Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are commanded to care for the social, ethnic, and religious outsiders in their midst, referred to in various passages as “aliens,” “strangers,” and “foreigners.” Indeed, this theme of exemplary, inclusive hospitality can be traced throughout the various literary and historical genres of the Old Testament, including the Torah, Writings, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. “The one command reiterated more than any other in the Mosaic books...is love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” observes Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the [British] Commonwealth. “Or to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you're a stranger.”
Since earliest days of creation, God’s people have been called to care equally for all of the created order and to serve as an exemplary blessing for all peoples. At many different points in the Old Testament narrative the people of God also found themselves strangers in a strange land, both before and after entering the Promised Land. This religious and historical reality is reflected in both the fundamental Levitical laws and first creedal statement handed down by God through the Moses to the Israelite children in Numbers 22.
In the earliest Genesis creation narratives God’s people are called to carefully steward the resources at their disposal, and to view each other with equality and respect befitting God’s pleasing creation.
“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them... God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”
In Genesis 12, God reaffirms and expands this call in the earliest covenant promises to Abram and Sarai. Indeed, God’s terms explicitly describe the exemplary nature of the blessing, one that will be extended to all peoples everywhere. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing,” the LORD promised Abram. “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
When Abram and Sarai (later Abraham and Sarah) and their descendants faithfully followed God’s command to leave the lands of their birth for the Promised Land, their resulting journeys repeatedly brought them into foreign social, ethnic, and religious contexts. Abraham and Sarah left Ur of the Chaldeans to wander among Canaanites, Egyptians, and Philistines. Although Isaac and Rebekah spent their whole lives in the areas surrounding Canaan, they too moved between Mesopotamian, Philistine, and Canaanite cultures. Isaac and Rebekah’s son, Jacob, follow a similarly meandering path, one often shaped by the necessity of fleeing a family squabble or business deal gone sour. After a long life among idol-worshipping Canaanites and Perizzites, Jacob spent his final years in Egypt, where his second-youngest son, Joseph, served as the Pharaoh’s regent. Jacob insisted on being buried in Canaan, however, and after a similarly itinerant life Joseph extracted the same promise from his own descendants.
After Joseph’s death, the Hebrew people lived as slaves in Egypt for more than 400 years before they could fulfill Joseph’s wishes, an experience that (together with the wanderings of the Patriarchs) helped solidify the importance of treating strangers honorably in succeeding Israelite social, legal and religious traditions. Passages such as Leviticus 19:33-34, Numbers 9:14 and 15:14-16, and Deuteronomy 1:16-17 repeatedly emphasize the importance of equal treatment for native Israelites and resident aliens alike. “As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord,” Moses commanded. “You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” In the same way, passages like Exodus 22:21 and 23:9 and Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and 16:11-12 specifically command the children of Israel to care for aliens in their midst because they too were once strangers in a foreign land. “You shall not oppress a resident alien,” God instructed them. “You know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
These emphases on social, religious and legal equality, together with the Hebrews’ shared, itinerant heritage, also profoundly inform the first doctrinal statement ever handed down by God through Moses to the fledgling nation of Israel. Recorded in Deuteronomy 26:2-15, this creed affirms God’s faithfulness to his chosen people during their long wanderings:
“You shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors...So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me’...Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”
Since the earliest days of the founding of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people included strangers and aliens in their midst. Joshua 8:35 and 20:9 both refer to the “aliens who resided among them” at least some of whom observed (and participated in) the Hebrews social, religious, and legal traditions. Indeed, II Chronicles 2:17 records that by the days of King Solomon, third king of Israel and Judah, more than 153,000 foreigners dwelt peaceably among the Israelites.
The most celebrated story of an outsider in ancient Israel is that of Ruth, the Moabite widow of a deceased Hebrew husband who relocated to Israel and embraced the Jewish faith alongside her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. The two widows lived and worked together, and earned their sustenance through Ruth’s willingness to gather the leavings from others’ fields in keeping with the legal provisions recorded in Deuteronomy 24:19-21: “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” Her husband’s kinsman, Boaz, recognized Ruth’s faithfulness and hard work; David, the second king of Israel, was their great-grandson!
Perhaps in part because of this family heritage of inclusion, David repeatedly refers to God’s special protection for strangers, widows and orphans in passages such as Psalm 10:18, 68:5, and 146:9. “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow,” David reminds his hearers. “But the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” King Solomon echoes his father’s sentiments in Psalm 23:11. “Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.”
Some of the most strongly worded defenses of the rights of social and religious outsiders - and damning indictments of those who oppress them - are contained in the Old Testament writings of so-called “Major Prophets” such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The Book of Isaiah holds numerous promises of protection for the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers in passages such as Isaiah 1:17-23, 56:3-8, and 58:6-12. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer,” God promised the chosen people of Israel through Isaiah. “Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
God similarly affirms the covenantal promises with the chosen people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah - if only they continue to look after the needs of social, ethnic, and religious outsiders in their midst. In passages such as Jeremiah 5:28, 7:5-7, and 22:3-4, the prophet reiterates the blessings that will follow if Israel keeps her commitments to defend the weak, oppressed, and excluded. “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place,” the LORD promises,” and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.” The prophet Ezekiel, conversely, prophesied against the Israelites’ continued disobedience and mistreatment of social and religious outsiders. “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you,” Ezekiel chastised God’s chosen people. “You have despised my holy things, and profaned my sabbaths.”
Many of the so-called “Minor Prophets” such as Micah, Zechariah, and Malachi make similar pronouncements about Israel’s responsibility to defend social, ethnic, and religious outsiders. Micah offers a straightforward description of the kind of behavioral faithfulness to which God’s chosen people are called. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The prophet Zechariah proclaims a similar, more specific blueprint for the Israelites’ responsibilities toward the outsiders in their midst. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” In the same way, Malachi offers God’s chosen people an even sterner warning about the consequences of violating the covenant. “’I will be swift to bear witness...against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me,’ says the Lord of hosts.”
As we have seen, God’s chosen people are commanded throughout the Old Testament, to care for the social, ethnic, and religious outsiders among them, including those referred to by various authors as “aliens,” “strangers,” and “foreigners.” This theme of exemplary, inclusive hospitality is evident throughout each of the several literary and historical genres of the Old Testament, including the Torah, Writings, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets. Perhaps most tellingly, ministry to social and religious outsiders was also emphasized by Christ in the New Testament as a natural, loving way of demonstrating one’s citizenship in the kingdom of heaven:
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Thus Christ confirms what Moses, David, and the prophets had proclaimed to God’s chosen people all along: care and compassion for the strangers and outcasts among them provided the kind of loving, inclusive example through which God seeks to bless, redeem, and re-create not just the people of Israel, but the whole world. Amen!
 Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Dignity of Difference,” On Being with Krista Tippett, September 13, 2012, http://www.onbeing.org/program/dignity-difference/188.
 Genesis 1:26-27, 31. This and all subsequent quotations, Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version (1989).
 Genesis 12:2-3.
 Numbers 15:14-15.
 Exodus 23:9.
 Deuteronomy 26:5-11.
 Joshua 8:35.
 II Chronicles 2:17.
 Deuteronomy 24:19.
 Matthew 1:4-5.
 Psalm 146:9.
 Proverbs 23:10-11.
 Isaiah 56:6-7.
 Jeremiah 7:5-7.
 Ezekiel 22:7-8.
 Hosea 14:3.
 Micah 6:8.
 Zechariah 7:10.
 Malachi 3:5.
 Matthew 25:34-40.