The Gēr in the Pentateuch and the Book of Mormon

Refugee Treatment under the Mosaic Law

Krystal V. L. Pierce

Krystal V. L. Pierce, “The Gēr in the Pentateuch and the Book of Mormon: Refugee Treatment under the Mosaic Law,” in Covenant of Compassion: Caring for the Marginalized and Disadvantaged in the Old Testament, ed. Avram R. Shannon, Gaye Strathearn, George A Pierce, and Joshua M. Sears (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 353‒82.

Krystal V. L. Pierce is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

The Hebrew word gēr (גר) in the Old Testament has been translated as “stranger,” “alien,” “foreigner,” and, most recently, “refugee.” Passages within the Pentateuch explicitly stipulated the treatment of the gēr under the Mosaic law, especially within the Covenant (Exodus 21–23), Deuteronomic (Deuteronomy 1–34), and Holiness Codes (Leviticus 17–26). The use of the term gēr typically referred to a displaced person, either a refugee of the northern kingdom of Israel displaced by the Assyrian invasion, an internally displaced Judahite, or a displaced foreigner from another kingdom. Simply put, gēr were those who had left their settlement land and kinship ties to live in a new place, which left them landless and dependent.[1] These refugees were no longer protected under personal citizenship or inheritance laws and were therefore vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

This description of displaced persons can also apply to certain groups of people in the Book of Mormon, including the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and their children, Zoramites, Lamanite royal servants, and Lamanite soldiers, all of whom were discussed in the book of Alma. The treatment of these refugee groups might have been influenced by the stipulations outlined in the Mosaic law, which was included in the brass plates. In this paper, the social, judicial, and religious laws concerning the gēr in the Pentateuch will be discussed in relation to the narratives surrounding the above-mentioned groups of refugees found in the book of Alma. The treatment of the gēr in the Book of Mormon will be analyzed according to these laws, demonstrating that the people of the Book of Mormon not only followed the Mosaic law regarding the gēr but went even further to provide protection, inclusion, and compassion toward these displaced and vulnerable groups.

Sources of the Mosaic Law

In order to establish if the gēr laws of the Pentateuch were followed in the Book of Mormon, we must first assess the sources of the Mosaic law for the people of the Book of Mormon. One of the reasons the Lehites brought the brass plates with them to the promised land was so they could “keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses,” because “the law was engraven upon the plates of brass” (1 Nephi 4:15–16; see 5:11). The brass plates are mentioned numerous times throughout the rest of the Book of Mormon, including in the book of Alma, where Alma gave the plates to his son Helaman (37:3).[2]

Early in the Book of Mormon, the Nephites followed the judgments, statutes, and commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses (2 Nephi 5:10). Observance of the Mosaic law continued throughout the Book of Mormon until the appearance of Jesus Christ to the Nephites, when the law was fulfilled and reinterpreted (3 Nephi 9:17; 12:17–19; 15:1–10; 25:4; 4 Nephi 1:12; Ether 12:11).[3] In the book of Alma, the Nephites were “strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses” (Alma 30:3). The Mosaic law was also mentioned in association with two refugee groups found in the Book of Mormon. In Alma 25:15–16, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies were described as keeping the law of Moses, and in Alma 34:13–14, the missionary Amulek taught the law to the Zoramites, who had not been observing it (31:9).[4]

It is clear that the brass plates contained the law of Moses and that the Nephites, and sometimes other groups, tried to follow the law in the Book of Mormon. However, the exact relationship between the five books of Moses in the brass plates and the current canonical form of the Pentateuch in the Old Testament is less clear. The Mosaic laws concerning the gēr are found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, sections of these four books were written, collated, and edited during different periods in the history of Israel.[5] Only the gēr laws found in Exodus and certain sections of Deuteronomy can be securely dated by scholars to time periods prior to the departure of the Lehites from Jerusalem, thus making it possible for the gēr laws to have been part of the law in the brass plates.[6]

Definitions of Gēr in the Pentateuch

The nominative form of the Hebrew word gēr in the Pentateuch has been translated as “stranger,” “alien,” “foreigner,” “immigrant,” and “refugee.”[7] These designations are typically based on a specific social and historical context that is also tangentially related to the composition and redaction history of the text. Three main sociohistorical theories are used to define the provenance of the gēr in Exodus and in the Deuteronomic Core. The most widely accepted theory posits that the gēr represents a person who comes from a non-Israelite and non-Judahite kingdom. These foreigners immigrated to Judah and Israel because of the Assyrian deportations that affected Philistia, Egypt, Assyria, and the Transjordan in the seventh century BC.[8]

A second sociohistorical theory defining the gēr is also related to the Assyrian conquest but focuses on the invasion of the northern kingdom circa 721 BC. In this theory, the gēr represents an individual from Samaria who fled south into the kingdom of Judah in the wake of the Assyrian destruction of the north.[9] The third and final theory about the provenance of the gēr advocates that the term refers to Judahites who have been internally displaced from their own home because of invasion or indebtedness. This could be related to Sennacherib’s campaign around 701 BC, when massive domestic displacement in Judah gave rise to a large class of poor and landless people, or even earlier in the eighth century BC, when Judah’s movement toward more extensive structures of statehood led to increased social stratification and more permanent indebtedness.[10]

Recently, several scholars have demonstrated that not one of the three sociohistorical theories defining the gēr adequately covers all the contexts in which the term is used in the Pentateuch. As for the first theory (when gēr refers to “foreigners”), migration patterns and archaeological excavations have shown that only a small number of non-Israelites were living in Judah and Israel during the seventh century BC.[11] The second and third theories (when gēr refers to northern Israelites fleeing south or displaced Judahites, respectively) pose problems as well because the Deuteronomic conception of kinship between Israel and Judah would not lead to a designation of every Israelite or Judahite as “other” in Judah.[12]

