On Sojourners, Walls, and Illegal Aliens, Part 3 (What’s a Sojourner?)

walls-of-jerusalemThe Torah contains many commands regarding sojourners, treating them as a vulnerable class that God especially is concerned to protect. For example,

(Exod. 22:21-24 ESV) 21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.  23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry,  24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”

(Lev. 19:33-34 ESV)  33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”

These are very typical passages, reminding the Israelites that they were once sojourners in Egypt and so they should treat sojourners among them fairly. God is concerned with widows, the fatherless, and sojourners because they lack the ability to protect themselves. They do not own land and so cannot support themselves except through trade and labor — requiring that they be treated fairly by others.

The city elders won’t be selected from among their people. Their families and clans don’t have the same standing as citizens.

A sojourner, therefore, is a resident alien, someone who is not a Jew living among the Jews. He may be a traveler passing through or perhaps he lives in Israel permanently based on a treaty, as in the case of the Gibeonites. He may be a tradesman who finds a better competitive environment in Israel than in his home country. Perhaps he has a better way of forging iron tools than the Israelites, or perhaps he wants to be near the trade routes that pass through Israel. Maybe his business depends on stone, clay, crops, or artisans found only in Israel. Maybe he’s a stonemason and there are no construction projects in his homeland. 

A temporary guest or sojourner was usually someone who wanted to take up temporary residence or had moved from one tribe or people to another, and then attempted to obtain certain privileges or rights belonging to the natives. A whole tribe might be sojourners in Israel. This was the case with the Gibeonites (Jos 9) and the Be-erothites (2 Sm 4:3; cf. 2 Chr 2:17). …

Foreigners or sojourners had certain rights but also certain limitations while in Israel. They could offer sacrifices (Lv 17:8; 22:18) but could not enter the sanctuary unless circumcised (Ez 44:9). They were allowed to participate in the three great Jewish festivals (Dt 16:11, 14) but could not eat the Passover meal unless circumcised (Ex 12:43, 48). Foreigners were not obliged to follow the Israelite religion, but shared in some of its benefits (Dt 14:29). They were not to work on the sabbath and the Day of Atonement (Ex 20:10; 23:12; Lv 16:29; Dt 5:14) and could be stoned for reviling or blaspheming God’s name (Lv 24:16; Nm 15:30). Foreigners were forbidden to eat blood (Lv 17:10, 12) but could eat animals that had died a natural death (Dt 14:21). Israel’s code of sexual morality also applied to the foreigner (Lv 18:26). There were prohibitions against Israelite intermarriage with foreigners, but it was nevertheless a common occurrence (Gn 34:14; Ex 34:12, 16; Dt 7:3, 4; Jos 23:12).

Civil rights were provided for foreigners by the Law of Moses (Ex 12:49; Lv 24:22), and they came under the same legal processes and penalties (Lv 20:2; 24:16, 22; Dt 1:16). They were to be treated politely (Ex 22:21; 23:9), loved as those under the love of God (Lv 19:34; Dt 10:18, 19), and treated generously if poor and receive the fruits of the harvest (Lv 19:10; 23:22; Dt 24:19–22). They could receive asylum in times of trouble (Nm 35:15; Jos 20:9). Foreign servants were to receive treatment equal to Hebrew servants (Dt 24:14). A foreigner could not take part in tribal deliberations or become a king (17:15). 

Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1988, 807.

God’s generous provision for sojourners is remarkable given the lengths he goes to in Torah to keep the Jews separate from all other people. They were to be separate in the sense that they weren’t to intermarry or sell their land to foreigners, and they were marked by circumcision, the food laws, and other distinctive practices as separate and dedicated to God. But they were encouraged to allow foreigners to live among them, provided the foreigners complied with certain limited elements of the Law of Moses.

3. (a) The gēr [sojourner] is distinguished from the foreigner in general, the nokrî or → zār, in that he/she is the stranger who has settled, who has established himself/herself for a particular period in the land and to whom a special status is granted. …

The gēr, alone or in a group, has left his/her homeland as a result of political, economic, or other circumstances and seeks protection in another community, as Abraham did in Hebron (Gen 23:4), Moses in Midian (Exod 2:22 = 18:3), the Bethlehemite Elimelech and his family in Moab (Ruth 1:1), an Ephraimite in Benjaminite territory (Judg 19:16), and even as the Israelites in Egypt (Exod 22:20 = 23:9 = Lev 19:34 = Deut 10:19; Lev 25:23). The relationship between the landless Levites and the gērîm [sojourners] also bears comparison: Judg 17:7ff.; 19:1; Deut 14:29; 26:11–13, etc.

Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1997, 308.

Now, it’s important to realize that sojourners were in a foreign land by permission. The ancients did not practice open borders. They built walls for a reason.

The Israelites were in Egypt by permission of the Pharaoh. The Gibeonites lived in Israel by virtue of a negotiated treaty. When Abraham went to Egypt to live, he did so by permission of Pharaoh.

When travelers came to a walled city, they had to enter by the gate. The custom was for the city elders to sit at the gate to decide who would and wouldn’t enter.

The Bible routinely describes the elders as sitting at the city gate. Why at the gate? Why not in the middle of town? Because the gate controlled passage in and out of the city, giving the elders control over who might move in to live among their citizens. If a traveling tradesmen had cheated the city’s residents the last time he visited, he might be barred from the city.

One author explains,

The gate or gates to these enclosures were the only way into or out of the city. So all commercial traffic entered and exited through the gates.

Thus the city gate became a place for all kinds of important activity in the life of the city and its inhabitants. The area near the gate became a literal marketplace, where commodities from farmers outside the city were bought and sold. (II Kings 7:1; Nehemiah 12:25).

Increased commerce gave rise to disputes. So the gate area became a place of adjudication—municipal law courts. (Is. 29:21; Amos 5:15; Zech. 8:16) The city elders (respected men, not simply “old” men) would sit in the gate area and bring the wisdom of their experience and insight to settle commercial disputes and other matters effecting the life of the city’s inhabitants.

The elders and those passing through the gate area would also discuss the issues of the day and the issues of life, sometimes setting policy for the city and advising the city’s ruler. This in turn gave rise to the gate area becoming the center for political activity and even for mustering militias. (Judges 5:11)

Kings would sometimes sit in the city gates, both to dispense justice and to take the political pulse of the people. (II Sam. 19:8) Here’s a good example of that from I Kings 22:10.

“Now the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah were sitting each on his throne, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them.” (NASB)

With kings and commerce and courts congregating at the city gate, no wonder the gate also became a place for public declaration by prophets and others. In the case of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, the Lord several times told him to stand in the city gate and proclaim the word of the Lord. (Jer. 7:2; Jer. 17:19) We could say that the city gate was the media center for ancient cities, as well as their commercial center.

The gates to a city, then, represented a point of power, a place to exercise control over that city. A military conqueror would try to get control of the gate in order to enter the city most easily. A king who had the hearts of the elders who sat in the gate would politically control the city. A person who organized and ran the commercial market and storehouses at the gate would control the economic life of the city—and its surrounding villages.

In short, the Torah strongly encourages the presence of sojourners among the Jews, despite the Torah’s insistence that the Jews be a distinct people, separate from all other nations. And yet those who sojourned among the Jews sojourned by permission. They had to be approved by the city’s elders, who controlled access into the cities to protect the city from charlatans, criminals, and spies.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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18 Responses to On Sojourners, Walls, and Illegal Aliens, Part 3 (What’s a Sojourner?)

  1. Tim Archer says:

    I’m curious what percentage of the population in ancient times lived in the cities. I would argue that the borders were actually fairly open in the Old Testament. There’s no evidence that Abraham asked anyone’s permission before moving to Canaan. There were no border checkpoints nor passports.

    Cities were a different story, as you’ve pointed out.

  2. laymond says:

    Tim, it is just plain that if you vote for “Trump” you vote against God’s advise . No matter how “Christians” try to twist things . They are going against the advise of God. as for borders, God has no borders. “love your neighbor” has no borders. Christians should have no borders. I would venture to say 98% of those who “Trump” would deport are Christians. They believe in Jesus.

    I have enough marks against me without adding to the burden of other Christians.

  3. David Himes says:

    There is an important distinction that needs to be highlighted.

    There is an obligation for believers to treat people right, regardless. And there is an obligation on the part of people to obey the law.

    Within the definition of “treating people right” is holding them accountable to the law of the land.

  4. laymond says:

    David, in your opinion does the “law of the land” override the law of God.?

  5. Monty says:

    The idea of throwing open the gates to the city or even the countryside and allowing tens of thousands, let alone millions of illegals to come right in I’m quite sure would not fly in Bible days, say Jerusalem (the city of God). If we were talking about a few thousand artisans and workers coming into the USA every year(approved by our govt.) and bringing a trade or skillset, we’re not having this conversation right now. Certainly the scope of the illegal alien dilemma matters. We’re not talking about a handful. We allow in tens of thousands (legally) every year. And every year thousands become US citizens, of course legally. Somehow the conversation seems to get framed that if we don’t allow whoever-whenever that we have done something bad or morally wrong.

