Does the Bible really advocate sanctuary cities?

A group protesting sanctuary cities demonstrates in front of City Hall in San Francisco on July 30, 2008. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Steve Rhodes

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”)

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James K. Hoffmeier


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  • “While immigration laws require local governments to inform federal officials when undocumented immigrants are held in nonfederal prisons for various offenses”

    That is not actually true. Local governments have no such obligations. Hence the existence of sanctuary cities in the first place without bringing in criminal sanctions against those local governments. This is why there are these passive aggressive indirect attacks on local governments on the issue.

    The author starts off on a false note and it doesn’t get better from there. If you want a simple answer then all you have to do is ask yourself, does the Bible addresses:

    -Treating people decently
    -Proportional and fair laws and penalties
    -Applying force of law in an unbiased manner
    -keeping families together
    -fair treatment of those who do menial labor
    -Whether it’s OK to use dishonest and defamatory language to describe entire groups of people

    The answer to me is, your mileage may vary. Saints and scumbags alike find justification for their actions in the Bible.

  • I am not in favor of ripping people who have come here illegally out of their homes or any place else by ICE or local law enforcement. However, if anyone has committed a crime and are here illegally, they should not only face prosecution for the crime, but be deported as well. Being in any country illegally, is similar to have a warrant immediately issued against someone. Just like any other citizen who has a warrant against them, if they are stopped by the police and they find an outstanding warrant that person is immediately arrested. Why then should people who come here without having gone through the proper channels be treated any differently than citizens. They come here knowing full well that it is illegal and that a cloud is over their heads wondering if they will be discovered.

  • Criminal law only has validity when the penalty is proportionate to the crime. The problem we have with our current immigration system is that deportation is the only penalty regardless of circumstances. Hardly proportionate for most instances.

    As for other countries, most don’t do immigration in a sane manner anyway. They are not examples for us.

    People who use analogies of immigration law to criminal law virtually never know the real and material differences between the two. immigration law has far less due process or civil liberty protections than Criminal law.

  • The Bible can be dangerous when treated literally. By this I mean when the words literally distort God’s intention. By this author’s interpretation the Underground Railroad would have been contrary to God’s intention. Slavery, permitted by the Bible, is acceptable and runaway slaves should be returned to their masters.

  • Similarly, secular law can be unjust and contrary to God’s law. The problem for the believer is trying to honor both. Certainly unjust secular laws can be changed, but in the meantime what is the believer to do? It’s a quandary that is as old as the Israel.

  • “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.”

    I don’t see where this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures in any way supports the formation of sanctuary places. It is clearly aimed at those who’ve committed murder accidentally and not intentionally. Talk about a nightmare in determining who those people are–no doubt a minute minority of murderers! Plus this passage leaves out other heinous crimes like rape and theft–crimes that are impossible to commit by accident! In this country those charged with any of these crimes get to go to court and let a jury of their peers establish their guilt or innocence.

    Those from sanctuary city/county/state movement are grasping at straws when they cite ancient scriptures in support of their contemporary thrust to harbor people who have broken the law. The Christian Bible is more recent and relevant in establishing a principle on which to base such a movement! I would be better convinced by that “love your neighbor”-thing, although that admonition is still quite a stretch! I don’t have any neighbors who are murderers, rapists and thieves–only a few gossips and those lusting after my stuff!

  • That’s actually similar to what some “sanctuary cities” — a nebulous term to begin with — are doing. In NYC if the federal government gets a warrant for a serious crime committed by an alien in custody then law enforcement will turn the subject over (this is a simplified version of the law though).

  • This seems like a straw man to me. The religious groups advocating for “sanctuary” for immigrants are doing it in part based on the biblical precepts for kindness and non-oppression toward strangers and foreigners. The city of refuge concept for homicide suspects has nothing to do with it from what I’ve read.

  • This is not Israel nor the Bronze age. The laws of each state and the federal government govern this issue.

  • The sanctuary cities of the OT were necessary because the families of the Israelites were allowed to kill in vengeance even if the death was an accident. Those were barbaric times.

  • Talking about anachronism, historicism, impracticality, time-tunnel vision, irrelevancy and some such; what is this?! There’s practically a span of light years between the time setting for what’s described in this line from James K. Hoffmeier – “the cities of refuge scattered throughout Israel” – and that in this line – “American cities, counties and universities that offer sanctuary for foreigners who have broken American laws regulating entry to our country”. Just how many years, civilizations, regime changes, must pass between the two before things get really out of whack, irrelevant, meaningless, so non-PC? And still you want to borrow social ideas from back when, then apply them to your present social contexts? Are both you sanctuary city advocates and you exegeting folks over at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School like Hoffmeier that unawares of the time differences involved, and therefore of what actually had happened to these Old Testament cities of refuge and to God’s intended ideas behind them? Or don’t you care?