Biblical scholar Mark Glanville has recently argued that the definition of gēr in the Hebrew Bible should include varying numbers of individuals representing each of the three sociohistorical theories. Since there is not an exclusive provenance for the gēr, Glanville provides a more comprehensive definition of the gēr as “people who have been displaced from their former kinship group and patrimony and from the protection that kinship and land affords and who seek sustenance in a new context.”[13] Furthermore, these displaced individuals have left their homes because of life- or freedom-threatening events yet are still susceptible to oppression, exploitation, or forced bondage in their new land. Today, the official term for a person falling under these definitions is refugee.[14]

Definitions of Gēr in the Book of Mormon

There are at least five groups in the book of Alma that could be designated as gēr according to the definitions discussed above. These groups include the Anti-Nephi-Lehies (Alma 35; 43; 47; 53–58; 62; Helaman 3) and their children (53–58), the Zoramites (31–35; 43), the Lamanite royal servants (46–47), and the Lamanite soldiers (62). Persons from each of these groups were displaced from their original homes and kinship groups because of life-threatening violence or bondage and sought sustenance, inheritance, and safety in a new location.

In the first year of the reign of the judges, the sons of Mosiah began a mission in the land of Nephi that led to the conversion of thousands of Lamanites (Alma 17:4–6). The converts chose to be called by a new name, “Anti-Nephi-Lehies,” and entered into a covenant to no longer shed blood (23:16–17; 24:15–18). As a result of this covenant, many were killed by other Lamanites who hoped to “destroy the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi” (24:20–22; 25:5–7; 27:2–3). The Anti-Nephi-Lehies escaped out of the land of Nephi and were allowed to enter Nephite territory, where they were given the land of Jershon (27:14; 28:26). Although the Anti-Nephi-Lehies were “among the people of Nephi” for at least thirty-one years, they always retained their unique refugee identity—for example, they never referred to themselves as Nephites and were never called Nephites by others (27:27). The Nephites typically gave them the designation of “the people of Ammon” or “the Ammonites”[15] and repeatedly mentioned their Lamanite history and ancestry (53:10; 56:3; Helaman 3:12).

The Anti-Nephi-Lehies were also refugees in the sense of being vulnerable in their new home. Although there is no evidence of Nephite abuse against them, the refugees worried that the Nephites would “destroy” them because of the violent history between the Nephites and Lamanites and even offered to become slaves to the Nephites (Alma 27:6–8). It must have been difficult for some Nephites to accept the arrival of the Lamanite refugees, especially those who had previously suggested to Ammon that the Nephites should “take up arms against [the Lamanites], that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land” (26:25).

The next group from the book of Alma that could fall under the definition of gēr was from the Zoramites, a group of Nephite dissenters who had left the land of Zarahemla (Alma 30:59; 31:8). In the seventeenth year of the reign of the judges, Alma, Amulek, and five other Nephites began a mission among the Zoramites (30:6). They were successful among the poorer Zoramites (32:2), but the “more popular part of the Zoramites” became angry because many of the teachings focused on an egalitarian system of worship that removed power and control from the current civil and religious leaders (35:3). These Zoramite rulers, priests, and teachers searched through the people to discover who believed the teachings of the missionaries, and “those who were in favor of the words which had been spoken by Alma and his brethren were cast out of the land; and they were many” (35:3–6). The Zoramite refugees then joined the Anti-Nephi-Lehies in the land of Jershon (35:6).

The Zoramite refugees continued to be vulnerable in their new home because the Zoramite leaders demanded that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies cast the recent refugees out of Jershon and because the Zoramite rulers then joined with the Lamanites for war (Alma 35:8–9, 11). The Lamanites appointed the Zoramite leaders to become chief captains in the army to “preserve their hatred” (43:6–7). Eventually the Zoramite refugees, along with the Anti-Nephi-Lehi refugees, had to leave their new home in Jershon because of life- and freedom-threatening danger (35:13). Additionally, the Zoramite refugees remained at risk because they were not likely welcomed by every Nephite, especially since the Zoramites from which they had fled believed that they had been elected by God and would therefore be saved, while the Nephites would be cast “down to hell” because of their “foolish traditions” (31:16–17).

In the following year, another group of possible gēr emerged among the Lamanites in the land of Nephi. Amalickiah, a Nephite dissenter, had joined the Lamanites and had become one of their military commanders (Alma 46:7; 47:1, 3). Amalickiah desired the Lamanite throne, so he had one of his followers assassinate the Lamanite king (47:22–24). The Lamanite royal servants, however, were blamed for the king’s death, and Amalickiah told the Lamanites to “go forth, and pursue his servants that they may be slain” (47:26–27). The servants escaped into the wilderness and eventually traveled to the land of Zarahemla, where they “joined the people of Ammon” and the Zoramite refugees (47:29). A decade later, one of the Lamanite royal servants, who was named Laman, was mentioned as a solider in the army of Moroni. Moroni had appointed the refugee Laman to help liberate Nephite prisoners from the Lamanites in the land of Nephi (55:5–23).

The war between the Lamanites and the Nephites continued for thirteen years, and many Nephites died protecting the Anti-Nephi-Lehi refugees, who would not defend themselves because of their covenant to not shed blood. However, two thousand of their sons, who had not entered into that covenant, joined together to “fight for the liberty of the Nephites” under the command of Helaman (Alma 53:16–19). Although these refugee sons “called themselves Nephites” and considered Nephite territory to be “their country,” they seem to have retained some of their refugee identity among the Nephites (53:16, 18). In Helaman’s letter to Moroni, he referred to the sons as “stripling Ammonites” or “those sons of the people of Ammon,” identified them as “descendants of Laman,” and mentioned their Lamanite history of “unbelief” (56:3–4, 57; 57:6; 58:39).[16] Although the Anti-Nephi-Lehi refugees had escaped life- and freedom-threatening events over a decade earlier, their vulnerability was still present because they had to rely on their sons to “protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage” (53:17).

