A Native of the Land: Deriving an Ethic of Intercultural Relations from Exodus, Part 7

It’s the home stretch. Today we are going to explore exactly why the “sojourner” is so important to Israel and to Israel’s God. Next time we will wrap it up. If you want to start at the beginning click here.

The second and final proof signifying access to God of those outside Israel is the place of the “sojourners” in Israelite law. Before analyzing the place of the sojourner in Exodus’ laws, the questions must first be asked as to who exactly the sojourners are and how they function in different parts of the book.

The first piece of the puzzle comes when Moses names his own son “Gershom” a reflection of his own experience living in a foreign land dependent on the kindness of strangers.56 Even more tellingly, Israel is said to “know” the heart of the sojourner in Exodus 23:9, because of the long, bitter experience in Egypt being deeply inscribed in Israelite identity.57 This should begin to give the reader a fairly clear picture of what exactly is meant by the term “sojourner.” Perhaps Durham puts it best in his commentary: It is anyone displaced from one’s natural home and family
network.58

As a result sojourners were undoubtedly outsiders, disconnected from political power, vulnerable to economic exploitation, and isolated from security save for kindness from strangers as Jethro towards Moses.

So what does Exodus tell of how sojourners are to be treated in Israelite society? The question must be answered in two parts, religious treatment and economic treatment.

There are a number of passages highlighting God’s concern that all people be allowed access to him, and that there always be a pathway to holiness for anyone seeking it.60 This is likely why no other society in the Ancient Near East comes close to reflecting Israel’s concern for such people. It is not that other cultures did not care about aliens in their midst, rather it reflects God’s yearning and urgent desire for all to have knowledge of him, as well as the historical reality of Israel’s unique situation and consciousness.61

The clearest reflection of this mindset encoded in commandment form is Exodus 12:48 in which God says about the sojourners, “he shall be as a native of the land” if the sojourner agrees to circumcision. Thus God’s requirement for entrance into his covenant is only the faith necessary to undertake the rite of circumcision, not sharing genes with a particular patriarch or possessing the right tone of skin pigment. There is simply no ethnic requirement or restriction on this command at all. All are free to come and worship if they so chose.

Turning from the question of religion to economics, one is forced to consider the fate
of the sojourner who does not convert, but rather remains in Israel’s midst as pagan. Is Israel implored to treat foreigners well only in hopes they will become faithful proselytes? The answer must be a resounding no. Exodus 22:21 reads in unyielding rigor, “you shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Intriguing is the fact that for all the oppression vocabulary contained in Exodus, this word used here does not appear anywhere else in the book, though it is employed in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 25. The hiphil use, as is the case in Exodus 22:21, hints at a willful restriction of another’s rights on the part of a stronger party.62 In other words, Israel is to treat those living within the community just as they would native, faithful Israelites.63 There are to be no distinctions drawn based on ethnic grounds, except when it comes to worship. In all likelihood, many of these sojourners, converts or not, married into Israelite families and were completely assimilated within a generation or two.64

These laws and Israel’s attitude towards helpless foreigners is just another example of God’s overwhelming desire to ultimately draw all nations to himself.

This concludes the humble attempt to survey the teaching of Exodus concerning relations between different ethnic groups. It has been determined Israel was in fact a discernable ethnic group, and God does in fact favor the genetic descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in a unique way. Those peoples who opposed Israel, first pharaoh and his conceited Egyptian elite, then Amalek, and the idolaters of Canaan are all vehemently crushed by God. God and Israel, however, discriminate not by culture or skin color. Their
malevolence is rather generated, according to the text, because these other groups posed a threat to the fulfillment of God’s covenant to Abraham. As previously stated, this was a covenant intended not solely as a benefit to Israel, but for all the earth. Indeed, some foreigners begin taking advantage of God’s mercy right away. The text of Exodus makes clear around the time of the exodus event all were welcomed into the Israelite community if they submitted in worship to God. Even those who did not found only fair economic opportunity and legal equality showered upon them by Israelite law. So while there are difficulties in comprehending some of the violence, I do believe the treatment of the sojourner, as enshrined in law code, is God’s final word on the matter.

Peace,
Ben

Footnotes:

57) Chistina van Houten, The Alien in Israelite Law, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 107 (Sheffield, England: Sheffied Academic Press, 1991), 36.

58)Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary, 328.

59) Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 162.

60) Cyril S. Rodd, Glimpses Of A Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), 7.

61) Van Houten, The Alien in Israelite Law, 36.

62) R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, and B. K. Waltke. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 873.

63) Rodd, Glimpses of A Strange Land, 6.

64) Moshe Greenberg, “Mankind, Israel and the Nations in the Hebraic Heritage,” in No Man is Alien: Essays on the Unity of Mankind, ed. J. Robert Nelson (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), 25.

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