    Well, I do. So here’s my $ 0.02 worth of looking at this thing called cities of refuge – once for all:

    (1) Joshua 20:1-9 says there are 6 cities of refuge: (i) “Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali”; (ii) “Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim”; (iii) “Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the hill country of Judah”; (iv) “Bezer in the wilderness on the plain from the tribe of Reuben”; (v) “Ramoth in Gilead from the tribe of Gad, and (vi) Golan in Bashan from the tribe of Manasseh.”

    (2) God then says in Psalm 61:3-4 and Isaiah 14:28, 31-32, Game over for these old-school cities of refuge, because from now on I want you all to start thinking of Me and “the shelter of [My] wings” and “Zion” as THE refuge! Got that?!

    (3) God then says in Acts 14:1-7, 26-28, Look at Paul and Barnabas and the other disciples of Jesus Christ. Do you see them still seeking cities of refuge in Kedesh, Shechem, Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), Bezer, Ramoth and Golan? No, right? So guess what the cities of refuge are for them now as they evangelize the world with the message, Jesus Saves!? If you know your bible, a purely proto-Roman Catholic invention, mind, here’s a clue: “And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, they became aware of it and fled [katephygon = fled for REFUGE] to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; and there they continued to preach the gospel.”

    (4) What’s My point? This, and check Hebrews 6:11-20 while you’re at it: “that each one of you show the … diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, [and] through faith and patience inherit the promises. … [You] who have taken REFUGE [kataphygontes = having fled for and reached REFUGE] … have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before [you] … a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” My point is Jesus Christ, My beloved Son – remember Him? That’s what these cities of refuge were all about. They were prophetic cities of refuge waiting to be fulfilled by Jesus the Messiah of Israel and savior of the rest of the world. So you sanctuary city advocates and James K. Hoffmeier best get back to square 1 on this business with cities of refuge. I mean, Get back to Jesus Christ, why don’t you?!

  • How about this?
    “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
    And then there are the many prophetic pronouncements against Edom because (among other things) they blocked fugitives fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem at the border and returned the refugees who managed to reach their city to the Babylonian conquerors. (Obadiah, especially v. 14)
    “For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.” (Obadiah 15)

  • Actually, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 requires the Israelites to make all their cities sanctuary cities for slaves who escape from their (non-Israelite) masters.

  • There are numerous injunctions to provide care for the stranger or alien, particularly as a sign of the covenant. Deuteronomy 10:19 instructs: “You should love the alien/foreigner, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

  • Prof. Hoffmeier’s most important words, to me, are: “to allow the law to take its proper course rather than unwarranted vengeful retaliation”. The executive order was drawn up by advisers whose motives are highly suspect and wreak of bigotry – both racial and religious – and seems to be persecuting unjustly the sojourner among us. It is frightening to see what is tantamount to the “brown shirts” ripping parents from children and spouses from one another.

  • Why do we even have to justify our desire to “love our enemies” as Jesus has said. I don’t need scripture to tell me to treat my fellow humans with respect and loyalty. Most immigrants come to make their lives better. If they make their lives better, then they also make lives around them better. Better is better. It doesn’t matter whether one is an immigrant or a citizen when one commits a heinous crime–that one should be brought to justice, for the sake of the rest of society. Jesus’s purpose for us is open-ended. We are to move from his statements into actions that result in the purposes of love and mercy. Plain and simple.

  • This passage is relevant but I wonder how that applies to illegals who have committed a criminal offense.

  • Also, we’re talking about people that have come into the USA ‘Illegally’. We’re not even talking about someone murdering someone, yet…. IN Romans 13(New Testament), God tells us to obey the laws of the land. Our countries function in a more clear cut way now, than maybe hundreds of years ago. We have borders; boundaries;with alot more organization. if anyone comes into our country, NOT coming thru ‘a gate’ for entry, not being given permission to come in, it is illegal. It is against the law. Simple as that. Everyone knows that. To harbor individuals because of THAT reason, is like harboring someone hiding from getting arrested because they committed a crime, no matter how small or big. Keeping individuals from facing their consequences from going against the law is NOT helping them; or the rest of the population of a country. It is unsafe. Not knowing ANYTHING about these people. With sanctuary cities to harbor illegally-entered people, heck, they could stay there forever & never become a citizen; work, eat, get a wife & babies, spend their whole life there,& the government NEVER even know they are there & know nothing about them. That’s not how we operate.