One more large group of possible gēr in the book of Alma consists of over four thousand Lamanite soldiers and prisoners (Alma 62:17, 29). In the thirty-first year of the reign of the judges, Moroni and Pahoran marched their army toward the city of Nephihah, which was controlled by the Lamanites. On the way, they came across a large group of Lamanite soldiers, many of whom “were caused . . . [by the Nephites] to enter into a covenant that they would no more take up their weapons of war against the Nephites” (62:15–16). About four thousand of these Lamanite refugees were sent to live with “the people of Ammon,” who had already been joined by the Zoramite refugees and the Lamanite royal servant refugees (62:17). After Moroni and Pahoran conquered Nephihah, many of the Lamanite prisoners from the city were also allowed to “join the people of Ammon and become a free people” (62:27–28). For the Nephites to accept these Lamanite soldiers into their territory and trust them in the middle of war must have been challenging.

All five of the aforementioned groups in the Book of Mormon fit under the general definition of gēr from the Pentateuch. Mosaic laws concerning the gēr found in Exodus and the Deuteronomic Core cover social, judicial, and religious issues. Because the Book of Mormon does not contain large sections of law code like the Pentateuch, establishing whether the Nephites followed the Mosaic law in their treatment of the gēr must instead be discovered by examining the narratives of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and their sons, the Zoramites, the Lamanite royal servants, and the Lamanite soldier refugees.

The Gēr in Social Law

The social law grouping of the Mosaic law in Exodus 22:20 through 23:9 and in the Deuteronomic Core (Deuteronomy 14:22–29; 15:1–18; 24:17; 26:12–15) focused on the ethics of protecting the most vulnerable in the community from exploitation surrounding labor and production. Social laws concerning the gēr can be separated into four categories: oppression, employment, participation, and motivation. The most common social stipulation concerning the gēr simply stated that they must not be oppressed. The Hebrew verbs translated as “oppress” in these verses, laḥas (Exodus 22:21; 23:9), yānāh (Exodus 22:21), and ‘asaq (Deuteronomy 24:14), also meant “vex,” “maltreat,” or “extort,” and typically referred to the exploitation of a weaker party for economic gain.[17]

In the Deuteronomic Core, prohibiting the oppression of the gēr specifically referred to protecting a refugee who had been hired for employment “in thy land within thy gates,” which could denote an individual’s own settlement, village, or city or somewhere nearby (Deuteronomy 24:14–15).[18] The law stipulated that hirelings should be paid for their labor before the sun went down on the day they worked, due to an ongoing dependence on a daily wage for survival or the need to pay off outstanding debts. The law required that the hired gēr be treated the same as hired “brethren,” which incorporated the refugee into the Deuteronomic brother-sister ethic of justice and compassion for kindred.[19] The gēr had been uprooted from their own land and kindred and should therefore be treated as part of the local kin grouping, upon which they were dependent for their livelihood.

The Deuteronomic brother-sister ethic was also related to the inclusion of the gēr as an active participant in the community. The social laws concerning the gēr in the Deuteronomic Core stipulated that the harvest residue should be given to the refugee, orphan, and widow (Deuteronomy 24:19–21). According to the law, the landowner should not return to the field, orchard, or vineyard to gather the leftover grain, olives, or grapes after the initial harvest, but the landowner should instead allow vulnerable individuals to glean produce for themselves. The “triad of the vulnerable,” which includes the refugee, orphan, and widow, represented those who are without kindred, land, or sustenance.[20] The Mosaic law attempted to alter the status of these impoverished people, including the gēr, by fostering their inclusion as kindred and participants in the community.

The gleaning law was not only just a matter of charity but also an example of case law with “governing primary rights and duties,” in which it was the right of the gēr to possess the residue and it was the duty of the landowner to allow possession.[21] Allowing the gēr to harvest and “own” the residual produce provided some means of self-sustainability and provisioning of valuable resources. A further social food law stipulated that any unclean meat should be given to the gēr, because “holy people unto the Lord” should not consume it.[22] While some scholars have grappled with the “deliberate tension in this text between dynamics of inclusion . . . and the otherness of the gēr that is signified in the eating of the [unclean meat],” this tension disappears in the Joseph Smith Translation of the verse, which clarified that the unclean meat should “not” be given to the gēr.[23] Therefore, this refugee food law not only included the gēr as part of the Lord’s holy people but also commanded that they should receive a portion of the divine supply of clean meat.

Each set of social, judicial, and religious gēr laws was accompanied by one or more motivation clauses to inspire obedience to the law. These clauses typically related the purpose of the law and outlined associated blessings or punishments. The overarching motivation clause for the social laws concerning the gēr was related to the Egypt-Exodus motif. In the Covenant Code, the readers of the Mosaic law were reminded that they were once “strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21; 23:9), and according to the Deuteronomic Core, they were “bondm[e]n in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:22). Because the Israelites experienced the hardships surrounding oppression and slavery while foreigners in Egypt, they should not permit foreigners in their own land to be treated in the same way. If the Israelites do, the Lord will hear the cries of the oppressed and punish the oppressors, just as he punished the Egyptians (Deuteronomy 24:15). In this way, the Lord fulfills the role of the divine judge in the legal system of the Mosaic law.

The social stipulations concerning the gēr in the Mosaic law focused on the freedom, subsistence, employment, and protection of the refugee. Social laws concerning the freedom of the gēr are found in relation to the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the Lamanite soldiers, and the Zoramites. When the Anti-Nephi-Lehies offered to become the slaves of the Nephites so that they could live among the Nephites, Ammon stated that his father, King Mosiah, had established an antislavery law among the Nephites (Alma 27:8–9). This law was referenced in Mosiah 29, where the king declared that “this land [should] be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike” (Mosiah 29:32). A similar law was referenced in the book of Alma, stating that “all men were on equal grounds” (Alma 30:11; see 30:7). The Lamanite soldier refugees were also described as “a free people” (62:27). Although the Anti-Nephi-Lehi and Zoramite refugees were initially settled in Jershon, the refugees had the freedom to leave the city and move elsewhere (35:13; Helaman 3:12).

