14 Refugee Stories from the Scriptures

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flees to Egypt

Two and a half weeks before terrorist attacks on Paris, the First Presidency issued a letter, read over Sacrament meeting pulpits, encouraging Latter-day Saints to continue contributing to refugee relief.

In September, the European Area presidency shared stories of how members in Europe stepped up efforts to aid refugees streaming into Europe and posted this video in 13 different European languages.

Now is a great opportunity to identify how we can best fulfill our prophet’s challenge, and the Lord’s command, to care for our fellow-man.

Regarding the Refugee

The Oxford Dictionary defines a refugee as “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”

I decided to search the scriptures for ancient examples of refugees. As I started a mental list, I was really amazed at how many scripture stories are refugee stories.

I’ve been pondering these people with new eyes—not my usual renderings of these stories as metaphors for my mortal wanderings on this planet—and for possibly the first time, I acknowledged and saw the fear, horror, and stress of living through their troubled times.

I’ll just share the stories that quickly came to mind when I thought of those who left their homes because of war, persecution, or natural disaster, and leave the lessons to be learned and applied to you, the reader.

Refugees from Persecution

Latter-day Saints being driven from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri

“The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble” (Psalms 9:9).

1. David

Reference: 1 Samuel 19 – 1 Samuel 31.

Cause of Refugee status:  Persecution — King Saul’s jealousy and paranoia.

Duration of Refugee status: 8 years — 4 years wandering, 4 years in Ziklag.

Refugee Acceptance – 10 Attempts to find Refuge:

1st (Ramah) Fully welcomed in by Samuel. Betrayed by Saul’s informants.

2nd (Nob) Fully welcomed in by priest Ahimelech. David was given sacred bread and Goliath’s sword. David saw one of Saul’s informants and fled again. Saul murdered Ahimelech’s family.

3rd (Gath) Rejected by Achish, king of the Philistines.

4th (Adullum)Fully welcomed in. People joined his army.

5th (Moab) Fully welcomed in by the king of Moab. David brought his army, and specifically invites his parents to join him in Moab.   Commanded by the prophet Gad to leave Moab.

6th (Keilah) Rejected by the city of Keilah, and betrayed to Saul, after saving the city from the Philistines.

7th(Horesh) Rejected by the city of Ziph, and betrayed to Saul.

8th(Carmel) Rejected by Nabal. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, found and fed David and his men. Later, she married him.

9th(Hachilah) Rejected by the city of Ziph, again, and betrayed to Saul.

10th(Gath) Warmly accepted by King Achish. Given the city of Ziklag.  “Then Achish gave him Ziklag that day: wherefore Ziklag pertaineth unto the kings of Judah unto this day.”

Outcome: Helped the Philistine nation. The Lord commanded David to fight for and protect the Philistines until Saul’s death. David persevered through years as a refugee because he was unwilling to slay Saul, the Lord’s anointed. His experience prepared him to unite and rule the tribes of Israel. The House of Israel remained united until the reign of David’s grandson.


2. The Latter-day Saints

Reference: Doctrine and Covenants 98.

Cause of Refugee status:  Persecution — Fearful neighbors. Commanded by God to leave.

Duration of Refugee status: 15-20 years.

Refugee Acceptance – 6 Attempts to find Refuge:

1st (Kirtland) By 1831, the Church headquarters relocated from Palmyra to Kirtland. Initially welcomed by the community.

2nd (Independence) Saints began gathering to Independence in 1831. In 1833, afraid of rapidly increasing Mormons in the area, the community drove the Saints from the area.

3rd (Clay County) Clay County residents welcomed the Saints. In 1836, after continuous LDS influx, the Missouri government created Caldwell County as a refuge for the Saints.

4th (Far West) In 1838, Joseph Smith moved from Kirtland to Far West. Tensions escalated until, later that same year, Missouri began expelling Mormons from the state.

