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.

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

  1. David Himes says:

    One of the interesting dilemmas surrounding the current controversy about “walls,” is whether the guidance of the Scriptures is intended or expected to apply to the family of God, or civil government.

    I find it a little discombobulated to think Jesus expected the government to abide by the guidance he gave his own disciples.

    But that’s just me.

  2. laymond says:

    I believe I have heard the church of Jesus referred to as the kingdon of God on earth. not in the bible but by some here on earth. I know we are to pray for the kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, I just don’t believe it has happened yet.

    Mat 6:31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
    Mat 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

    The church in my opinion does not fit the discription given in Rev 21.

    If Rev. 21 is a discription of the church, and therefore the kingdom of God on earth. I am afraid Jay, and myself have missed the boat. The pain and misery we have both endured over the past few years just don’t fit .

    I am still alive to tell you, you don’t want shingles.

  3. Dwight says:

    Jesus was called the King, thus a Kingdom, but just as the church is…the Kingdom is…heavenly.
    We are just earthly representatives of the church and the Kingdom.
    The King and the Kingdom will come….sometime during the Trump presidency.
    Just a few more tweets.
    Lord come quickly.

  4. laymond says:

    Rev 21:3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
    Rev 21:4 And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
    Rev 21:5 And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
    Rev 21:6 And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.
    Rev 21:7 He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.

  5. hist0ryguy says:

    Many moons have passed since last posting. I continue to read from time to time, and appreciate your both your study and writing style. Thank you for another informative post. I did not realize until now it has been several years since last posting. Even if you do not hear from me, my email still works most days and I pray you are doing well.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    Does anyone have an answer as to how the phrase “it is done” in verse 6 would have a message to either the first century Christians or to us in this generation? Can that phrase within the context ever not mean what it says? It is totally different than, “it will be done”. Yes, verse 5 does appear to be futuristic in that “make” is different than “made”, but is that conclusive evidence that the event could not have been completed between the two verses? While analyzing that, “will give” can be futuristic or it can be fulfilled at the same time of “athirst”. Then thinking about the hereafter, why would immortals get thirsty or need water of life? Is the water of life necessary to sustain immortal life? Show me how we have to overcome and inherit prior to having a father son relationship with God. This sure looks different than I have always in-visioned my life with Christ here and after the resurrection.

  7. Jay F Guin says:


    Thrilled to see that you’re still up and about and reading. I miss our conversations.

  8. Jay F Guin says:


    I think you’re pretty much right. The Kingdom has come, but not in its fullness. Victory is assured but hasn’t yet been won. It’s like the day after D-Day. Once the Allies established a beachhead, the outcome of WWII was determined. Germany could not win a two-front war. But the battles still had to be fought and lives and blood sacrificed to march to Berlin.

  9. Jay F Guin says:


    I’m getting to that very question.

  10. Gary says:

    I don’t think Jesus expected government to abide by his teachings but the nature of a democracy calls for a more nuanced understanding. To the extent that Christians make up the people who select government leaders then to that extent, at least approximately, government should reflect something of the teachings of Christ. Human government and Christ’s Church will never be the same of course but I’m thankful for the times when there is at least some overlap. If Christians are salt and light in this world then some influence of the Kingdom of God will at times be seen even in human government. I don’t understand Christians who are personally generous and compassionate but who advocate a government devoid of mercy and compassion. If our government is indeed “of the people, by the people, and for the people” then Christians are among the people who elect a government that reflects the values of the people. It is a fundamental contradiction for Christians who believe in God’s grace to then advocate for a government that shows no grace. How can we be hospitable as Christians and then want a government that will refuse hospitality to the stranger or sojourner or, in our day, the refugee?

  11. David Himes says:

    Personally, I don’t think your closing question is the significant one. Because our actions are independent of the government.

    The logic of your question would lead to the conclusion that if a stranger came towards your house with an AR-15, acting in a threatening way, you should open the door and invite him in.

    The guidance from the Text does not impose on us the obligation to not be rationally prudent in the application of hospitality.

    But somehow in all of this we have to love the way Jesus loved.

  12. Larry Cheek says:

    I believe that our government has just about given away all this country’s assets to aid needy in most countries. Do you really believe that we should borrow more money to give away?

  13. Johnny says:

    We must also judge the most effective way to take care of refugees, assuming that our government chooses to do so. On average it costs $64,000 per refuge over the first 5 years for each refugee brought to the USA. The UN has requested $1,057 per refugee per year (or $3,174 over 5 years) to care for those refugees in the Middle East. On a simply humanitarian basis, it is much more efficient to care for those refugees in the Middle East than to bring them to the USA.

  14. Dustin says:

    Thanks for those numbers. I’ve never seen those before. The only problem is many of those countries can’t take anymore refugees. Here are some statistics of from last year with the number of refugees each country has accepted:

    1. Jordan (2.7 million+)
    2. Turkey (2.5 million+)
    3. Pakistan (1.6 million)
    4. Lebanon (1.5 million+)
    5. Iran (979,400)
    6. Ethiopia (736,100)
    7. Kenya (553,900)
    8. Uganda (477,200)
    9. Democratic Republic of Congo (383,100)
    10. Chad (369,500)

  15. Johnny says:

    Obviously my math was wrong $1057 x 5 is not $3174 but $

  16. Randy says:

    The Torah also says this:

    1 “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you,

    2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them,

    then you must devote them to complete destruction.

    You shall make no covenant with them

    and show no mercy to them.

    3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,

    4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.

    5 But thus shall you deal with them:

    you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.

    6 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.

    The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.”

    –So, there’s that too.

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