The Egypt-Exodus motif used as motivation for the gēr social laws in the Pentateuch is also found in the Book of Mormon. Not only did Nephi and Abinadi mention the “bondage” of Egypt (1 Nephi 19:10; Mosiah 12:34), but Alma also referenced the “bondage and captivity” of Egypt to his son Helaman (Alma 36:28).[24] However, the book of Alma introduced a novel motivation for establishing and maintaining freedom among the Nephites. After Alma mentioned the “bondage and captivity” of Egypt to Helaman, he supplemented it with the idea of the Lehites escaping the “bondage and captivity” of Jerusalem to come to a free land. After speaking about the Anti-Nephi-Lehi refugees, Ammon possibly referenced the gēr social laws of the Covenant Code; however, instead of citing that they were “strangers in the land of Egypt,” he mentioned that they were still “wanderers in a strange land” (Alma 26:36). The motivation for keeping the gēr (and the Nephites) free not only came from the reminder that their ancestors were once strangers and slaves in Egypt but also came from the knowledge that they were in bondage in Jerusalem and were still strangers even in their day.

An important aspect of the social laws concerning the gēr in the Deuteronomic Core was caring for the impoverished, which included the refugee, orphan, and widow. A similar essence of social law charity was also found in the treatment of the most destitute group of refugees in the Book of Mormon, the Zoramites, who were persecuted in their own land because of their “exceeding poverty” (Alma 32:5). After the Zoramites were cast out of their land and became refugees in the land of Zarahemla, not only did the Nephites “minister unto them” but the Anti-Nephi-Lehies also nourished and clothed them and administered to them (35:7, 9). Amulek taught the Zoramites that caring for the needy, the naked, the sick, and the afflicted was an important part of religious worship (34:28–28).

The Mosaic law surrounding refugees not only focused on charity for the impoverished but also sought to help them with the means for self-sufficiency and protection from exploitation in employment. When the Anti-Nephi-Lehies left their land for Zarahemla, Ammon and the other sons of Mosiah helped them gather their flocks and herds to take with them, which allowed for some pastoral means of support for the refugees (Alma 27:14). Once the Anti-Nephi-Lehies reached Zarahemla, the Nephites gave the land of Jershon “for an inheritance” to the refugees, who later also gave some of that land to the Zoramite gēr “for their inheritance” (27:22, 26; 35:9, 14; 43:12). Under the Mosaic law, the inheritance land gift was a legally binding contract that gave a man and his descendants the right to occupy and possess the land in perpetuity.[25] Owning these lands meant that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and Zoramites could provide for their own subsistence.

As was commonly described in the social laws of the Covenant Code and Deuteronomic Core, refugees in the Book of Mormon also worked for the local inhabitants in their new land and therefore required protection from exploitation and oppression. The Anti-Nephi-Lehies gave the Nephites a “large portion of their substance,” and the Lamanite soldier refugees also worked for the Nephites by tilling the ground, raising grain, and herding flocks so that the Nephites were “relieved from a great burden” (Alma 27:24; 43:13; 62:29). Although these arrangements could appear imbalanced and oppressive, the Nephites used these payments to help maintain their armies, who continually offered protection, suffered “afflictions and tribulations,” and even gave their lives for the refugees (27:24; 53:12–13).[26] Some of the gēr in the Book of Mormon were also employed in the Nephite army, including the Zoramites, the sons of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, and the Lamanite royal servants (35:14; 53:17–18; 55:4–5).

The Gēr in Judicial Law

The judicial laws in the Deuteronomic Core provided further provision for the gēr in the sphere of procedural law, granting them full recourse in the legal system. Previous to the Mosaic law, a displaced and impoverished individual was not provided with legal rights and was therefore vulnerable to abuse in the courts.[27] The legal vulnerability and perilous relationship with judiciary proceedings in the Old Testament were evidenced in the stories of Lot and the men of Sodom (Genesis 19:9), the wife-sister narratives of the ancestors in Egypt (Genesis 12:10–20; 26:6–11), Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1–29), and the prophet Amos (Amos 5:10–13). The function of the judicial law was to use a relative egalitarianism to fortify the legal process against the influence of those with power.

The judicial law found in Deuteronomy 24:17 provided protection for refugees in legal procedure, instructing that “thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the [gēr],” nor the orphan nor the widow. The law was addressed to the whole community, including judges, litigants, and witnesses, while the verb nāṭā (“pervert,” or also meaning “stretch out” or “bend”) was associated with misguiding justice and parity in judicial process.[28] Individuals in the triad of the vulnerable, especially refugees, were to receive equal and fair treatment under the law, which may be “the clearest requirement of [the gēr’s] inclusion in the public life of Israel.”[29]

As with social laws concerning the gēr, judicial laws of the Deuteronomic Core were also accompanied by a motivation clause connected with the Egypt-Exodus motif (Deuteronomy 24:18). However, the motivation clause referenced in judicial law moved a step beyond an aide-mémoire of the bondage in Egypt to a new focus concerning the Lord’s deliverance and redemption from that slavery. Because God had liberated their ancestors (the Israelites) from captivity in a foreign land, refugees must also be saved and protected from bondage while in their new land. The defenselessness of the gēr was emphasized, along with the associated blessings that were promised to those who work to keep refugees free from bondage. If the gēr can successfully and continually be delivered from freedom- and life-threatening events, the Lord will also continue to save and redeem the liberators from oppression.

