practice is clearly stated in Exodus 21:14: “take him away from my altar and put him to death.”
According to these biblical passages dealing with the practice of sanctuary in the Bible, it is clear that its purpose was limited exclusively for offenders who had accidentally or unintentionally killed someone, thereby providing a place where their case could be heard. Sanctuary was never intended as a place to avoid “the law” and the consequences of criminal behavior, but to allow the law to take its proper course rather than unwarranted vengeful retaliation when it was not called for. Consequently, American cities, counties and universities that offer sanctuary for foreigners who have broken American laws regulating entry to our country cannot claim to be following the practice described in the Bible. Rather, they are twisting biblical statutes to political ends and subverting federal law.
(James K. Hoffmeier is professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and author of “The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible”)