The Wartburg Project

August 2nd, 2017

32. Isn’t the term “aliens” confusing or offensive?

An inescapable feature of living languages is that words have particular (or we could even say peculiar) meaning and different emotional impact in different contexts. An essential part of being literate is that readers have to adjust to different meaning in different contexts.

Some people have misgivings about the translation “aliens” because they think of ET. A stronger argument against “aliens” is that it may become politically incorrect if “illegal aliens” become “undocumented workers.”

We will first comment on the words aliens and foreigners in the Bible as a whole. This is an important issue in the Old Testament, in which the distinction of these terms expresses an important legal concept. The terms foreigners and aliens and temporary residents are not synonymous or interchangeable. They are overlapping but distinct categories.

The key Old Testament term in question is ger. Here is the EHV’s Old Testament rubric: Ger should be “resident aliens” or “aliens residing among you” in its first occurrence in a context, and “aliens” thereafter, particularly in political and legal contexts. Gerim were aliens permanently living in a land other than their place of origin. The term “foreigners” is not precise enough, because it is too inclusive a term. Not all foreigners were gerim. “Temporary residents” and “sojourners” are not precise enough either, because many gerim intended to stay in Canaan permanently, but they could never become “citizens.” Take the case of Isaac—he was native-born to Israel and was not a temporary resident, but he was still a ger in the view of his neighbors.

Early in the translation process for the EHV, we were almost convinced by the ET argument to move away from the term “resident aliens,” but when we were filling out some legal documents for our project, we accidentally discovered that “resident aliens” is still the legal term used in contemporary U.S. government documents. Even as I am writing this, the dispute over President Trump’s restriction on visitors from certain countries is very heated. The relevant laws governing the dispute, which are being read in the news media, repeatedly mention “aliens.”[1] The term still describes a recognized legal category (for how long, who knows?).

In most cases, therefore, our translators should stick with “resident aliens” or “aliens” for gerim; and use “foreigner” for combinations with nakri; “strangers” for zar; and “settlers among you” or “temporary residents” for toshav. The importance of preserving these distinctions is illustrated in the last verses of Exodus 12:

43These are the regulations for the Passover: No foreigner is to eat of it. 44Any slave you have bought may eat of it after you have circumcised him, 45but a temporary resident and a hired worker may not eat of it. … 48An alien living among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part, like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat of it. 49The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.

Foreigners and temporary residents could not eat the Passover; circumcised resident aliens could. NIV, NRSV, and now CSB, are almost the only other translations observing this distinction in Exodus 12, but they do not follow it consistently elsewhere. In some contexts, foreigner is not as precise as alien, so both terms must be used.

The legal distinction is less important in New Testament passages like 1 Peter 2:11, which is making a comparison rather than a legal distinction: “I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” [2] Even here, the terms “aliens” and “temporary residents” express a Christian’s relationship to the world more precisely than terms like “strangers” and “refugees.”

There are many terms that might initially be confusing to readers because of the use or misuse of those terms in other contexts, but when it is necessary to observe precise distinctions, a translation must use the proper term and, if necessary, use footnotes to help readers understand. Fuller explanation sometimes must be left for study Bibles.


[1] In this U.S. Law Code, the term “alien” is used 355 times: For example, the President of the United States read this paragraph to the press: “Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or non-immigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.” The term “alien” is a proper legal term, a technical term of law.

[2] This is the only place the term “alien” is used in the EHV New Testament.