Aspects regarding refugees in the Deuteronomic judicial law can be found in the Book of Mormon, especially among the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and their children. In Alma 30, the anti-Christ Korihor traveled among the Nephites prevaricating, falsely accusing civil and religious leaders, reviling priests and teachers, and blaspheming against God, all of which were punishable crimes under Nephite (and Mosaic) law (Alma 30:12–60).[30] When Korihor arrived in Jershon and continued to break the law, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies arrested him and took him to the local high priest, who banished Korihor from their land (30:19–21). The refugees must have had enough legal rights and recourse to have been able to arrest Korihor—who may have been a Nephite[31]—and bring him to be judged by their high priest.[32] Under the law of Moses, witnesses who falsely accused an individual of a crime could suffer the same punishments as the guilty party for the accused crime (Deuteronomy 19:15–19). Thus it is remarkable that the vulnerable Anti-Nephi-Lehi gēr were the first not only to arrest Korihor but also to follow through with his judgment and punishment, leading Alma to state that “they were more wise than many of the Nephites” (Alma 30:20).

The Egypt-Exodus motivation clause that was integral to the judicial law concerning the gēr in the Pentateuch was also present in the Book of Mormon. Nephi mentioned and used the concept of ancestral deliverance from Egyptian bondage as motivation several times, as did Limhi and Abinadi.[33] The same motif continued throughout the book of Alma, where both Alma and Moroni reminded the Nephites of the Lord’s deliverance of their ancestors from bondage and captivity in Egypt (Alma 29:11–12; 36:28; 60:20). Because their ancestors were redeemed from slavery while foreigners, the Nephites must also liberate and protect the foreign refugees from events that would threaten their freedom or lives.

The most extreme parallel example of deliverance and protection of refugees were Ammon and the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who, because of their covenant not to shed blood, were completely defenseless against the other Lamanites in their homeland. When these Lamanites began to oppress the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the Lord commanded Ammon to “get this people out of this land, that they perish not” (Alma 27:12). Ammon became a Moses-like figure, not only in physically leading the people out of danger and through the wilderness but also in spiritually mediating between the people and the Lord through Ammon’s supplication. Ammon and Alma also facilitated the “reception and safety” of the refugees among the Nephites, who voted to allow the admittance of the refugees and to give them land because they “would not suffer that they should be destroyed” (28:8; 43:12). The Nephites placed their armies between the land of the Anti-Nephi-Lehi gēr and the Lamanites and protected them for decades (53:10–12).

Eventually, the refugee sons themselves engaged in the fight to “protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage,” which was an ever-present threat from the Lamanites (Alma 53:17). However, as in the Egypt-Exodus motivation clause, the sons and their Nephite leaders fully acknowledged the role of the Lord in the refugees’ original and continued deliverance. The sons were taught by their Anti-Nephi-Lehi mothers that God would deliver them, and the sons stood “fast in that liberty wherewith God ha[0] made them free” (56:47; 57:21; 58:40). In his letter to Moroni, Helaman repeatedly stated that it was God who had “delivered” and would continue to “deliver” the refugee sons from their enemies (57:35–36; 58:11, 37). Even after the wars with the Lamanites had ceased and there was peace among the Nephites, Mormon recalled that it was the Lord who had “delivered them from death, and from bonds,” again referencing the divine role in their deliverance from freedom- and life-threatening situations—as found in the motivation clause for judicial law concerning the gēr (62:50).

The Gēr in Religious Law

In the Pentateuch, religious law concerning the gēr focused on transforming the relationship between refugees and their new community in terms of worship and kinship. An ethic of inclusion for the gēr in relation to religious and household concerns was embedded in the Egypt-Exodus motivation clause associated with preservation. Religious laws embracing the gēr included the third-year provision of the tithe, two harvest celebrations, and the Festival of the Firstfruits. Instructions regarding the gēr and the third-year tithe notably frame the Deuteronomic Core (Deuteronomy 14:28–29; 26:12–15). The Mosaic law stipulated that a tithe of one tenth of production should be paid annually to the temple; however, every third and sixth year, the tithe should be stored in the community for the ongoing sustenance of vulnerable or landless people, including the refugee, the orphan, the widow, and the Levite.[34]

The law of the third-year tithe also required that the gēr should “eat [within thy gates] and be satisfied,” demonstrating that the allotment of the tithe to the gēr was not just about charity but was also about inclusive household feasting and community kinship (Deuteronomy 14:29; 26:12). In the ancient Near East, communal feasting broke down social stratification and forged powerful brother-sister-type relationships.[35] The gēr became part of the localized family structure in partaking of household produce, and they also became part of the religious community through the consumption of the “hallowed things” of the temple (26:13). The holiness of the sacred portion was transferred to the refugee so that “the fact that [gēr] are allowed to consume the sacred portion . . . is explained on the grounds that they are regarded as members of the covenant community.”[36] This theology of “corporate holiness” demonstrated that the gēr were part of the fellowship of the Lord.[37]

The gēr were also included in the Mosaic law instructions regarding the Deuteronomic festival calendar (Deuteronomy 16:1–17). Refugees were incorporated as participants in the Feast of Weeks (16:9–12) and the Feast of Tabernacles (16:13–15), which were harvest festivals for the community to celebrate the Lord’s provision and blessings of agricultural abundance. These pilgrimage festivals forged a communal identity for those who belonged to the people of the Lord. The law specified that the guest list should include children, servants, Levites, gēr, orphans, and widows (16:11, 14). The inclusion of refugees as participants enfolded the gēr into the nuclear family as brother or sister, thus overcoming differences in origin, culture, social status, and wealth.[38] Refugees not only became part of the family but were also “grafted” into the nation and people of the Lord, so that “fictive kinship became kinship of the flesh or blood.”[39]

The gēr were also listed among the religious laws surrounding the Deuteronomic Festival of the Firstfruits (Deuteronomy 26:1–11). During this festival, the participants returned the firstfruits of the harvest to the Lord in a ritual of thanksgiving that focused on the gifts of abundance and life. Unlike the harvest festivals, the list of participants only included the household and landless Levites and refugees, demonstrating that refugees played a special role in the celebration (26:11). The gēr were incorporated as coheirs of the divine blessings of the land and its produce, which were a significant part of the brother-sister ethic embedded in the theology of the land gift, especially for landless refugees.[40]

