On Sojourners, Walls, and Illegal Aliens, Part 4 (Hospitality in Scripture)

walls-of-jerusalemThe Torah’s encouragement of sojourners in the Promised Land is a natural consequence of the hospitality expected in the Ancient Near East.

Abraham was legendary for his hospitality, as evidenced by his treatment of three strangers, one of whom turned out to be God–

(Gen. 18:1-5 ESV) 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.  2 He 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 earth  3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.  4 Let 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.”

Although Abraham addresses the leader of the group as “lord,” he does not yet know that he is addressing God incarnate.

His guests are identified as men, for that is how Abraham first perceived them. His failure to notice their approach is an indication that they were heavenly messengers. Abraham, however, became aware of their true identity only gradually. Excitedly he ran to meet them. On reaching them he bowed low to the ground in deference. His bowing and addressing the leader as my lord show that he took these visitors to be nobility. While such an address was proper protocol, the narrative allows Abraham to be more correct than he realized at first. 

John E. Hartley, Genesis, eds. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 177–178.

The extravagance of Abraham’s hospitality is evident even to the Western reader. What we usually miss is that Abraham prepared a meal with three seahs of flour — 20 quarts! Plus an entire calf! There was no way these three men could eat so much food.

The rabbis point out that in the preceding verses Abraham had just been circumcised. Moses does not specify how much time passed, but if Abraham was still on the mend from his circumcision, running to meet the strangers was a very painful exercise.

In fact, while Abraham took his hospitality to an extreme, offering food, water, and rest to total strangers was typical behavior in that culture — and it’s still true among the Bedouins. A family will skip meals to feed a perfect stranger.

This is part of the reason that Sodom is condemned in scripture — their mistreatment of sojourners. It’s not just that sojourners in a city should not be subjected to threats of homosexual rape — it’s the contrast between this crime and the expected treatment of travelers.

The sin of Sodom, then, is heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of basic human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others. The prophet Jeremiah identified Sodom with adultery, false dealing, and the encouragement of evildoers—all without any feelings of contrition (23:14)—while Ezekiel sums up the situation as follows in 16:49: “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. In their haughtiness, they committed abomination before Me; and so I removed them.…” The indictment of Sodom lies entirely in the moral realm; there is no hint of cultic offense, no whisper of idolatry. As with the Flood story, the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative assumes the existence of a universal moral law that God expects all humankind to follow. The idea that there is an inextricable connection between the social and moral behavior of a people and its ultimate fate is one of the pillars upon which the entire biblical interpretation of history stands.

Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 132.

Sodom is condemned for, among other things, its lack of hospitality — which is startling to the Western reader. And the NT teaches the same lesson —

(Rom. 12:13 ESV)  13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 

(Heb. 13:2 ESV)  2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 

The Hebrews passage is an obvious reference to Gen 18.

Perhaps the most winsome of all reflections on hospitality by early Christian writers is found in Heb 13:2 where believers are urged to receive strangers graciously on the ground that “thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Clearly the allusion is to Abraham’s enthusiastic reception of the three heavenly messengers. But Jesus too may come as a stranger. Matthew, Luke, and John all make this point (Matt 25:31–46; Luke 24:13–35; John 20:11ff.; 21:1–14). And so does the author of Revelation when he records the words of the Risen One to the church in Laodicea: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; of any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (3:20). The context indicates that this meal with Jesus, like many of those narrated in the gospels, will be one of repentance and reconciliation.

John Koenig, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 3, 301.

In short, in our culture, we think of “hospitality” in terms of inviting a visitor at church — a member of our own denomination and likely the same race and social class — out to lunch at a restaurant. The biblical concept is much bigger. It’s about care for strangers — sojourners — who are in true need.

In ancient times, there were few inns or the like, and so travelers would enter the city gates and prepare to spend the night in the square — hoping a kind resident would invite them to spend the night and prepare a meal for them. To us, this would be unthinkable — dangerous and irresponsible.

As a child, I recall my parents often having visiting preachers and missionaries spend the night (or the week!) at our house. In our small town, the local motels weren’t nice, and there were few restaurants in the 1950s and early 1960s. Home cooking was genuinely much better than eating out — and safer. In those days, we worried about food poisoning at restaurants for very good reason. (The health standards have changed dramatically since those days.)