  6. Christopher says:

    Monty wrote:

    Somehow the conversation seems to get framed that if we don’t allow whoever-whenever that we have done something bad or morally wrong.

    Until you subject such nonsensical claims to logical analysis. Since no one would argue that we ought to accept all people who’d wish to immigrate here, limits will be set by most everyone. So it boils down to where the lines are drawn. The question then becomes this: why, in the interest of fairness and impartiality, is it okay for the majority of immigrants to come (legally or illegally) from one place in the world? That reality belies the moral pretense of those making these nonsensical claims. I’ll leave it to others to guess at their real motives.

  7. Dustin says:

    If Joseph and Mary followed the law, Jesus would have been executed.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Tim, open areas were sometimes claimed and defended.

    (Num. 20:14-21 ESV) 14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that we have met: 15 how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. 16 And when we cried to the LORD, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” 18 But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” 19 And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” 20 But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. 21 Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him.

    (Num. 21:21-25 ESV) 21 Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 22 “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into field or vineyard. We will not drink the water of a well. We will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” 23 But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. He gathered all his people together and went out against Israel to the wilderness and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. 24 And Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as to the Ammonites, for the border of the Ammonites was strong. 25 And Israel took all these cities, and Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages.

    Of course, large parts of the world weren’t claimed by anyone. Lots of desert that no one cared to defend. But land that was good for crops or grazing was likely claimed by some nation — some of which were strong enough to defend their borders as these examples show.

  9. JES says:

    God even protected the garden by placing a guard at the east gate after expulsion of Adam and Eve. Stewardship demands control (walls, Gates, laws, etc.).

  10. dwight says:

    Laymond, Let’s get personal. Let’s say a person breaks into your home (we shouldn’t have borders, so maybe we should take the doors and locks off of our house), but let’s say they break in, which is against the law are you going to let them live there and at this point as a saint you shouldn’t even ask them for rent. Does anybody believe that what is being done on a large national level is OK (even though we have laws), but when it is done on a smaller personal level it is OK as well? Treating people well is Godly, but this doesn’t mean we treat them as members of the society. Even the Jews understood this, until they converted to being a Jew and saw Israel as their nation. This is not the case with many people coming over across the border and breaking the laws as they do this, and they call themselves Christians (or do they).

  11. Dustin says:

    Be careful saying that someone is a questionable Christian if they break a law. Thousands of white European Christians came into the Americas, ignoring all local laws, and stole the the land from the native peoples. Then, these men sent the natives on death marches to the middle of nowhere in order to steal the land they wanted. Now brown skin men, women, and children want better living conditions and will do almost anything to take care of their families. However, they are not good, Christians who follow laws.

  12. David Himes says:

    Laymond — in this situation, your question is not relevant in my view, because there is no conflict. Between the two. If you want to be legalistic about it, complying with the law of the land is a command of God. And there is certainly no spiritual conflict inherent in immigration laws.

  13. Christopher says:

    Dustin wrote:

    Be careful saying that someone is a questionable Christian if they break a law. Thousands of white European Christians came into the Americas, ignoring all local laws, and stole the the land from the native peoples. Then, these men sent the natives on death marches to the middle of nowhere in order to steal the land they wanted.

    Sounds like someone imagines everyone who calls himself a Christian is one, even though John tells us to “test the spirits” and the term was coined to apply to disciples in Antioch (Acfs 11:26) – that is, it was not a term believers applied to themselves.

  14. laymond says:

    Dustin, If I were to guess I would say there has been more blood shed over the control of territory than anything else . philosophy would be next. And in the end, what does it matter. We don’t have control over anything. What have we gained, if we gain the world, and loose our soul? If our laws cause poverty, sickness, and death, to our Christian brothers, and sisters on the wrong side of an imaginary line, what have we gained?

  15. laymond says:

    Jay asked the question (What’s a Sojourner?) answer, we all are. The sooner we realize there is nothing permanent about this place the better neighbor we can be, the better Christian we can become.

  16. Ray Downen says:

    Indians were mistreated in the U.S.A., that’s true. But the march was not the original taking of Indian lands, and it was a prime example of mistreatment of innocents. For years, individual Indians had attacked and murdered scattered homesteads. But that was past when the forced march was done. And Indians have become patriotic citizens, excellent servers in our armed forces, and law-abiding citizens.

  17. Indians were “mistreated”. Yes. Hitler roughed up a few Jews, and Krakatoa made a considerable racket. Somebody apparently came back from Understatement Camp having aced the course…

  18. Dustin says:

    Exactly Laymond. We are all sojourners. My hope is that all would not equate the laws of the US as the laws of Christianity. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would be illegal immigrants in our country.

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