As the current U.S. immigration policy clash--what to do about illegal aliens and insecure borders--heats up, many Americans have turned to scripture for guidance. Jewish scripture, for example, speaks repeatedly of the kindness due to the “stranger” and reminds us that the people of the Bible--the Hebrews--were once despised foreigners in an alien land, Egypt.

Yet the Bible's message isn't simply to welcome everyone and not ask anything of them in return. Instead, the scripture teaches a middle way that asks us to welcome "strangers"--but also requires these guests to take on moral and civic responsibility in their adopted land.

President Bush, who addressed the nation on Monday night in a televised speech, also favors a middle ground between the extreme positions of expelling the 11 million or so illegals (if that were even possible, which of course it’s not), on one hand, and opening the border without restriction, on the other. He would increase U.S.-Mexican border security with National Guard troops while offering some immigrants “guest-worker” status. This position has offended some both on the right and on the left.

A Christian might bring forward the strong teaching of Paul, especially in Ephesians 2:11-21, that after the advent of Jesus Christ the distinction between native and foreigner, Jew and Gentile, has been transcended: “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

In the Hebrew Bible, many verses seem to advocate a wide-armed welcome for immigrants and foreigners. Here are a couple of examples from Leviticus: “When a stranger dwells among you in your land, do not taunt him. The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt—I am the Lord, your God” (19:33-34). “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him—stranger or resident—so that he can live with you” (25:35).

That last verse appears to teach that a “stranger” (in Hebrew, a ger) not only should be welcomed and accepted but supported and uplifted from poverty. Not so fast, amigo.

Let’s try to take scripture seriously while applying its wisdom to the immigration question. That doesn’t mean denying that the Bible on your bookshelf speaks in different voices. First off, we need to make a distinction between the Old and the New Testaments.

For we are talking here about a classically political issue. Paul and Jesus both thought the world as we know it was about to end, so the idea that they were laying out a philosophy of governance for the ages would have puzzled them.

Not so the writers of the Hebrew Bible, a document that is very much concerned with the design of a just and merciful commonwealth. Hebrew scripture insists on the continuing, indeed eternal relevance of national identity. Even in the times of the Messiah, “Israel will be the third party with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land, for the Lord, Master of Legions, will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed is My people, Egypt; and the work of my hands, Assyria; and My heritage, Israel’” (see Isaiah 19:19-25).

As scripture relates, the nations of Earth once sought to create a world state without borders–the story of the Tower of Babel–and we know the Bible doesn’t look kindly on that attempt.

Point two, however, is that the Bible sets up a demanding standard by which if a person wishes, he may shed one national identity and embrace another.

The classic instance is Ruth, the Moabite. She had a Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, whom she met when Naomi’s family fled the land of Israel and moved to neighboring Moab to escape a famine. When Ruth’s husband, Naomi’s son, died, along with Naomi’s husband and her other son, Ruth decided to return with the older woman to Israel. Said Ruth, “For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and so may He do more, if anything but death separates me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Notice that the main thrust of her speech is the passionate joining of her own fate with Naomi’s, and thus with Israel’s. To this day, that remains the primary criterion by which potential coverts to Judaism are evaluated. Ruth thus became, according to Jewish tradition, history’s most beloved “proselyte” or “convert” to Judaism—a status celebrated at the Jewish festival of Shavuot (June 2-3 this year), when her story is chanted in synagogues.

The subject of conversion isn’t quite so simple, however. For there are actually two sub-classes grouped under the category of the “ger.” There is the ger, the convert, like Ruth–a full member of Israel. But there is another, the ger toshav, or resident alien.

The latter occupies a middle ground between Jew and foreigner. It is this individual whom Jews are, in the verse we saw earlier, commanded to provide for: “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him—stranger or resident (ger v’toshav)—so that he can live with you” (Leviticus 25:35).