To conclude on the migrant crisis in Europe — and before delving into today’s topic — below are the latest statistics (as of September 2015) from the UNHCR:

  • 411,567 migrants arrived by sea;
  • 2,900 people died on the sea;
  • 82% come from the UN’s top-ten list of refugee countries, with 51% from Syria. The next four countries sending the most refugees/migrants are Afghanistan (14%), Eritrea (8%), Nigeria (4%) and Pakistan (3%). The next five countries — Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Bangladesh — comprise between 1%-3% of refugees and migrants.
  • 72% of those coming to Europe are men; 15% are children and 13% are women.

The New York Times has a country-by-country graph of EU nations and the number of asylum applications received between 2011 and 2015.

Those figures are on top of the normal immigration influx to the EU from around the world.

Let it never be said that Europeans do not do their part in welcoming and paying for ‘the stranger’.

Last weekend, someone on the Reddit Reformed board suggested that a list of Bible verses be published so that stingy Christians know their obligations in this regard (irony alert from me, but they were serious). They posted a set from Patheos, compiled by the controversial yet thought-provoking Roger Olson. There are also verses on strangers at Open Bible.

Yet, that is not the whole story on welcoming strangers in the Old Testament — far from it.

What is a gentile?

The 1906 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia defines gentile in a lengthy and informative article. Excerpts follow, emphases mine:

A word of Latin origin (from “gens”; “gentilis”), designating a people not Jewish, commonly applied to non-Jews. The term is said (but falsely so) to imply inferiority and to express contempt. If used at all by Jews of modern times—many of them avoiding it altogether, preferring to speak of “non-Jews”—this construction of its implications must certainly be abandoned as contrary to truth. The word “Gentile” corresponds to the late Hebrew “goi,” a synonym for “nokri,” signifying “stranger,” “non-Jew.” In the Hebrew of the Bible “goi” and its plural “goyyim” originally meant “nation,” and were applied both to Israelites and to non-Israelites (Gen. xii. 2, xvii. 20; Ex. xiii. 3, xxxii. 10; Deut. iv. 7; viii. 9, 14; Num. xiv. 12; Isa. i. 4, lx. 22; Jer. vii. 28). “Goi” and “goyyim,” however, are employed in many passages to designate nations that are politically distinct from Israel (Deut. xv. 6; xxviii. 12, 36; Josh. xxiii. 4). From this use is derived the meaning “stranger” (Deut. xxix. 24; comp. II Chron. vi. 32 =”‘amme ha-‘areẓ”). As the non-Israelite and the nokri were “heathens,” “goi” came to denote a “heathen,” like the later “‘akkum,” which, in strict construction, is not applicable to Christians or Mohammedans (see below). In its most comprehensive sense “goi” corresponds to the other late term, “ummot ha-‘olam” (the peoples of the world).

The article explains that there were seven nations engaging in Canaanite idolatrous practices forbidden to God’s chosen people. These are mentioned in Deuteronomy.

However, there were other nations with gentiles who did not engage in idolatry:

mention is made of marriages with non-Hebrews of other stock than the seven nations enumerated (Ruth i. 4; II Sam. iii. 3; I Kings vii. 14, xiv. 21; I Chron. ii. 34), and even of marriages in direct contravention of the prohibitive law (Judges iii. 6; II Sam. xi. 3; I Kings xi. 1 et seq., xvi. 31). This proves that the animosity against non-Hebrews, or “goyyim,” assumed to have been dominant in Biblical times among the Hebrews, was by no means intense.

Classifications of the stranger

The Jewish Virtual Library has an illuminating article called ‘Strangers and Gentiles’ which explains the type of foreigners the Israelites encountered and the status they had.

Generally speaking:

Ancient Israel was acquainted with two classes of strangers, resident aliens and foreigners who considered their sojourn in the land more or less temporary. The latter were referred to as zarim (זָרִים) or nokhrim (נָכְרִים), terms generally applied to anyone outside the circle the writer had in view (e.g., Ex. 21:8; 29:33). They retained their ties to their original home and sought to maintain their former political or social status. On occasion they came as invaders (II Sam. 22:45–46; Obad. 11). More often they entered the land in the pursuit of trade and other commercial ventures. The usual laws were not applicable to them, and they were protected by folk traditions concerning the proper treatment of strangers (cf. Job 31:32) and by special conventions resulting from contractual arrangements between the Israelites and their neighbors (cf. I Kings 20:34).

Usury could be applied to such foreigners and remission of debt, extended to the Israelite, was not part of the relationship with the zarim or nokhrim. They were not bound by ritual law.

However, some must have been important temporary visitors, because Deut. 17:15 forbade their ascending to rule over the Israelites. That said, Solomon asked that God hear their prayers (I Kings 8:41).

There were resident aliens, the gerim. A ger (singular form) was more than a guest. The Israelites expected him to abide by the Noahide Laws. He was a ‘protected stranger’ who was dependent on the Israelites for his living. In turn, he could share in some, though not all, of their privileges. He also had to obey their rule of law and show loyalty.

The gerim only came into being after the Exodus:

Aliens were apparently attracted to their ranks when they left Egypt (Ex. 12:38, 48), and their numbers were further augmented during the time of the conquest of Canaan (Josh. 9:3ff.). By far the greatest number of gerim consisted of the earlier inhabitants of Canaan, many of whom were neither slain as Deuteronomy commands (cf. e.g., 7:2) nor reduced to total slavery (cf. I Kings 5:29; II Chron. 2:16–17). Immigrants also were numbered among them – foreigners who sought refuge in times of drought and famine (cf. Ruth 1:1) and refugees who fled before invading armies.