  • “Better is better”

    Tell that to the person who faces unemployment or lower wages due to the presence of immigrants. Or the parents who see their child’s school struggle under the weight of ESL students. Or the citizen who becomes the “stranger” in his own community due to an influx or those who are culturally foreign.

    You may desire to “love your ‘enemy'”, but your compassion is selective. You care greatly for the one who lives thousands of miles away, but not for the one down the street or in the next state.

  • Someone who comes with thr intention of never leaving is not a sojourner. They would bear far greater similarity to an occupier rather than a traveler. The traveler passes through, but the occupier displaces. Lets adopt the Jesus model of refugees: you come, you enjoy protection as long as necessary, then you leave. Where is the modern refugee equivalent to the return of the Holy Family to Israel after the death of Herod?

    Is Christianity a suicide pact? Are we obligated to accept into our Christian society so many legions of non-Christians that our ability to shape our society to our own beliefs is severely compromised? Did God demand open borders or multicultutalism of Israel?

    Scripture says that when you encounter people who won’t receive or obey the word, to leave them and shake the dust off your feet…that judgement will be better for Sodom and Gamorah than for them. You really think “religious bigotry” (read: a preference for Christians) is a violation?

  • Advocating for the wrong reasons, not the ones in the Bible, is what they are doing. Illegally in the country is the first offense, living of government aid while here illegally second offense. Those who advocate for this rights should go to jail, simple, because they are using taxpayer funds for their agenda not their own money. Just refer to accidental death in the bible, nothing there indicates sanctuary cities for illegal aliens? But we have the corrupt politicians and org’s pushing for us to maintain all these people, because their government is corrupt and won’t do anything for them. Thank You.

  • “You may desire to “love your ‘enemy'”, but your compassion is selective. You care greatly for the one who lives thousands of miles away, but not for the one down the street or in the next state.”

    Actually, I work to make sure that all my neighbors, foreign or domestic, within my neighborhood, have the opportunities necessary to have a productive life. I have been involved in community development with all types and levels of society in my own town. I have discovered through that that 1) immigrants rarely, if ever, have jobs that the settled people want, 2) when the community embraces each able bodied worker as a valuable asset the synergy produced increases the economy to a greater level making better opportunities for all, 3) those that resist community efforts often end up lacking–not because the community denies them, but they deny themselves.

    Incidently, I am certified in and have taught both foreign language and ESL, from what I experienced the lives of all my students and of the rest of the school benefited from the enrichment–both intellectually and socially.

    Finally, Jesus didn’t call us to “what works” to change world, he called us to operate from the center of God’s purposes for the world, regardless of the result. He reminded us that our work would draw antagonism and exclusion from many, and still, we practice love to them also–which C. S. Lewis defines as “seeking another’s highest good.”

    This has been my experience, anyway.

  • Has anyone considered here the distinction between a REFUGEE and an ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT, and while we’re at it, that of an INTERNAL REFUGEE versus an EXTERNAL REFUGEE?

  • Actually, YOUR compassion is selective. Why should people who came here illegally get preferential treatment? Why shouldn’t our borders be opened to anyone, anywhere, who wants to immigrate? Sure, the welfare state will collapse in a few years (contrary to the implications of immigration advocates, the majority of immigrants end up on public assistance), and U.S. will be a bankrupt third-world crony dictatorship within twenty, and most of the people here (whether native born or immigrant) will be miserable, but you will have “loved” everyone.

  • RCPreacher, just for clarification, I didn’t write the phrase “your compassion is selective” I was responding to Matthew Kilburn’s statement. Secondly, yes I will have “loved” everyone–defined as working for their higher good. Do you fault that?

  • The Bible did not permit the slavery of antebellum America. Kidnapping people for slaves carried the death penalty (Exodus 21:16 — 1 Timothy 1:10 indicates this verse applies to Christians). Owners who caused any permanent damage to their slave, even by accident, had to free that slave. (Exodus 21:26-27). And so on. The restrictions on slavery in Mosaic law made the sort of slave culture in Ancient Rome or the Antebellum South impossible.

    If Americans had taken the Bible literally on slavery, slavery in the US would have died out naturally, and without bloodshed.

  • On the contrary, Deuteronomy 23:15 forbids returning escaped slaves to their masters, while Christians from the earliest days have pointed to Leviticus 25:42 and 1 Corinthians 7:23 as evidence that Christians should not hold slaves, and should work to free fellow Christians who were enslaved. Christians have ended slavery all over the world; slave owners in the antebellum South only got away with their scripture twisting with those who didn’t know the scriptures in question.