5th (Commerce/Nauvoo) Sympathetic non-Mormons in Illinois welcomed beleaguered Saints to Commerce, Illinois. Soon, it became the thriving and beautiful Nauvoo. Again tensions escalated. A mob killed Joseph and Hyrum. Neighbors threatened the Saints. In 1845, Brigham Young negotiated time and peace for the Saints to leave Illinois.

6th (Salt Lake City) Exodus of Latter-day Saints from the US. Harassed by anti-Mormon people and laws, but generally a peaceful resettlement.

Outcome: They found the place which God for them prepared. The Saints built thriving communities, settling the West.


3. People of Limhi and of Alma

Reference: Mosiah 19 – Mosiah 25.

Cause of Refugee status:  Persecution — By Lamanites and dissenting Nephites. Alma’s people commanded by God to leave.

Duration of Refugee status: Unknown.

Refugee Acceptance – 1 Attempt to find Refuge:

1st (Zarahemla) Both groups of people were received with joy in Zarahemla.

Outcome: Total assimilation with the Nephites. Limhi relinquishd his kingship. His family faded from the condensed Book of Mormon story. In Zarahemla, Alma established the church throughout the land and became the Nephite’s high priest, chief judge, and record keeper. Nine generations of righteous prophet-leaders followed Alma. His family’s impact to Nephite society, and the Book of Mormon, is incalculable. Gideon, who engineered Limhi’s people’s escape, became a beloved teacher in the church. In his old age, Gideon confronted apostate Nehor who killed him.


4. Moses and the Children of Israel

Reference: Exodus 1 – Joshua 24.

Cause of Refugee status:  Persecution — Enslavement by the Egyptians. Commanded by God to leave.

Duration of Refugee status: 40 years.

Refugee Acceptance – 4 Attempts to find Refuge:

1st (Mt. Sinai) Fought and defeated Amalek at Rephidim.  Stayed at Sinai for a year.

2nd (Kadesh-barnea) Stayed here at the border of Canaan for 38 years.

3rd (to the Jordan River) Edom denied direct passage.  Moabites tried to curse Israel and, ultimately, caused them to sin. The Amorites denied direct passage and fought the Israelites. Bashan battled Israel. After 20 months, Israel reached the Jordan River.

4th (Canaan) Not welcomed into the land. Fought for each acre of land.

Outcome: 40 years in the wilderness resulted in a generational cleansing of non-believing Israelites. Ultimately, all but two people who initially sought refuge died before entering the promised land. The descendants of those enslaved by the Egyptians commenced a hostile takeover of Canaan. Despite some strategic blunders, they secured most of Canaan. As a nation, they endured conquests and captivity. But still, the land is inhabited by descendants of Jacob.


5. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus

Reference: Matthew 2:13-15.

Cause of Refugee status:  Persecution — King Herod’s jealousy and paranoia. Commanded by God to leave.

Duration of Refugee status: Estimated to be 40 days-6 years.

Refugee Acceptance – 1 Attempt to find Refuge:

1st (Egypt) Unknown based on Biblical accounts. Apocryphal accounts say they were warmly received into the community.

Outcome: The flight to and from Egypt fulfilled prophecy and typology. Jesus’ life was preserved from Herod’s murderous rampage.


“The God of my rock; in him will I trust: he is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my saviour; thou savest me from violence” (2 Samuel 22:3).

Refugees of Natural Disaster

Painting depicting Jacob and his family's refugee story into Egypt

“For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall” (Isaiah 25:4).

6. Naomi and Elimelech 

Reference: Ruth 1.

Cause of Refugee status:  Famine

Duration of Refugee status: Unknown.

Refugee Acceptance – 1 [known] Attempt to find Refuge:

1st (Moab) Warmly received into the community.

Outcome: Apparently, total assimilation with the Moabites. Naomi’s sons married Moabitess converts. After the famine ceased, Naomi decided to return home to Bethlehem. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, determined to go with her. Ruth eventually married Naomi’s kinsman Boaz and became the great grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus Christ.


7. Jacob and the House of Israel

Reference: Genesis 45 – Genesis 47.