Socially, the ger was at the bottom of the totem pole, although a handful did manage to become rather wealthy.

He could not own property, although there were a few exceptions. He was most likely to be an artisan or day labourer. Their Israelite masters treated them like the poorest of Israelites. And like the poor Israelites, they were only allowed fruit that had already fallen on the ground, crops from the edges of the fields and a gleaning from that year’s harvest.

This is why the Old Testament emphasised treating the ger well, because he was at the mercy of the Israelites, totally dependent upon them for survival.

The ger was the ‘stranger’ referred to in the Old Testament verses about exhortations to kindness and so forth. By no means did ‘stranger’ refer to all non-Israelites.

Later, some gerim converted and were fully assimilated into Israelite society:

Doeg the Edomite, for instance, was a worshiper of YHWH by the time of Saul (I Sam. 21:8), as was Uriah the Hittite in the reign of David (II Sam. 11:11). Hence, the ger, in contrast to the nokhri, was required in many cases to conform to the ritual practices of the native Israelite.

Other gerim were expected to practise certain ritual laws and observe the religious feasts in loyalty to God.

Not all gerim were considered as equals or near-equals to Israelites:

While third generation offspring of Edomites and Egyptians might “be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:8–9), Ammonites and Moabites were not to be admitted “even in the tenth generation” (23:4).

There were also rules regarding slavery and servanthood:

while the Holiness Code admonished Israelites not to subject their fellows to slavery (Lev. 25:39), they were specifically permitted to do so to the children of resident aliens (25:45–46). A Hebrew slave belonging to a ger could be redeemed immediately, and if not redeemed served until the Jubilee Year (25:47ff.), but one belonging to an Israelite served until the *Jubilee (25:39ff.). Correspondingly, a Hebrew could serve as a hired or bound laborer (25:40) of an Israelite, but only as a hired laborer of an alien (25:50). Indeed, the humble position of the ger generally was emphasized by the usage of the term in the Holiness Code: e.g., “The land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (25:23; cf. 25:35 …)

As far as marriage was concerned:

On close examination it appears that even in the theory (and it was hardly more) of the author of Ezra-Nehemiah only marital alliances with the non-Israelites of Palestine were illegitimate, because the laws of Deuteronomy 7:3–4 and 23:3–9 applied to them. The absorption of converts from other nations is reported with equanimity – Ezra 2:59–60 (= Neh. 7:61–62); Ezra 6:21; Nehemiah 10:29 (“and everyone who withdrew from the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands [note the plural] to the teaching of God”). The phenomenon of such conversions is alluded to in Isaiah 56:3 and Zechariah 2:15; 8:20ff., and the predictions of the conversion of the gentiles in Isaiah and Jeremiah are well known. In late Second Temple times, the term ger had become virtually synonymous with “proselyte,” and strangers were admitted to the religious fellowship of Israel (Jos., Apion, 2:28).

How ‘stranger’ became universal

An article by Michael J Prival which was adapted for the journal Humanistic Judaism‘Who Is This Stranger We Are Supposed To Love’ — cites Leviticus 19:18; New King James Version:

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Prival says:

Although the idea of loving all Israelites may have been a step forward from restricting one’s concern to family or tribe, it is still far from the universalism that is usually ascribed to this Torah quote.  There is no hint in the Torah that any non-Israelite is to be looked upon with favor except for one who has attained the status of a ger.33

So, in the period from the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt through their settlement in Canaan and nearby lands, the strangers who merited the love of the Israelites were a very restricted group of people defined by the Torah text, namely, foreigners who lived among the Israelites and adhered to many of their laws.

He goes on to explain that after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the rise of Christianity, then Islam, the rabbis questioned who was an idol-worshipper. Discussions incorporated the term ger toshav rather than ger in reference to the resident alien. Some rabbis accepted Christians as ger toshav although others had difficulty because of the Holy Trinity. They considered Christians idol worshippers. However, all rabbis agreed that Muslims were ger toshav. On this point Prival concludes:

Overall, the attitude of traditional rabbinic law toward non-Jews was far from one of love.  It was, at best, one of indifference and, in many cases, of contempt.47

But I digress.

The point where ger and ger toshav became a universal proposition making all of non-Jewish humanity ‘strangers’ was during the Enlightenment in the 18th century and the development of Reform Judaism in the 19th. Part of the reason for this, Prival explains, was Jewish self-preservation in Europe and North America:

As acceptance of Enlightenment ideas increased among Jews, so did their efforts to achieve emancipation – freedom from the discriminatory laws found throughout Europe.  They realized that Emancipation would not be forthcoming until they demonstrated their respect for non-Jews.  Both the desire to prove that they could be good citizens and increasing social interaction with non-Jews were major factors in broadening the outlook of Enlightenment-oriented, emancipation-seeking Jews.  The universalist tendencies of the Haskalah were brought to North America by Reform Jews from Germany and by secular Jews from Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These Jews embraced modernity and rejected the idea that they were bound by traditional rabbinic law, as did many of the children of traditionally religious Jewish immigrants to the United States and Canada.

Therefore, whilst we can say that consideration of ‘the stranger’ may represent a humanistic kindness, we cannot claim it has its roots in the Old Testament.

This makes it unlikely that the New Testament encourages an equivocal, unquestioning stance towards ‘the stranger’.