During the Festival of the Firstfruits, participants carried the basket of firstfruits on a pilgrimage journey from the farm to the sanctuary, where the food was given to the priest to set on the altar of the Lord (Deuteronomy 26:1–4). The participants would then recite aspects of the Exodus narrative, including the Israelites’ wandering, sojourning, enslavement, deliverance, preservation, and finding of the promised land, most of which had been symbolically reenacted through the pilgrimage (26: 5–9). The motivation clause of the Egypt-Exodus motif associated the displaced gēr with Israel’s own displacement in Egypt. Because the Lord emancipated and preserved vulnerable Israel through the wanderings in the wilderness, the lives of vulnerable refugees should also be preserved through Israel, who “always remains a redeemed community, a receiving community.”[41] As part of the Firstfruits Festival and the Exodus narrative, the Lord stood as divine king, judge, liberator, and protector of displaced peoples, continually hearing their cries and preserving their lives (26:7–8).

Although none of the festivals of the Pentateuch were specifically mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon and although the tithe was only referenced twice, the treatment of the gēr in the Book of Mormon followed the Mosaic law in transforming relationships of kinship and worship.[42] The motivation clause of the Egypt-Exodus preservation motif associated with the Festival of the Firstfruits was also referenced several times in the Book of Mormon, in which the Lord was credited with preserving the lives of the children of Israel against the Egyptian armies and while wandering in the wilderness.[43] The gēr of the Book of Mormon were perfectly aligned with this motif in the book of Alma, in which Ammon referred to himself and the Anti-Nephi-Lehies as “wanderers in a strange land” but that God “has been mindful of us” (Alma 26:36). Like Moses, the Lord also spoke to Ammon about facilitating the preservation of oppressed people: Ammon was told to “get this people [the Anti-Nephi-Lehies] out of this land, that they perish not; . . . for I will preserve them” (27:12).

After the refugees reached their new land, the preservation motif of the Festival of the Firstfruits continued with Helaman and the sons of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, who, like Joshua and the Israelites,[44] believed that “God would deliver them” and that “he will not suffer that we should fall” in their fight against the enemy (Alma 56:46–47; see 58:37). The Lord not only delivered the refugee sons frequently from the Lamanites, but also preserved the sons’ lives throughout many battles; indeed, “not one soul of them . . . did perish” (57:25; 58:39). Because many Nephites were killed in these same battles, the sons’ “preservation was astonishing to [the] whole army,” who “justly ascribe[0] it to the miraculous power of God” (57:26). The Egypt-Exodus motivation clause from the religious category of the Mosaic laws was clearly present among the gēr in the Book of Mormon, as were the themes of kinship and worship reflected in the third-year tithe and harvest festivals of the Pentateuch.

The religious laws concerning the gēr in the Deuteronomic Core focused on enfolding the gēr into the nation and family of the Lord. These themes of inclusion and the brother-sister ethic were also present throughout the treatment of the refugees in the Book of Mormon. The Nephites not only allowed the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the Zoramites, the Lamanite royal servants, and the Lamanite soldier refugees to enter their territory, but also gave some of them land “for their inheritance” (Alma 27:22; 35:9, 14). In this way, the Nephites went beyond the mere stipulation that the gēr partake of the produce from the Lord’s land gift (as found in the Festival of the Firstfruits) and actually provided an inheritance land gift for the refugees, thus allowing them to literally become coheirs to the Lord’s blessing of the land gift. While the Anti-Nephi-Lehies never referred to themselves as Nephites, their sons considered themselves to be Nephites and Nephite land to be “their country” (53:16, 18; 56:5). Helaman also included the sons in his reference to the “people of Nephi,” showing that the refugees had been grafted into the nation (56:54).

The gēr of the Book of Mormon became kindred of the Nephites, not only through the land gift and incorporation into the nation, but also through more personal and familial associations. Ammon, Alma, and Amulek all spoke of their love for the refugees, calling them “dearly beloved” and “beloved brethren” numerous times.[45] The legacy of this affection was even mentioned over four centuries later, when Mormon described the “exceeding love which Ammon and his brethren had” for the refugees (Alma 53:11). Many more examples of how the Nephites demonstrated their love for the refugees have already been discussed, but nothing was more powerful than the Nephites giving up their own lives to protect the refugees, treating them as though they belonged to the Nephites’ own nuclear families. Helaman formed a special kinship with the sons of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, continually referring to them as “my . . . sons, (for they are worthy to be called sons),” and the sons in turn called Helaman “father” (56:10, 17, 27, 30, 39, 44, 46; 57:22). The display of familial kinship toward the refugees of the Book of Mormon reflects the theology of inclusivism that the religious laws outlined in the Pentateuch.

In the Book of Mormon, the integration of the gēr into Nephite religious life would have been imperative since many of the refugees had been “converted unto the Lord” (Alma 23:6), as were some of the gēr in the Pentateuch.[46] Ammon rejoiced in the missionary work that brought the Anti-Nephi-Lehies to the Lord, commenting that they were no longer “strangers to God” (26:9). It is possible that a double entendre was meant in this statement about the refugees, since the Hebrew word gēr was translated as “stranger” in the KJV, as was the Late Egyptian loan-word qar, and so, the translation of “stranger” may also have been used in the Book of Mormon.[47] In this way, the refugees were no longer “strangers” to the Nephites or the Lord. As in the religious law stipulating that the gēr consume the holy third-year tithe, the refugees of the Book of Mormon became members of the covenant community and “people of the Lord” (27:5, 14).

