In view of the furor about legal and illegal immigration, it’s interesting to see what Thomas Aquinas has to say about how the law of the Old Testament treated such matters.

Below, then, I have condensed and paraphrased his much longer remarks in Summa theologiae, I-II, Q. 105, Art. 3, and condensed and adapted my own much longer discussion in Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Divine Law.

Does any of this apply to our own controversies?  See what you think.


The query:

Did the Old Testament Law appropriately frame the regulations about persons who were not members of the nation?


St. Thomas writes:

Relations with resident aliens, St. Thomas observes, may be either peaceful and hostile.  In his view Old Testament law appropriately regulated both kinds of relations.  Let us take them in turn.  The distinction between peaceful and hostile relations with foreigners may seem obvious, but in our own political debate nothing is easier than to find persons who think either that all such relations must be amicable or that all such relations must be hostile.  In fact, though peaceful relations are preferable, they are not always possible.

As to the first category of relations, the Jews were presented with three occasions for peaceful dealings with outsiders:

1.  When such outsiders passed through their land temporarily, as sojourners or migrants.

2.  When they came into their land to live in it, as resident aliens.

3.   When they wished to be taken completely into their community and rituals, as proselytes or converts.

The Law made compassionate provision for the first two cases by commanding “Do not discourage or afflict an outsider” and “Do not make trouble for a foreigner.”

The third case required that a certain procedure be followed.  No one was accepted into citizenship immediately.  We read something similar in Aristotle’s Politics, Book 3, where the philosopher remarks that some nations regarded persons as citizens only after their families had been present in the land for several generations.

The reason for such a rule, St. Thomas says, is that if newly arrived foreigners were immediately allowed to take a hand in the people's affairs, many dangers might result.  Some of these newcomers, not yet confirmed in love for the people's good, might try to harm them.  In view of this danger, the law distinguished between outsiders from nations that had some affinity with the Jews, and outsiders from nations that had been hostile to them.

In the category of those having affinity with them were the Egyptians, among whom they had been born and raised, and the Idumaeans or Edomites, who were descended from Jacob’s brother Esau.  These were to be allowed into the fellowship of the people after the third generation.

In the category of those who had been hostile to them were the Ammonites and Moabites, who were never to be allowed into their fellowship, and the Amalekites, who had no blood relationship with the community and had been so hostile that they were to be regarded as perpetual enemies.  This is why the book of Exodus warns that the Lord will always be at war with Amalek, generation after generation.



St. Thomas’s third category of foreigners is aliens who desire to become completely assimilated into the Israelite nation and converted to its worship of the true God.  Probably, some aliens closed only part of this gap, taking up belief in the true God and the practice of Jewish worship, but not becoming circumcised and assimilated.  Only those who went all the way are meant here.

The status of the others, sometimes called “God-fearers,” was a topic not only in rabbinical writing, but also, many centuries later, in the New Testament.  At a certain point in the book of Acts, which recounts the history of the early Church, St. Paul, invited to address the synagogue in Antioch, explicitly addresses his words about Christ not only to “men of Israel,” whom he calls “brothers” and “sons of the family of Abraham,” but also to “those among you that fear God.”  (Acts 13:16,26).

The Old Testament law welcomed those who seek full assimilation into the nation, but it was also cautious.  St. Thomas argues later that such persons were admitted into worship, but, as we see here, they were not immediately admitted into full citizenship – that is, into participation in the affairs of the community.  St. Thomas accepts the definition of full citizenship worked out in Aristotle’s Politics:  “When anyone has the power to share in deliberative and judicial powers, we say that he is a citizen of that political community, and that a political community consists of enough such citizens for a self-sufficient life, absolutely speaking” (Aristotle, Politics, 1.3).  Certainly the civil law of ancient Israel was also a religious law, and certainly it demanded adherence to the true God.  However, the distinction between the assembly of deliberation and the assembly of worship refutes the common view that the nation entirely fused civil with religious functions.

In the same place in the Politics, Aristotle points out that the idea of delaying full citizenship to the members of a family until it had lived in a country for several generations is commonly held:  “People also define citizen in a practical way as one descended from citizen parents on both sides, not only from one citizen parent (i.e., a father or mother).  And others require descent from citizens for more generations (e.g., two, three, or more).”  Though Aristotle has no objection to this restriction on citizenship, he points out that descent from citizens on both sides cannot be the definition of citizenship, because it would produce a difficulty concerning the first people of the community.  As St. Thomas remarks in his Commentary on the work, it would produce an endless regress, for “it would follow that the original people were not citizens, and so none of the others descended from them were.  And this is odd.”

The fear was that allowing outsiders who desire assimilation to share in deliberative and judicial powers right away would invite subversion, because they might not yet identify with the community and so might not regard its good as their own.  Making them wait for a few generations is a precept of prudence.

