You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9

The word ‘stranger’, as used in the verse above, has also been translated as ‘sojourner’. The meaning, while similar, is not quite the same. Would you sympathise with someone who has been in your shoes? Or would you choose to oppress them as you had once been oppressed?

The historical pattern that we’ve observed seems to favour the latter. The key matter being discussed here is that of ‘oppression’. The verse is not referring to the modern day equivalent an expatriate who lives a life of luxury and nor is it referring to a temporary visitor on a tourist visa.

It is referring specifically to the minority groups who live in the midst of a majority and have to contend with systematic persecution that is carried out by the state–much like what the Pharaoh inflicted on the Israelites.

This is no easy task for a lawmaker. Moses faced many challenges on his path. Even after his people had been freed, they went back to worshipping the golden calf; a metaphor for people going back to their old ways as they crave and hanker after what is familiar to them.

The Israelites had lived a life where they were vexed and oppressed. They were being called to remember their own bitter experiences in Egypt and show mercy to the disadvantaged.

The Israelites had hard and unreasonable labours put upon them. The law was humane in that it was asking the people to use their empathy to understand the woes of others based on what they themselves had gone through.

It was asking people to have a heart.

How do we legislate such a matter? Can we even legislate such a matter? And if we do, how can we do it meaningfully?

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant by Benjamin West

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