According to the Mosaic code, the gēr in the Pentateuch were integrated into the worship and celebration of the Lord through participation in the harvest festivals held in the households and sanctuary of Israel. After the Anti-Nephi-Lehies reached their new land, the Nephites supported the refugees’ worship of the Lord through establishing a church in Jershon and numbering the gēr “among the people who were of the church of God” (Alma 27:27; 28:1). The Nephites also continually sustained the Anti-Nephi-Lehi refugees in keeping their unique covenant with the Lord to not shed blood, “lest they should commit sin” (27:23). When the refugees desired to take up weapons and fight in the war, they were “overpowered by the persuasions” of Helaman, so that they would not break their covenant with the Lord (53:14–15).


It appears that the Nephites attempted to follow the Mosaic law concerning the gēr in the appropriate treatment of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, the Zoramites, the Lamanite royal servants, the children of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, and the displaced Lamanite soldiers, which were groups of refugees discussed in the book of Alma. Under the social category of the law of Moses, the Nephites protected the gēr from oppression and exploitation in employment, while also promoting the refugees’ self-sustainability and allowing their full participation in the community. Judicially, the refugees were permitted full recourse in the legal system, which also prohibited abuse of the vulnerable. The Nephites especially followed the Mosaic law’s religious stipulations concerning the gēr and fully transformed the relationship of the refugees with the Nephite community in terms of inclusion into the nation, family, and covenant people of the Lord.

The Nephites also seemed to be aware of the Egypt-Exodus motivation clauses attached to the social, judicial, and religious laws of the gēr in the law of Moses. In the Book of Mormon, this motif was continually referenced in relation to the Israelites’ enslavement and oppression in Egypt, divine deliverance and redemption, wanderings and preservation in the wilderness, and arrival in the promised land. The Nephites possibly understood these motivation clauses and their association with the correct treatment of refugees in liberating and protecting them from internal or external enslavement and oppression, as well as relying on and thanking the Lord for assistance. The motivation clauses inspired obedience not only through a shared cultural history but also through the many temporal and spiritual blessings that the Nephites received from their compassionate treatment of refugees. Some of these blessings included the Nephites receiving a “great support” with provisions, warfare, labor, and sustenance, as well as becoming a “highly favored people of the Lord” (Alma 27:30; 53:19; 56:8, 19).

The social, judicial, and religious gēr laws in the Covenant Code and Deuteronomic Core were meant to promote social reform in Israel’s community. The purpose of the stipulations was “not to reproduce a book of statutory law but [to] radically reorder society according to its sister-brother ethic.”[48] The treatment of refugees in the book of Alma demonstrated a successful result of this theology of inclusion from the early Covenant and Deuteronomic Codes. The Nephites even went a step further than the stipulations of the early Mosaic law when they provided an inheritance land gift for the refugees that matched the more progressive gēr reforms of the later Holiness Code.[49] However, the ultimate validation for the Nephite kinship-inclusion of the gēr under the Mosaic law occurred when the Savior visited the Nephites and reconfirmed the charitable treatment of refugees, demonstrating the perpetual importance for followers of Jesus Christ to treat vulnerable people with the utmost compassion (3 Nephi 24:5).


[1] In the legal codes of the Pentateuch, gēr always appears to act in the singular, which is he fixed form of the noun within legal contexts. The word was used as a group collective that could refer to one or more persons. The plural gērīm appears only five times in the Pentateuch, where it is always used to refer to the Israelites in the Egypt Exodus motif and never to the gēr of the Mosiac law (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; 25:23; Deuteronomy 10:19)

[2] For the brass plates, see 1 Nephi 3–5, 13, 19, 22; 2 Nephi 4–5; Omni 1; Mosiah 1, 10, 28; Alma 37; 3 Nephi 1, 10.

[3] The Mosaic law is mentioned in 1 Nephi 4, 17; 2 Nephi 5, 11, 25; Jacob 1, 11; Mosiah 2–3, 12–13, 16, 24; Alma 25, 30–31, 34; Helaman 13, 15; 3 Nephi 1, 9, 12, 15, 25; 4 Nephi 1.

[4] Besides the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, other Lamanites are also described as following the law of Moses (see Helaman 13:1; 15:5).

[5] The Documentary Hypothesis proposes that the current version of the Pentateuch was formed through a long process of writers and editors producing documents referred to as the J, E, D, and P sources (see also note 6). For treatments of the Documentary Hypothesis, see Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed (New York: HarperOne, 2003); Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: HarperOne, 1997); Joel S. Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

[6] All of the gēr laws in Exodus are part of the Covenant Code (see chapters 21–23), which is believed to have been compiled by a priest living in the northern kingdom of Israel around 922–722 BC as part of the E source; see Frank Crüsemann, The Torah: Theology and Social History of Old Testament Law (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 215. The gēr laws in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26) and in Numbers are integrally related to the controversial P source, which many scholars date to the sixth or fifth centuries BC; see Jeffery Stackert, Rewriting the Torah: Literary Revision in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Legislation (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007). The gēr laws in Deuteronomy are found in both the framework (chapters 1–11, 27–34) and the law core (chapters 12–26). Because most scholars date the collation of the Deuteronomic framework to the sixth century BC and the law core to the seventh century BC, only gēr laws from the latter will be included in this study. Eckhart Otto, “The History of the Legal-Religious Hermeneutics of the Book of Deuteronomy from the Assyrian to the Hellenistic Period,” in Law and Religion in the Eastern Mediterranean, ed. Anselm C. Hagedorn and Reinhard G. Kratz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 213–14.

[7] For a synthesis on the use and translation of these terms, see Mark R. Glanville, Adopting the Stranger as Kindred in Deuteronomy (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2018), 7–11. “Stranger” is used in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, “alien” or “resident alien” is used in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and “foreigner” is used in the New International Version (NIV).