The Israelites regarded the Edomites as kin because of shared ancestry, and recognized a certain affinity with the Egyptians because the Israelites had dwelt for so long in Egypt.  Thus, Egyptian and Edomite families who desired assimilation into the Israelite community were accepted -- but only guardedly, after a probation of several generations.

How about Ammonites and Moabites?  No.  We return to the reasons for extreme distrust of the Ammonite and Moabite peoples below.


In reply to one of the Objections, St. Thomas writes:

The law did not exclude those of any nation from worshipping God or caring for the health of their souls.  This is why the book of Exodus declared that if any aliens were willing to cross over into Hebrew land and keep the Passover of the Lord, then so long as their males were first circumcised, they were to be permitted to celebrate the rite in the proper way and be accepted alongside those native to the land.

Concerning temporal matters pertaining to the fellowship of the people, however, matters stood differently.  For, as explained above, not everyone was accepted into the community at once.

The Egyptians, as well as the Idumaeans or Edomites, were accepted in the third generation.  But in utter rejection of their past wrongs, the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites were excluded forever.  For just as one man is punished for his sins, so that others, seeing what happens to him, may desist from sin for dread of its happening to them – in just the same way, a few peoples or cities are punished for their sins so that others will hold back from similar offenses.



The first Objector had complained that the perpetual exclusion of certain categories of foreigners from the assembly contradicts the principle that all who fear God and act righteously are acceptable to Him.  However, St. Thomas points out that there is a difference between exclusion from public deliberation and exclusion from participation in worship.  Certainly many foreigners were excluded from the former, some for three generations, others in perpetuity, as we saw above.  Quoting Exodus 12:48, however, St. Thomas argues that no foreigners at all were excluded from the latter.  After the Old Law gives instructions for the feast of the Passover, which commemorates how the angel of the Lord “passed over” the Hebrews, sparing them but striking down the firstborn of the Egyptians, the following command is given:

And when a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land.  But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.  There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.  (Exodus 12:48-49).

In Latin, the wording contains a little pun, for those willing to pass over into the land (transire) and live in it were to be permitted to celebrate the rite which commemorated how the angel of death passed over the people of Israel. 

As St. Thomas reads these passages, no one who was willing to dwell in the community and be circumcised could be excluded from the celebration of the Passover.  Public affairs were a different matter, because they needed to be protected from subversion.  From these, Egyptians and Edomites were excluded for three generations, and Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites forever.

The perpetual exclusion of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites from full citizenship may seem harsh.  Can’t there ever be forgiveness?  But in the first place, as St. Thomas points out, the Law distinguished between those who could worship God and those who could take a hand in the temporal decisions of the people.  In the second place, the Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekite nations were in fact in perpetual enemies of the people of Israel, and the peoples of that age had long memories.  And in the third place, it was of overpowering importance that the surrounding nations be taught a lesson which could not be forgotten about the consequences of oppressing the Jews.  For this was the Chosen Nation, the covenant community, the people through whom a light was one day to break out, not only among the Hebrew people, but among all peoples.  As God declares through the prophet Isaiah,  “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6).

Therefore, although God also punishes Israel for its sins, sometimes even using other nations to do so, nevertheless He blesses the nations that bless Israel, and punishes the nations that curse Israel: 

●  Isaac speaking to Jacob, and through him to his future descendants:  “Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Genesis 27:29).

●  Balaam, speaking in apostrophe to Israel, despite his commission to say the opposite: “Blessed be everyone who blesses you, and cursed be everyone who curses you” (Numbers 24:9b).

●  The prophet Zechariah, also addressing Israel apostrophically:  “He who touches you touches the apple of [God’s] eye” (Zechariah 2:8).

●  God, through Zechariah, speaking of the day of deliverance:  “And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 12:9).

And yet the coming Messiah, the “Servant of the Lord,” is represented centuries later, in the prophet Isaiah, as speaking as follows:

And now the Lord says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength -- he says: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:5-6).

So the hostile nations were perpetually excluded from Israel’s councils for the sake of Israel’s  preservation, and those who persist in oppression will be destroyed.  Yet Israel was preserved for the salvation for all nations -- even those who in the time of the Old Law were still excluded.


Continuing his reply, St. Thomas writes:

Even so, it was possible for an exception to be made to this rule, for a man could be admitted into the brotherhood of the people because of an act of virtue.  We learn this from the book of Judith, which relates how Achior, the commander of the Ammonites – and not only he, but also his family for all generations – were joined to the people of Israel.  We see much the same thing from the story of Ruth, a Moabite whom Boaz whom Boaz praises for her reputation as a woman of virtue – although it might be argued that the exclusion from citizenship did not apply to women, because the women of Israel were not citizens in an unqualified sense.



