The Stranger: A Word Study with Relevance

“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9 NIV)

The call for how the people of God are to treat strangers (here translated foreigners) is directly related to the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, as evidenced in this text. The reason we must not oppress them could be read, “for you know the life of a foreigner, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” You know the life of a stranger. The call to love our neighbor as ourselves in Leviticus is shortly followed in application by a call to love the stranger (foreigner) as ourselves (compare Lev. 19:18, 34). Since the call to love our neighbor as ourselves is the King’s Law (James 2:8), it is essential for believers today to understand what the Bible says about the stranger (the Hebrew word is ger) and what Christ calls us to in regard to the stranger among us.

It is essential for believers today to understand what the Bible says about the stranger and what Christ calls us to in regard to the stranger among us.

First, the range of meaning for this Hebrew word (ger) includes stranger, foreigner dwelling in the land, resident alien, proselyte. In fact, looking at how the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible translated it (at the time of the writing of the New Testament), one discovers two major ways it was understood by the translators. One is as paroikos (resident foreigner, stranger, alien) and the other is as proskeimai, which is usually rendered proselyte. In this latter case, it carries a meaning of being closely attached to, involved in, absorbed in, and devoted to (BDAG). The verbal form of this root carries the meaning to dwell with or sojourn.

How does one become a resident alien, or a stranger living in a strange land? Why would someone leave their homeland, family, friends, in order to dwell among a people who would be naturally inclined to treat them with hostility? Typically, Americans might do so for the sake of a job promotion or wealth.

Why would someone leave their homeland, family, friends, in order to dwell among a people who would be naturally inclined to treat them with hostility?

In the context of the ancient near east, it would have been done for survival. Generally, famine (e.g. Jacob and his sons sojourning to Egypt), pestilence, or war (whether fleeing because of war, or carried off against one’s will) are the root causes. The closest thing we have in our country to this kind of “immigrant” are those who are refuges from war torn lands, and those who have fled the “famine” caused by NAFTA and other trade agreements that have forced Mexican farmers, for example, to choose between starvation and migration.

The history of this word’s (ger) development is uncertain, but worth noting. It may have roots both to describing one as foreign and as being an enemy. This is comparable to that of the English word “hostel.” We get hospitality (you stay in a hostel), and hostility.[1] Maybe this common ancestry of words reveals human nature. “Hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilisation. The Greeks called strangers ‘barbarians’ because of their (as it seemed to them) outlandish speech that sounded like the bleating of sheep…”[2] “Others” who seem different than us call for hospitality from us, but often provoke hostility in us. The Gospel calls us to conquer that hostility by the love of Christ.

“Others” who seem different than us call for hospitality from us, but often provoke hostility in us. The Gospel calls us to conquer that hostility by the love of Christ.

Interestingly, Jewish rabbinic writing on the topic is divided on whether the call of Exodus 23:9 is one of empathy or self-preservation. Both are rooted in the fact that the Israelites were resident aliens in Egypt and suffered as a result. Seen as empathy it reads: “You know his/her life and you know the hostilities he/she faces and therefore are to show mercy.” Seen as self-preservation it reads: “You know his life, that he is a former lawless pagan, and how the pressures of not being treated well may force him back toward his natural tendencies which are evil.”[3] This reveals the tension that we all have in dealing with the foreigner living among us, and the necessity of returning to the text of Scripture to inform our understanding. The parable of the “Good Samaritan” is poignant to this discussion, because in it, the neighbor for whom love was shown is the only non-racially identified person in the story. He is simply “a person.” That is to say, one’s foreignness (if there is such a word), adds no limitations to whether or not we are required to love them as we love ourselves.

God (Yahweh) is described as a ger (stranger) only one time in the Old Testament, and in an accusatory way. “You who are the hope of Israel, its Savior in times of distress, why are you like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who stays only a night?” (Jer. 14:8 NIV, emphasis added.) In other words, “God, why are You so absent?” Could this point us forward to the day when the Savior would be the stranger in the land? In the only description we have of the judgment seat of Christ, one of the vital ways by which the sheep and goats are judged is: “I was a stranger and you invited me in” or “did not invite me in” (Matt. 25:35, 43). Maybe the weakness of God which Jeremiah lamented is, in truth, the power of the cross. The call to love, protect, and even minister healing to the stranger is a vital part of the Christian life.

Maybe the weakness of God which Jeremiah lamented is, in truth, the power of the cross.

Prayer: “Oh Lord, help us to recognize you in the stranger within our gates, and then to act accordingly—inviting you in.”

[1]Richard Kearney, Guest or Enemy? Welcoming the Stranger. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/guest-or-enemy-welcoming-the-stranger/10100458

[2]Rabbi Sacks, http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5768-mishpatim-loving-the-stranger/ quoted in Shani Tzoref, Knowing the Heart of the Stranger, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 2018, Vol. 72(2) 119 –131.

[3]Shani Tzoref, Knowing the Heart of the Stranger, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 2018, Vol. 72(2) 119 –131.

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  • Great discussion. Loved the New Testament connection to Jesus.

  • Tom Pickering says:

    Jerry,
    Thanks for sending me this. There is much here for me to attempt to absorb…probably too much. This message is very timely as I make an effort to love the “foreigners” in my immediate family, my daily routine, and the global world I live in. (I appreciate how you ALWAYS go to God’s Word for all our answers.)

    P.S. Please continue not to make your Sunday messages this deep. Don’t think my pea brain could handle.

    Together in Christ’s love,
    Tom Pickering

  • Julia says:

    Ok this is good writing and it is true for people who come here! But there is not anything to defend the fact that they r here by braking our counties rules of entry! Yes we need to love them and help them return to their country and apply to enter legally! No country has to accept people who come over the boarder and not through a port of entry! Jerusalem has a wall to protect the people inside the city! And they chose who came in the city Gates and if the went over the wall they did not stay!

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