[8] See Reinhard Achenbach, “Der Eintritt der Schutzbürger in den Bund: Distinktion und Integration von Fremden im Deuteronomium,” in “Gerechtigkeit und Recht zu üben” (Gen 18,19), ed. Reinhard Achenbach and Martin Arneth (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009), 242; Rainer Albertz, “From Aliens to Proselytes: Non-Priestly and Priestly Legislation concerning Strangers,” in The Foreigner and the Law, ed. Reinhard Achenbach, Rainer Albertz, and Jacob Wöhrle (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011), 55, 61.

[9] See Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 90–91.

[10] Nadav Na’aman, “Sojourners and Levites in the Kingdom of Judah in the Seventh Century BCE,” Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte 14 (2008): 237–79.

[11] Nadav Na’aman, “Population Changes in Palestine following Assyrian Deportation,” in Ancient Israel and Its Neighbors: Interaction and Counteraction, ed. Nadav Na’aman (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 212–15.

[12] Glanville, Adopting the Stranger, 138–42. The concept of cultural identity is so complex that the designation of “other” can be applied to someone from outside the nuclear family, household, city, or nation. For a complete discussion of cultural identity theory, see Krystal V. L. Pierce, “Living and Dying Abroad: Aspects of Egyptian Cultural Identity in Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Canaan” (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2013), 48–77.

[13] Glanville, Adopting the Stranger, 267.

[14] The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines refugees as “persons who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.” UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, 2011, 19.

[15] See Alma 27–28, 30, 35, 43, 53, 56–58, 62 and Helaman 3.

[16] It is possible that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies and their sons’ Lamanite identity was also referenced when Helaman repeatedly mentioned that the sons were taught religious truths by their mothers, which seemed to be a unique concept among the Nephites (56:47–49; 57:21).

[17] See James Strong, New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 3238, 3905, and 6231; J. Gordon McConville, Deuteronomy (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 362.

[18] See Glanville, Adopting the Stranger, 203–5.

[19] For the Deuteronomic brother-sister (or brotherhood) ethic, see Otto, “History,” 219–20; Kenton Sparks, Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1998), 237.

[20] Although the combination of the orphan and the widow can be a metonymy for all impoverished people, the addendum of the gēr marked a separate and additional social problem of displacement (Glanville, Adopting the Stranger, 67).

[21] Dale Patrick, “Casuistic Law Governing Primary Rights and Duties,” Journal of Biblical Literature 92 (1973): 181.

[22] The unclean meat, or “anything that dieth of itself,” probably denoted an animal carcass that had not been properly slaughtered; see Kenton Sparks, “A Comparative Study of the Biblical Laws,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 110 (1998): 596.

[23] Glanville, Adopting the Stranger, 96; Albertz, “From Aliens to Proselytes,” 55.

[24] The events surrounding the Zoramites in the Book of Mormon have also been compared to other pericopes of the Old Testament, including the Eden narrative and Isaian prophecies; see Adam S. Miller, ed., An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2014).

[25] Moshe Weinfeld, The Promise of the Land: The Inheritance of the Land of Canaan by the Israelites (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 184–85, 258–59.

[26] It has also been suggested that the support provided to the Nephite army by the Anti-Nephi-Lehies was in exchange for their exemption from military service as stipulated under the law of Moses. John W. Welch, “Law and War in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 63–65.

[27] Raymond Westbrook, “Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law,” in Law from the Tigris to the Tiber, ed. Bruce Wells and Rachel Magdalene (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 171.

[28] Strong’s Concordance, 5186. Achenbach, “Der Eintritt der Schutzbürger,” 243.

[29] McConville, Deuteronomy, 363.

[30] John W. Welch, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2008), 299.

[31] On the origins of Korihor, see Welch, Legal Cases, 274–76.

[32] It has also been suggested that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies were allowed to live under their own legal system that was independent from Nephite laws (Welch, Legal Cases, 280–81).

[33] 1 Nephi 4:3; 17:23, 27, 40; 19:10; 2 Nephi 25:20; Mosiah 7:19, 12:34.

[34] Peter Altmann, Festive Meals in Ancient Israel (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 220.

[35] Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), 196–201.

[36] Yan Yu, “Tithes and Firstlings in Deuteronomy” (PhD diss., Union Theological Seminary, 1997), 68.

[37] Glanville, Adopting the Stranger, 197–98.

[38] Georg Braulik, “The Joy of the Feast,” in Theology of Deuteronomy (Richland Hills, TX: Bibal, 1994), 58.

[39] Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 7.

[40] McConville, Deuteronomy, 380.

[41] Glanville, Adopting the Stranger, 206.

[42] It is possible that the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated in the Book of Mormon; see Stephen D. Ricks and John W. Welch, King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1998). The tithe was mentioned by Alma in reference to Abraham and Melchizedek (Alma 13:15) and was again mentioned by the Savior when he shared Malachi’s teachings (3 Nephi 24:8–10).

[43] See 1 Nephi 4:2; 17:27; 19:10; Mosiah 7:19; Alma 29:12; 26:28; Helaman 8:11.

[44] See Joshua 2:23–24; 10:8–12; 11:6.

[45] See Alma 26:9; 27:4; 31:35; 32:24, 43; 33:14, 17; 21, 23; 34:17, 28, 30, 37, 39–40.

[46] See Alma 19:16–17, 31; 22:23; 23:3, 6, 8, 13–16; 24:6; 25:6; 53:10. Sparks, Ethnicity, 264. On the comparative righteousness of the converted refugees in the Book of Mormon, see Todd M. Compton, “The Spirituality of the Outcast in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 139–60.

[47] For the Egyptian borrowing of gēr as qar, see James E. Hoch, Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 295–96.

[48] Glanville, Adopting the Stranger, 49–50.

[49] See note 6 above; Albertz, “From Aliens to Proselytes,” 57–58. On the other hand, the reflection of the Holiness Code in the actions of the Nephites might demonstrate that this section of the Mosaic law was actually a part of the brass plates. Further research into the gēr laws of the Holiness Code and Deuteronomic Framework relating to the treatment of refugees in the Book of Mormon is warranted and has been planned for a future study.