We see earlier in the Summa that according to St. Thomas, no exceptions can be made to precepts which embody the very idea of the direction of affairs to the common good, or more particularly toward justice and virtue -- for example the precepts of the Decalogue.  However, exceptions can be certainly be made to the subordinate precepts which merely specify the ways in which affairs are directed toward these great aims.  The requirement is that such exceptions must not be to the detriment of the just intention of the lawmaker, who is God.  Certainly the prohibition of admitting the members of hostile nations to full citizenship serves the common good.  However, there is no harm to the common good if an exception is made for someone of outstanding virtue who is friendly rather than hostile.

The first exception St. Thomas mentions is Achior, the chief man of the Ammonites, who advises Holofernes, the general of the Assyrian forces, not to make war against the Hebrews because they are protected by their God.  Holofernes is so infuriated by this advice that he commands that Achior be handed over to the enemy.  The Israelites discover him outside the gates of one of their cities, tied up and abandoned.  After untying him and learning what has transpired, they commend and console him.  Later, accompanied by her maidservant, Judith enters the Assyrian encampment, pretending to be a deserter and informant.  After several days, leading Holofernes to believe that he can ravish her, she is admitted to his tent, where he lies in a drunken stupor, and she kills him in his sleep.  As proof of the deed, she takes her maidservant and returns with his head to her people, telling them that now they will be able to rout the Assyrian forces.  “And when Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God, and was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this day.”  The Vulgate adds that Achior joined “with all the succession of his kindred” (Judith 14:10).

The second exception St. Thomas mentions is Ruth, a Moabite woman, the widow of a Hebrew man who had been living in Moab.  When her Hebrew mother-in-law, Naomi, prepares to return to Judah, her homeland, where she has heard that there is more food, she urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their mother’s houses and remarry, and prays that the Lord will deal kindly with them, “as you have dealt with the dead and with me” (Ruth 1:8-9).  However, Ruth insists on going with her, saying “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.  May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you" (1:16-17)  Back in Judah, Ruth uses the privilege of the poor to glean from the fields of Boaz, who is one of Naomi’s kinsmen.  Boaz, impressed with her beauty and virtue (3:11), shows kindness to her.  Eventually she asks him to exercise the duty of the next of kin to marry the widow so that the dead man’s line will not die out.  After everything is arranged with a still closer kinsman, who would normally have exercised the duty, Boaz announces to the elders and people of the village his intention to marry Ruth, and they declare,

We are witnesses.  May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.  May you prosper in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem; and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman (4:11-12).

The story of Ruth is particularly important to Christians because she is one of the remote ancestresses of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).  The startling fact that Christ’s lineage includes an assimilated Moabite foreshadows the opening of the people of God to the gentiles.  Thus, St. Peter declares that all followers of Christ, Jews and gentiles alike, regardless of earthly race and nation, are members of the one chosen people:  “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).  They are “aliens and exiles,” Peter says, not from God’s people but because they belong to God’s people, a nation on pilgrimage through the present life on the way to their true commonwealth in heaven (2:11).


One more thought:

As we see, St. Thomas acknowledges in passing that someone might protest his use of Ruth as an example of a Moabite admitted to citizenship, because, since women were ordinarily excluded from participation in deliberative and judicial powers, she would never have been a citizen in the full sense.  Indeed, he thinks there is a distinction among different senses of citizenship, which he explains a little later.  However, we should take note that some women of Israel did exert significant influence in its counsels.  Before the Hebrew people were ruled by kings in the ordinary sense, the woman Deborah, one in the line of heads who were called judges, led her nation to a great victory over the Canaanite oppressors, ushering in a time of peace (Judges 4-5).  After the people were ruled by kings in the ordinary sense, queens consort and queen mothers could also wield significant influence, as we see in the following anecdote from the reign of King Solomon.  To understand the incident we must bear in mind that Adonijah, Solomon’s half-brother, considers himself the legitimate heir of their father King David, and has already tried once to usurp power:

So Solomon sat upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was firmly established.  Then Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon.  And she said, "Do you come peaceably?"  He said, "Peaceably."  Then he said, "I have something to say to you."  She said, "Say on."  He said, "You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel fully expected me to reign; however the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the Lord.  And now I have one request to make of you; do not refuse me."  She said to him, "Say on."  And he said, "Pray ask King Solomon -- he will not refuse you -- to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife."  Bathsheba said, "Very well; I will speak for you to the king."  So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah.  And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king's mother; and she sat on his right.  Then she said, "I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me."  And the king said to her, "Make your request, my mother; for I will not refuse you."  She said, "Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to Adonijah your brother as his wife" (1 Kings 2:12-21).

Plainly, before hearing his mother Bathsheba’s request, Solomon expects that he will be able to comply with it.  As matters turn out, he cannot, for Abishag had been King David’s last concubine, and marrying her would have been a way for Adonijah to declare himself king.  Since this is Adonijah’s second attempt at the throne, Solomon has him put to death.  However, nothing in the story suggests that the counsels of Bathsheba herself do not continue to be held in honor afterward.