Cause of Refugee status:  Famine. Commanded by God to leave.

Duration of Refugee status: 400 years.

Refugee Acceptance – 1 Attempt to find Refuge:

1st (Egypt) Pharoah gave the Israelites the land of Goshen.

Outcome: The House of Israel survived the 7 year famine. Initially, they were warmly received by the Hyksos who ruled lower Egypt at the time. After the Hyksos were driven out of Egypt the acceptance of the Israelites turned to fear, hatred, and ultimately enslavement, by the Egyptians.


8. The Prodigal Son

Reference: Luke 15:14-32.

Cause of Refugee status:  Famine

Duration of Refugee status: Unknown.

Refugee Acceptance – 1 Attempt to find Refuge:

1st (Home) Father warmly welcomed the prodigal.  His brother refused to welcome him.

Outcome: The final outcome is unknown. The story infers that the prodigal is fully accepted by the father. Re-integration by the brother is anticipated, but not certain.


“In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence: and his children shall have a place of refuge” (Proverbs 14:26).

Refugees from War

Jael kills Sisera

“I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul” (Psalms 142:4).

9. Sisera

Reference: Judges 4:15-24.

Cause of Refugee status:  War — Canaanites vs Israelites. God commanded the Israelites to attack the Canaanites.

Duration of Refugee status: Unknown number of days.

Refugee Acceptance – 1 Attempt to find Refuge:

1st (Kenites) Jael welcomed Sisera in and fed him. Then she drove a tent peg through his skull.

Outcome: Death, accomplishing the Lord’s design. With the Lord’s help, Deborah, Barak, and Jael defeated the Canaanites. This demonstration came after the people began worshipping Baal and Ashteroth and were unable to drive the remnants of Canaan out of the land. This victory began generations of the same cycle–sin, bondage, repentance, victory.


10. Anti-Nephi-Lehies

Reference: Alma 24 – Alma 27.

Cause of Refugee status:  War — Lamanites spurred on to hatred by dissenting Nephites. Commanded by God to leave.

Duration of Refugee status: Unknown. Between 90-77 BC.

Refugee Acceptance – 1 Attempt to find Refuge:

1st (Zarahemla) Anti-Nephi-Lehies didn’t think the Nephites would give them refuge them since they were enemies. But after prayer, they decided to seek refuge with the Nephites. Ammon and his brothers approached the Nephite chief judge about the refugees’ situation. The chief judge asked the Nephites to vote on admitting the Anti-Nephi-Lehies into their lands.

Outcome: Given the land of Jershon. The Nephites agreed to protect the Anti-Nephi-Lehies if they promised to support their armies. The people of Ammon kept their covenant to the Nephite and remained faithful allies. Their 2,066 sons rescued the Nephites from imminent Lamanite destruction.


11. King Mosiah and His People

Cause of Refugee status:  War — Fleeing from wicked Nephites. Commanded by God to leave.

Duration of Refugee status: Unknown. Between 279 and 130 BC.

Refugee Acceptance – 1 Attempt to find Refuge:

1st (Zarahemla) After wandering in the wilderness, found Zarahemla. Mulekites greeted the Nephites with great rejoicing.

Outcome: Total assimilation with the Mulekites. Zarahemla deferred kingship to Mosiah. The people of Zarahemla became and remained Nephites. Zarahemla was one of the Book of Mormon’s most prominent cities, prized in battle, and the cultural center for the people. It was destroyed after Christ’s death and before His visit to America.


12. Coriantumr

Reference: Ether 14 – Ether 15, Omni 1:21-22. 

Cause of Refugee status:  War — Jaredites turned from God and delighted in secret combinations and war.

Duration of Refugee status: Unknown. Fought wars for a long time, but during the time of Shiz, the scriptures say the war was swift and speedy.

Refugee Acceptance – 5 Attempts to find Refuge:

1st (Eastward to the Sea) Followed by Shiz’s armies. Battled for 3 days. Coriantumr won.

2nd (Hill of Comnor) Followed Shiz’s armies and fought at Comnor.  Coriantumr was wounded and began to repent. People refused.

