In many languages, the words “stranger”, “guest” and “enemy” are the same word, for example the Latin “hostis”, which means both “guest” and “enemy”.
The Hebrew word we most often translate as “stranger” is ”ger”, which can also be translated as “refugee”, “immigrant”, “guest”, “newcomer”, “sojourner”, or “foreigner”, depends on the reason why you are on the move. If you have fled war, you are a refugee; if you are a traveling salesman, you are a stranger; and if you are visiting a good friend, you are a guest.
In biblical times, hospitality was not just a valued attribute of certain good-hearted people, but an established code of conduct that could literally determine the life or death of both host and guest. Because of the hot and harsh climate of the Middle East, most permanent or temporary settlements were located near water sources. Without access to these, people on the move would risk death. In addition, because of the risk of robbers, travelers needed protection when they arrived at new settlements.
Traveling was not usually associated with luxury or pleasure as it is today, but rather with having to flee from war and hostilities, or having to search for food and water for survival. The unwritten code of hospitality ensured foreign travelers protection and access to food and water.
When a stranger came to visit, it was still unclear to both the native and the stranger, whether to regard each other as friend or foe. Since the native is generally the stronger party, it is incumbent upon him to extend a hand and offer hospitality to the stranger. When the stranger accepts the hospitality, he changes from potential enemy to protected guest. The secret to making peace is to extend a hand and offer hospitality instead of building a wall between yourself and the stranger. It is in the very offer of hospitality that the transition from potential enemy to protected guest takes place.
As the traveling stranger embraced hospitality, the stranger moved from being a potential enemy to becoming part of the community. Welcoming strangers was a pacifist way of protecting oneself against enemies by transforming the stranger into a guest. It is therefore no coincidence that the Hebrew word for “stranger” can also be translated as “guest”.
From this background, we understand that it was no small thing for the patriarch Abraham to rely on God’s care and protection when he responded to God’s call to leave his country and live as a stranger in the land of Canaan.
Abraham and his wife Sarah originally came from the city of Ur of Chaldea, which is in present-day Iraq.[i] Together with his father Terah, Abraham first migrates to the city of Haran.[ii] Once there, God gives Abraham the promise that has made Abraham one of the greatest role models in world history for trusting in the Lord and walking by faith:
“1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”(Ge 12:1-3)
God’s promise to Abraham includes that Abraham must leave his homeland and go to the land of Canaan that his descendants will eventually receive. God will create from Abraham a new people, Israel, who will eventually be a blessing to “all the families of the earth”. In the story of Abraham, we see that God’s people are born as strangers.
Abraham begins his new life as a stranger in the land of Canaan. Then, when there is a shortage of food, he is forced to go to Egypt, thus becoming a form of economic migrant:
“10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. ”(Ge 12:10)
After a time in Egypt, Abraham returns to the land of Canaan and continues to live there as a stranger:
“8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”(Ge 17:8)
In the land of Canaan, Abraham is welcomed by Melchizedek, priest and king of the city of Salem. Melchizedek shows his hospitality by offering Abraham “bread and wine”,[iii] an obvious model for the Lord’s Supper, a meal that involves communion with both the Lord and those with whom one shares the Lord’s Supper:
“17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)19 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth;20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”(Ge 14:17-20)
The unwritten code of conduct included welcoming strangers by offering food, water and shelter.[iv] Sometimes this was combined symbolically by being set a table in front of your enemies, which then showed the guest’s enemies that one was under the protection of the host.[v] It was also not uncommon to wash the feet of your guests, a gesture that symbolized that one welcomed the stranger and did not see him as an enemy.
Just as a host was expected to show hospitality, a stranger was also expected to accept what was offered. Failure to show or receive hospitality was considered an insult and indicated hostile intent and betraying the person with whom one had eaten was among the worst things one could do.[vi]
“1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree,5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on-since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”(Ge 18:1-8)
Abraham hurries to humbly receive his guests and offers water and bread. But according to hospitality tradition, one should serve more than what was offered, so even though Abraham offers only “a little water” and “bread”, he asks Sarah to bake bread from her finest flour and then runs off to fetch “a tender and good calf” to cook. With it he serves curds and milk. Abraham goes out of his way to make sure his guests have the best time possible! When his guests set off again, as their host, he makes sure to accompany them a little on the way.
Eating together symbolized acceptance, friendship, and a kind of affirmation of the host’s promise to protect his guest. Thus, offering food to your guest is a way of welcoming the stranger, offering friendship, fellowship, and protection. [ix]
Later in the Bible, the strict food laws of the Law of Moses, in contrast to hospitality, became a way for God’s people to separate themselves from the surrounding peoples of the land of Canaan.[x] It is also no coincidence that when Israel worshiped and met God, it was through food offerings, a way for God and his people to celebrate their special relationship with each other by sharing a meal together. In the New Testament, food continues to be this connection between God, man and fellow human beings through the Lord’s Supper and the heavenly feast of which the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste (which you can read more about in chapter 21).[xi]
After many years as a stranger in the land of Canaan, Sarah eventually dies and Abraham turns to the Hittites to buy a cave in which to bury her:
“4 “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”(Ge 23:4)
After a few more years, Abraham also dies “in a good old age, an old man and full of years” and is buried in his cave together with Sarah.[xii]
You have read a free chapter of my book Friend of Strangers. If you like this book, please consider purchasing the ebook through Amazon. Since English is not my native language, there may be some linguistic inaccuracies. Please contact me if you find any.
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Ge 11:24–30
[ii] Ge 11:31
[iii] Ge 14:17–20
[iv] Job 31:32
[v] Ps 23:5
[vi] Ps 41:10, Jn 13:18
[vii] Ge 24, Ex 2:16–25, Jdg 13:15, 1Sa 25:18, 1Ki 17:8–24, 2Ki 4:8–37, Job 31:32, Ac 10:23, Ac 28:7
[viii] Ge 19, Ge 43:31–32, Jdg 19:22–30, Dt 23:3–6, 1Sa 25
[ix] Ge 14:18, Ge 26:28–30, Ge 31:44–54, Ex 18:12,
Jos 9:12–15, 2Sa 3:20
[x] Le 11:1–47, Dt 14:3–21
[xi] Is 25:6–8, Mt 26:26–30
[xii] Ge 25:7–10