Nowadays, it’s considered rude to expect the visiting speaker to stay in someone’s house. He needs “down” time, and restaurant food and local hotels are generally excellent — often better than home.

In fact, we increasingly find it difficult to find couples who will host small group meetings, because cleaning and cooking for guests is time consuming and expensive — and we are all so very busy. Church members increasingly prefer to meet at a restaurant or the church building.

The same trend is true for showers. More and more we find only a few members willing to host baby and wedding showers. It’s not uncommon to have church members who’ve never hosted another family from their own congregation in their own home — much less a stranger.

But showing hospitality is considered the essence of church leadership by Paul —

(1 Tim. 3:2 ESV) Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach …

(Tit. 1:7-8 ESV)  7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,  8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 

And a widow is not to be supported by the church unless she’s been hospitable —

(1 Tim. 5:9-10 ESV)  9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband,  10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.

And this is all “hospitality” as defined by First Century standards — at least.

The “hospitality” of today, by which is meant the entertainment of friends or relatives, hardly comes within the Biblical use of the term as denoting a special virtue.

Burton Scott Easton, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915).

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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7 Responses to On Sojourners, Walls, and Illegal Aliens, Part 4 (Hospitality in Scripture)

  1. Larry Cheek says:

    An astonishment about the amount of food might be explained by observing these passages.

    Gen 14:11-14 ESV So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. (12) They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way. (13) Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram. (14) When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

    We can see that Abraham, the Lord and the Lord’s servants were communicating regularly, which would have made it easy for him to expect these men to be messengers. All of his family members must have been in the immediate area and probably participated in the feast.

    Gen 17:23-27 ESV Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. (24) Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. (25) And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. (26) That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. (27) And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

  2. Alabama John says:

    If just anybody could come in heaven wouldn’t have gates. Rev.21;21 tells of 12 gates and there might be more.
    As we teach, the entry is very restrictive in qualifications to be allowed to enter.

  3. Dwight says:

    Hospitality is a struggle in the church for many, largely because there is suspicion of wrong or possible wrong cast on strangers or many like my wife don’t know how to be open to everyone, but to a few and the house is never quite clean enough for strangers as well. It is clearly a mental thing. But we need to practice it more than we do.
    One of the notable things is that the preachers of Jesus time, by Jesus command, were subject to hospitality. They didn’t get pay and were told not to collect money, but were told to rely on the kindness of others in food, shelter and clothing. Their needs were fulfilled as they traveled, because God provided for them through people.

  4. JohnF says:

    The commentary of the Bible on itself says nothing about “lack of hospitality” as a reason for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That consideration seems to appear only among those who seek to diminish the Bible teachings against the practice of homosexuality.

    Ge 13:13 Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord. ESV

    Isa 3:9 For the look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom;
    they do not hide it. ESV

    Jude 7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. ESV

  5. Dwight says:

    John F. I too cannot find a scripture that talks of the sin of S & G as a lack of hospitality. Their sin was of aggressiveness due to lust for each other and strangers as well.
    But as noted by Jay, hospitality was a big thing to God.
    God will be and is hospitable to us, after all it is his house we are going to, so we should be to each other.

  6. Monty says:

    Interestingly(but sadly) a very similar story in Judges 19 about travelers who(this time)went to a “city of the Jews” Gibeah where they thought would have a better chance of finding safe shelter and lodging (than in Jebus-or Jerusalem later on) among the Jebusites. But upon their arrival in the town square(evidently where travelers gathered to await someone to invite them into their homes and if not then to spend the night there) no one invited them to stay the night with them. Clearly a “Houston we have a problem” indication. Finally an old man comes in from working in the fields and invites them home with him as he persuades them(doesn’t want them staying in the town square, I suspect he knows what could happen). That night some of the wicked men of the town come to his house and demand he put the strangers(males) out so they can rape them. Sound familiar? And finally the man(head stranger) puts his concubine out(can’t relate to that) nor that Lot was going to put his daughters out to the crowd. The men reluctantly(a female wasn’t their first choice) abuse the man’s concubine to the point of her dying.

