"To speak about any subject from the general perspective of the Bible is very complicated because the Bible is not one book representing a single period of history but a collection of 73 books which reflect the hopes and frustrations of the Jews first and then of the Christians who have varied cultural and historical background. Therefore here we will take only the Pentateuch which forms the basic verbal expression of the revelation of God to humanity and which is accepted as scripture by all the Christians, and different groups within Judaism like the Sadducees and Samaritans in the OT times and the Karaites in later times.
Through the terminology
The OT does not have a word that can be used precisely for migration, though the central message, especially of the Pentateuch, is about how God directs leads and brings to the destination a people who were on the process of migrating. The word nasa’ is sometimes translated as ‘he migrated’ in the NRSV (e.g. Gen 11:2), but this word is rendered also by many other words like ‘to travel’, ‘to make a journey’, ‘to depart’ etc. Therefore the idea of migration cannot satisfactorily be approached from a terminological point of view. Yet we should admit that the central theme of the Pentateuch is migration.
In the Creation Account
The first creation account in the book of Genesis (1:1-2:4a) is written carefully with artistic beauty and linguistic perfection. In the order of creation, we are told that everything starts from the creativity of God on the formless void (Gen 1:1). As creation proceeds God creates the light by the powerful words, “let there be light” (Gen 1:3). The light removes darkness that had filled the face of the deep (1:2) and further creation is made possible. In this process the next thing that God did was the creation of the dome to separate the water above from the water below. Then God makes the dry land by collecting the water that is below into one place. Thus there are two important creatures now- the dome (the sky) above and the sea and dry land below. This narrative about the creation of sky and earth points to the greet wisdom of the narrator. There are two aspects of the space in which the other creatures have to be placed. After these two (one above and one below) God populates these two dimensions of space with sun, moon and stars in the upper space and animals, reptiles and man in dry land and water beings in the seas in the lower space. Now everything is in its proper space and time. This may be considered as the first migration. It shows the wisdom of the narrator who sees that everything has to be in its proper space and time to survive and to multiply. Man who is created in the image and likeness of God and who was given the command to have dominion over the fish of the sea , the birds of the air, every wild animal etc (Gen 1:26) needs proper space to live in, to survive, to multiply and to have dominion over the other creatures as God has commanded him. The question of migration is to be considered against this particular background.
Migration and Ecology
Migration is intimately connected with the idea of ecology. The surroundings of human existence become vitiated by means of varied causes. Some of the causes which affect the ecology are caused by man himself, some others are due to natural reasons. The Pentateuch is full of stories which speak about the contamination of environment and the subsequent need for migration. Once the environment is contaminated and becomes unfit for a group of people to live in, it becomes necessary that they move to some other place and find proper surroundings where they can live.
The first story of such migration is the story of the first parents, Adam and Eve. God arranged everything for man to live in the Garden of Eden which he himself made and which he found to be the suitable place for man to live. Consequently God puts man in this garden assigning definite duties to him. But God did not leave man but continues to see to his needs. This continued care for man makes God aware that it is not good that man be alone (Gen 2:18). Loneliness which was a negative situation for man to continue in the garden is solved by creating the woman. Then comes another problem created by the entrance of sin. This has made the garden unsuitable for man. The consequence is that God expels them from Paradise. Here we see for the first time the human beings in the process of migration. The sin of disobedience makes man a migrant seeking another place to live in. Later another sin enters the life of man, the sin of fratricide (killing of one’s own brother). This makes Cain a fugitive migrating to the land of Nod (Gen 4:16).
Sin does not stop there. It continues and the whole human race is affected and enslaved by it and the Creator becomes “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him too his heart. So the Lord said ‘I will blot out from the earth the beings I have created-people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air” (Gen 6:6,7). The result is the flood which killed the whole living world except the few God had preserved in the ark. Those who survived now live in a new world, a recreated world. In the story of the tower of Babel is no exception. It is also a report of how the world becomes unfit for humans to live in and how they are scattered into the different parts of the world. Thus the first 11 chapters of the book Genesis contain the stories of sin and consequent migration. Here one’s own sin is the cause of migration.
Migration and Salvation History
As we come to the end of chapter 11, we see a family in the process of migration and God coming to their aid. This migration is connected with the political changes in Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen 11:28,31; 15:7; Neh9:7) (Mesopotamia) where the ancestors of Abraham were living. History tells us that some time at the end of the third or the beginning of the second millennium B.C. a people called the Elamites invaded Ur and the inhabitants of that city had to seek migration to other places. Tereh, the father of Abraham set out from Ur necessitated by this political upheaval. But God comes to their help and calls them to Canaan. Thus the history of salvation which is also the history of Israel starts. Later God tells Abraham, “to you offspring I will give land” (Gen 12: 7).
The story of migration continues. Later Abraham, in the context of severe famine in the land of Canaan, goes to Egypt. But the sin of the people there (Gen 12: 15f) makes him leave Egypt. Still later Abraham goes to Gerar and the history is repeated there (Gen 20). The same thing happens to Isaac, the son of Abraham to whom Abimelech says, “Go away from us; you have become too powerful for us” (Gen 26:16). Why Jacob escapes from Esau? Why Jacob flees from Laban? There is sin behind all these. The great exodus of the people of God from Egypt under Moses’ leadership is the last storey of the Pentateuch about migration. This was a migration arranged by God and directed by God in every step. Yet it did not reach the destination in Moses’ time, but had to wait for another leader to come, Joshua whose name means “Yahweh saves”. Yahweh saved them, indeed, under the leadership of Joshua, bringing them to the Promised Land and establishing a regular religious system to keep them always in close relationship with him. Later history of this people, especially the Babylonian exile, the destruction of the temple and city in A.D 70 tells us that migration has not ended. The present situation of the Jews in Israel with constant tension in their relationship with the Palestinians also adds new insights into the idea of migration.
What are the conclusions we can arrive at from this analysis of history? There is sin behind migration, either one’s own sin or sin of others. Sin makes co-existence impossible. In the present situation of the world, the greed of man and his selfishness males many people migrants. To have one’s land to stay in is the basic right of humans, in fact, not only of humans, but of all the creatures of God. God creates space before the other creatures. That tells the prime importance of space, a suitable environment to live in. To deny a place to live in, is sin against the Creator. Therefore it is the duty of all who believe in God to see that all humans are properly settled in suitable places. Man should not contaminate his environment. The lifestyle of man should be eco-friendly. Everybody should see that the environment is well preserved and taken care of. This is the lesson we learn from the Bible.
Fr. Philip Chempakassery
Theologian to the Seminary syro malankar of Trivandrum - India