3rd (Ripliancum) Coriantumr’s armies defeated Shiz and Shiz’s armies fled to Ogath.

4th (Ramah) Gathered for final battle. Everyone killed except Coriantumr.

5th (Zarahemla) Lived with the people of Zarahemla for nine moons.

Outcome: Coriantumr’s entire nation, a civilization several thousands years old, was totally destroyed. It’s inconceivable to imagine the enormity of loss he suffered after realizing he was alone, and primarily responsible for the nation’s demise. The people of Zarahemla received him. Various records of the Jaredites were found, testifying that they existed. The Book of Mormon contains Ether’s compilation.


13. The Nephite Nation

Reference: Mormon 4 – Mormon 6.

Cause of Refugee status:  War — Nephites turned from God and delighted in secret combinations and war.

Duration of Refugee status: 20 years. Approximately AD 365 to 385

Refugee Acceptance – 5 Attempts to find Refuge:

1st (Desolation) Defeated by the Lamanites.

2nd (Teancum) Defeated the Lamanites. Retook Desolation. Defeated by the Lamanites. Began to be swept off as a dew before the sun.

3rd (Boaz) Defeated by the Lamanites.

4th (Every City) Lamanites destroyed and burned cities and inhabitants.

5th (Cumorah) Gathered for a final battle. All who didn’t flee or join the Lamanites were destroyed.

Outcome: Their nation was pulverized. Another entire nation (excepting, of course, those Nephites who had been led away) wiped off the earth because of wickedness and warmongering. Mormon’s righteous life ended as he led the Nephites into their final battle. Moroni lived to tell the tale and hide up the records. Modern revelation indicates that indigenous American people are Lamanite descendants who will, and are, accepting the Gospel and turning again to God.


“Yea, except ye repent, your women shall have great cause to mourn in the day that they shall give suck; for ye shall attempt to flee and there shall be no place for refuge; yea, and wo unto them which are with child, for they shall be heavy and cannot flee; therefore, they shall be trodden down and shall be left to perish” (Helaman 15:2).

A Refugee Who Found Eternal Refuge

Abram on the sacrificial altar

“In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence” (Abraham 1:1).

14. Abraham

Reference: Abraham 1 – Abraham 2, Genesis 11 – Genesis 13.

Cause of Refugee status:  Persecution — Attempted murder on sacrificial altar; Natural Disaster — Prophesied famine in the land. Commanded by God to leave.

Duration of Refugee status: Around 20 years. Abraham leaves Haran at 62. Ishmael born in Hebron when Abraham is 86.

Refugee Acceptance – 5 Attempts to find Refuge:

1st (Haran) Seemed to find peaceful resettlement of himself, Sarai, and extended family. God commanded him to leave.

2nd (Canaan) Abram was 62 when he moved to Canaan. He and his people moved about searching for food. Finally, he decided to go to Egypt.

3rd (Egypt) Pharoah acknowledged Abram and clan. Pharoah took Sarai. Eventually sent them away.

4th (Bethel) Settled, but space was too small for the families. Lot went to Sodom. Abram went to Hebron.

5th (Hebron) Settled on the plains of Mamre. Refused to be assimilated by neighboring communities. Lived in relative peace.

Outcome: Helped kings of Canaan defend their lands from invaders. His prosperity multiplied significantly, even as a refugee. He became the Father of the Covenant and defender of righteousness. The promises God established with Abraham are available to all who will accept and keep divine commandments and ordinances. Abraham becomes a mentor to each soul seeking God.


“And it shall be called the New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God” (Doctrine and Covenants 45:66.)

These are just a few of many scriptural refugee stories. What other scripture stories describe refugees of war, persecution, and natural disasters? What are the takeaways from the stories? Do the lessons apply to our day? How do you apply the lessons learned?

I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.


I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I love exploring the world, experiencing nature, assimilating truth, and hanging out with my husband. One of my life goals is to visit every LDS temple in the world. I've been to 101.