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Letter from the Editor

Michael D. Coogan, Editor in Chief

Michael D. Coogan

From the desk of Michael Coogan

I write this at the beginning of what in my natal tradition is the Christmas season. One of the stories in the infancy narrative in the gospel of Matthew is about the wicked King Herod, who had learned from "wise men from the East" of the birth of a "king of the Jews" in Bethlehem. Fearing a potential rival, Herod decreed that all children in Bethlehem two years old and younger be killed.

My focus here is not on the story of the Magi, which Christian tradition has expanded and elaborated—for example, Matthew does not name them or call them kings, not does he say that there were three of them: that was suggested by their three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Rather, I want to discuss refugees. Having been divinely forewarned of Herod's order, Joseph fled with Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt. This family thus became refugees.

In biblical times, as ever since, people have moved, or fled, or been deported from their place of origin. War, famine, and persecution have been the main catalysts for their departure. We find refugees and exiles repeatedly in the Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve, who were exiled from Eden and never returned there. At different times, the families of Abraham and Jacob left the Promised Land of Canaan for Egypt, and Isaac's family left Canaan for Philistine Gerar, all because of famines. For the same reason, according to the book of Ruth, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons left Bethlehem in Judah for the territory of Moab to the east. All of these people were refugees.

Runaway slaves were also refugees of a sort. According to biblical law, fugitive slaves should not be returned to their owners (Deuteronomy 23:15–16). This contrasts with other ancient Near Eastern law codes, according to which slaves are like straying animals, which finders were required to return to their owners.

From the late eighth to the early sixth centuries BCE, invading Assyrian and Babylonian armies forcibly deported large numbers of Israelites from their homelands. Nearly all the occurrences of the word for "exile" in the Hebrew Bible refer to these events. One of the reliefs from the Assyrian king Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh plaintively shows Judean refugees from the city of Lachish being exiled in 701 BCE.

On an island at the entrance to New York Harbor stands the Statue of Liberty, given to the United States by France in 1876 in commemoration of the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. In her sonnet "The New Colossus," written in 1883 to help finance its installation, Emma Lazarus named the statue "Mother of Exiles," who famously cries out "with silent lips":

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

"The New Colossus" echoes the ideals of many of the original English settlers of the United States, who viewed this country as a haven for those fleeing war, famine, and persecution. At present, the United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that there are over 65 million forcibly displaced persons in the world. But the response of the United States government to the contemporary refugee crisis has been at best token. With her silent lips, the "Mother of Exiles" now proclaims, in effect, "You are not welcome here!" It is time to return to and to reemphasize the biblical—and the American—ideal of care for those most in need—widows, orphans, resident aliens, the poor, strangers, exiles, refugees, and immigrants. "You should love the immigrant, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19; see also Exodus 23:9).

Oxford University Press

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