(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.
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.