    Oddly, more is made of the Sodom and Gomorrah story than this story, perhaps because the whole town was not wicked(as Sodom was) just this group of men. However, it is eerily similar to the Genesis story but hundreds of years later. Travelers who should have been “looked after” were seen as easy targets by wicked men. In God’s eye it’s wicked not to look after the needs of the most vulnerable by being hospitable. Men desiring to rape those who fall under their care prove the blackest of hearts.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    1. I clearly said that they were condemned for reasons that included more than lack of hospitality. “Sodom is condemned for, among other things, its lack of hospitality — which is startling to the Western reader.” There is nothing in that statement that remotely supports the homosexual marriage agenda or suggests that homosexuality in permissible in God’s eyes.

    2. Isaiah writes,

    (Isa. 1:9-17 ESV) 9 If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah. 10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations– I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

    There is nothing here about Lev 18.

    3. Ezekiel writes,

    (Ezek. 16:48-50 ESV) 48 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.

    “Did not aid the poor and needy” would seem to clearly pick up sojourners, as the account in Gen 19 makes no reference to others in need of protection or charity. The only individuals we see in Genesis as being neglected by the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah are the angels and they were only “needy” because they were sojourners.

    4. Jesus said,

    (Matt. 10:14-15 ESV) 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.

    The sin Jesus has in mind is a lack of hospitality. Again, the reason for seeing a lack of hospitality is that (a) that is in fact part of the story of S&G and (b) Jesus is speaking of a failure to receive his missionaries as sojourners.

    5. The fact is that S&G became something of a cultural metanarrative for the idea that God will utterly punish and destroy those who are disobedient to his will, even though these were not Israelites or subject to a covenant with God. Hence, they are only accountable for sins they knew to be sin due to the nature of the creation or their own morality — conscience and culture — all per Paul in Rom 1 and 2 and 5. Most of the references to S&G do not make a direct reference to homosexuality activity. After all, S&G predate Leviticus 18 by many centuries. Jude seems to have illicit sexual activity in mind in Jude 1:7, so we cannot exclude that as part of their sin. But we try to make homosexuality the entirety of their sin, and the Bible plainly contradicts such a narrow claim. They were guilty of attempted rape, which is sinful whether or not homosexual, and this sin was compounded by being a sin against sojourners, who in that culture were supposed to be under their protection — and this is true regardless of your views on homosexual marriage (and I’m very much on the record on that issue and shouldn’t have to repeat those arguments yet again when we’re dealing with a very different subject.)

    6. The commentators conclude, for reasons quite independent of the homosexual lobby,

    From such texts as Leviticus 18:22, 24 and 20:13, 23, it is clear that homosexuality is regarded as one of the abhorrent perversions of the Canaanites. In this instance, the sin is compounded by aggression. A rabbinic interpretation, found in Tosefta Sotah 3:11f. and elsewhere, suggests that the affluent people of Sodom selfishly adopted a deliberate policy of maltreating strangers in order to discourage visitors to the city and thus not to have to share their prosperity with others. …

    Lot is true to his code of honor. Hospitality was a sacred duty, according the guest the right of asylum. Lot is faced with a moral dilemma, for his own morals infringe upon the standards of Sodom. Tacitly, though unequivocally, the narrative declares that all socially approved actions and all societal values must be subordinated to the higher obligations of the divinely ordained moral order.

    Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 135.

    Oriental ethics decreed that a host is responsible for the safety of his guests. If anything happens to his guests while they are under his roof, the host is culpable. This is a concept the Hebrews shared with their neighbors. In the opening lines of the Epic of Aqhat from Ugarit, Baal intercedes on behalf of Aqhat that Aqhat may have a son. Baal lists the qualities and responsibilities of a model son with respect to his father. The son (1) sets up the stela of his ancestral gods in the shrine; (2) lays his people to rest on earth; (3) sends out his incense from the dust; (4) is the soldier of his post (i.e., protects his father’s tomb); (5) heaps the tablets of his office; and (6) drives out those who would abuse his houseguest.32 Lot’s conundrum in this situation is to decide which of his two options is the lesser (or greater) evil: exposing his guests to the crowd, and thus withdrawing his hospitality and the protection of his roof, or exposing his two daughters to deflowering, and thus quenching the thirst of the mob for sexual gratification through females rather than through males.