  • Read your Bible you are suffering from truth decay. Never follow a crowd to do evil. You are ignorant regarding politics and the Bible. Get the devil off your tongue & Jesus in your heart. Everyone needs to stop stop bowing to the donkey & elephant bow to the Lion of Judah. Pray for your leaders daily, yes that means Donald Trump. All power is ordained by God. Get that anger out of your soul, and pray to God. Read Ephesians 6:12, that’s the heart & soul of the issue. Exodus 17:16 these battles are the Lord’s, and it will never stop. He will always be at war with Amalek.

  • There is no such thing as an internal refugee; that status is internally displaced person. There’s a legal difference

  • You’re right. A refugee, according to Google Dictionary, is someone who is “forced to leave the country”. I meant to say “internal refugee” as a way of being simple and intelligible to distinguish between someone who is displaced within their country and one who is displaced outside of their country.

    I would also like to say that I tend to rely on etymology in a definition, due to my learning about Latin and its etymological relations with English. In looking up “etymology of refugee”, I came to the idea that it is one “fleeing home”, where one can interpret home as country or as a literal house or place of residence. I read that one can take refuge from a natural disaster, and that can be intra-country a large enough country like the US.

    Lastly, I’m not as concerned (or versed) in legal terminologies as much as the academic or intellectual pursuit of understanding an issue, so that was where I was coming from. (Edit:) Also, I like making up names, “coining” new terms. This term could be debatable, though one could synonomize refugee with external refugee, and get away with “internal refugee”, I think. (End edit)

  • I think it’s spurious to equate this definition of sanctuary with the Torah definition. The two concepts may be expressed with the same English word but any other equivalence is spurious in my opinion. It’s like saying our desire to be clean is based on the Torah.

  • Kind of a weak response. If you think he is wrong, go do the research to prove it. I know he is 100% correct about lex talionis (see Glenn Miller’s research at Christian Think Tank) and manslaughter, but will reserve judgement on the rest of his claims until I find out more. But to say “he starts on a false note,” and then shifts to unsupported interpretations is a hallmark of the Left. And without showing an example, is not fair or reasonable.

  • See below answer to Spuddie. Plus you misuse the concept of a strawman fallacy: when you present a weaker argument and then defeat it. He does nothing of the sort.

  • Missed the point wildly. The author messed up the interpretation of American immigration laws. Then he went through the usual proof texting and self serving interpretation of the Bible that certain conservatives love when they want to justify treating other people badly.

    As I said in my prior comment Biblical interpretation depends on the person using it. Both saint and scum alike will find justification for their actions in it.

  • That’s exactly what the author is doing. The city of refuge is a horrendously weak argument for fair treatment of immigrants because it has absolutely zero to do with immigration. The author presented it, knowing it was a weak argument, precisely to shoot it down.

  • Actually there is no obligation for anyone other than federal officers to comply with immigration law enforcement. Sanctuary cities are perfectly legal. Always have been. State and local law enforcement officials are not trained in immigration law. They lack the skills and education necessary to effectively enforce it without resorting to what amounts to attacks on civil liberties. If immigration laws were less draconian in nature, we wouldn’t have sanctuary cities. People would be willing to accept proportionate punishment to their offense and trying to get themselves in the system. Deportation is draconian to the offense of illegal entry or overstay. IMO a stiff fine is far more reasonable and proportionate to the offense. But then you can’t intimidate brown people so easily if it were the case.

    Btw those babies they have here are natural born US citizens. They can form the basis for citizenship for their parents. Even illegal alien ones.

  • Amen! The Church is using GOD’s word to break the Law! This is even spoken by the Apostle Paul who states All Authority is from GOD! I am angry with the “church” and those criminals who use and abuse GOD’s Word! We Need to share Truth as stated in the Bible and not what we want others to believe!

  • Indianapolis and other places are calling illegals “Immigrants!” These people pre-mediated plans to reproduce in the U.S purposely to gain status along with benefits! I know because I am a guilty ex-advocate for Illegals! Refugees are abusing the system as well! Muslims are doing the same as illegals, increasing family size for more hand-outs! We need to reach out to non-Muslim Refugees who are in Need of true Refuge!!!

  • Old Testament law,
    We are to Love our brothers and sisters.
    Judge not,
    You can only serve one master
    Serve God
    Or serve nation.

  • The whole point of this conversation is for those who illegally enter this country are “BREAKING THE LAW”!! The Bible clearly states to obey the laws of the land!!