    One should not use this custom, however, to exonerate Lot. His actions are as inexcusable as those of Abraham in Egypt (ch. 12) and those that follow in Gerar (ch. 20). Abraham’s uncertainty about how he will be received by the Egyptians equals Lot’s uncertainty as he faces the rapacious mob that surrounds his house. Both are confronted by potentially hazardous situations. To ameliorate an explosive situation both uncle and nephew degrade themselves by proposing something unconscionable.

    The townsmen disqualify Lot’s setting himself up as a judge because he is a newcomer, a gēr. The same Hebrew form (preposition plus infinitive construct, lāḡûr) was used in 12:10 to describe Abram’s short-lived trip to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan. A sojourner is one who lives, either permanently or briefly, among people to whom he or she is not related by blood. In cases where Abram or his descendants are the gērîm, then the stay is always a temporary one. As such, they depended for their well-being on the gracious hospitality of their host, were denied privileges extended to the native born, and normally did not have a voice in community affairs. Gen. 19:9 is one of the few places in the OT that refers to someone as a gēr in a patronizing and denigrating fashion. What right does Lot have to judge that having sexual relations with his daughters would be preferable to having sexual relations with his visitors? Incidentally, this theme is reversed in the parallel story in Judg. 19. There the Levite, whose concubine was abused, sets himself up as judge and summons the other tribes to avenge the crime (19:29–30; 20:4–7). Nobody faults him for doing that, although he too is a sojourner.

    Lot’s pompous attitude in overstepping his bounds aggravates the Sodomites. Their words We will deal worse with you than with them suggest that they are prepared to have coitus with Lot. They will take Lot himself as a substitute sex partner rather than his daughters.

    Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 36–37.

    When Lot saw the messengers enter the city, he rose to meet them and bowed low before them. He invited them to spend the night at his house. It was out of the ordinary for Lot, a resident alien, to offer hospitality to recently arrived strangers, for this was the prerogative of citizens. Likely he had deferred meeting the strangers for a reasonable span of time in order to permit any citizen to welcome them. As he watched these men, being aware of the attitudes in Sodom toward strangers, Lot felt compelled to offer them hospitality for their own safety. Caught between his desire for acceptance by the citizens of Sodom and his deep concern for the well-being of these travelers, Lot acted righteously by placing the welfare of these strangers above his own ambitions.

    Politely the messengers declined Lot’s invitation, saying that they intended to spend the night in the town square, a wide area not far from the gate, where travelers were permitted to lodge for the night. Sojourners often lingered in such an area so they might be invited to a home (Judg. 19:15). It is possible that these messengers wished to spend the night in the square in order to observe the behavior of the citizens of Sodom.

    The messengers’ hesitation in accepting Lot’s invitation provided another opportunity for any citizen to offer hospitality. But none did so. This lack of hospitality was a definitive symptom of the city’s perverted values. Lot’s compassion stood in marked contrast to the callous attitude of Sodom’s citizens.

    John E. Hartley, Genesis, eds. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 186.

    Those quotations are from the first three commentaries I opened. The commentaries read S&G as about a lack of hospitality for sojourners — and they consider the homosexuality involved in the threat as an aggravating, sinful circumstance — but the lack of hospitality is the over-arching theme.

    The fact that most Westerners don’t see this is because we’ve largely forgotten about hospitality in this sense. It’s not part of our culture, even though it’s a part of our scriptures.

    Prooftexting does not make the point. If the text were to say that A killed B, we’d have no trouble seeing the sin of murder even if the word were not used. The narrative plainly is written in terms of a failure of the established norms of hospitality in contrast to Abraham’s very generous hospitality to the visitors. It’s not necessary that Moses tell us that Sodomites were inhospitable. The story makes the point plainly enough. And an Easterner would be outraged at the failure of the townspeople to treat the sojourners well.

    Ray Vander Laan tells of visiting a bedouin and being offered a sumptuous meal that was literally everything the family owned. They intended to skip days of food to host the stranger from America. To us, this is foolish. We insist on self-sufficiency, but this was not the way of the S&G citizens.

    Now, given that they were not subject to Torah or even worshipers of God, how does God condemn them for their sin? How are they accountable under the terms of Rom 5? Plainly because they were violating their own cultural norms — enough of the image of God was left in them that they knew to treat sojourners well. And so they sinned against God in an accountable way by not offering to shelter and feed them. Then the threatened homosexual rape further compounded what was already a serious sin.

    And if you read Gen 19 this way, the later texts that speak of S&G make better sense.

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