God of the Outsider

Loving the stranger is an essential trait of the Lord’s character.

I remember the summer I spent in northern Thailand, my first long trip overseas, when I was a college student. I knew enough of the language to get me in trouble (and fortunately to ask where the bathroom was!) but not enough to have a true conversation. I had to learn where to find the grocery store, figure out how to use the bank, and master all sorts of new cultural customs and practices.

It was easy to feel like an outsider.

“I had to learn where to find the grocery store, figure out how to use the bank, and master all sorts of new cultural customs and practices.”

Fortunately, I experienced the hospitality of locals who took me in, showed me the ropes, and cared for me. It got me wondering: How does God feel about outsiders? The Bible actually makes it clear. There are three different Hebrew words—ger, nokri, and toshab—that show up frequently in Scripture, often translated as “foreigner,” “sojourner,” “alien,” or “stranger.” Let’s take a closer look at how God calls His people to extend hospitality and welcome the outsiders.

Remember Where You Come From

Foreigners were common in the ancient world. Famine, war, and other upheavals could easily uproot you from your homeland. We see this in the Bible: Jacob’s family first picks up and moves to Egypt during a famine (Gen. 46-47). The catalyst for the book of Ruth is a famine that motivates Naomi’s family to leave the Promised Land (Ruth 1:1). At the climax of the Old Testament, the Israelites find themselves uprooted by war and living as foreigners in Babylon (2 Chron. 15-21).

Living in a foreign land made you vulnerable. You didn’t have the social connections, extended family network, or citizenship rights that locals had. Then, as today, it’s easy for folks to be suspicious or scared of outsiders, so sojourners were often mistreated or taken advantage of.

Israel was called to be different. Why? God regularly reminded His people of their own brutal experience abroad: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Ex. 23:9 NIV). Under Pharaoh, they had been enslaved, were worked to the bone, and watched their children be killed by uncaring masters. But now with God’s deliverance, they were to use their freedom to model a different way of life for the nations.

To spark compassion for the strangers in their midst, God tasked His people with recalling the harsh trials they themselves had endured: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34 NIV). This passage echoes Jesus’ Golden Rule. (See Matt. 7:12.) As God’s people, we’re to treat others the way we want to be treated—with respect and dignity.

Justice for the Foreigner

Such treatment was radical in the ancient Near East. Legal systems emphasized protecting other vulnerable populations like widows and the poor, but Israel was unique in also highlighting care for the foreigner.

As God’s people, we’re to treat others the way we want to be treated—with respect and dignity.

Under Israel’s law, when farmers harvested their crops, picked olives from their trees, or gathered grapes from their vineyards, they were not to strip their fields, trees, or vineyards bare or go over them multiple times. Rather, Scripture commanded them to leave the gleanings for the foreigner, orphan, and widow (Deut. 24:19-21). This provided work for the vulnerable, prevented greed by landowners, and was a powerful witness to a different way of life amongst God’s people.

In the ancient world, outsiders were often poor and ill-used. But Israel’s resident aliens were included in the nation’s Sabbath and thereby guaranteed a “weekend” so that they “may refresh themselves” (Ex. 23:12; Ex. 20:10). Similarly, they were also allowed to participate in most national holidays.

Israel’s “cities of refuge” were designated for the protection of not just Israelites but also foreigners residing in the land (Num. 35:15). With regard to practices that would defile the land, both groups were held to the same standards of justice under Israel’s criminal law (Lev. 18:26; Lev. 20:2), and outsiders had the same recourse as citizens if they committed an unintentional sin (Num. 15:22-31).

God took all this seriously, warning, “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow” (Deut. 27:19; see also Deut. 1:16; Deut. 24:17). Israel was to welcome strangers in their land and treat them fairly, because they served a God of justice.

Laying Out a Welcome Mat

From the start, God’s people were charged with welcoming foreigners—it was their mission to be a blessing to all. God promised Abraham, the founder of Israel, “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Israel was to carry God’s blessing to the world, and her way of life was to be a light to the nations, a testimony of her Redeemer’s heart for all mankind.

Israel’s temple was the center of her national life and was to be a “house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isa. 56:7). When Solomon dedicated the temple, he asked God to hear the prayers of those who came to pray from far-flung lands: “Concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name” (1 Kings 8:41-43).

From the start, God’s people were charged with welcoming foreigners.

Hear the prayers of the outsider! Make Your name great among the nations! The heartbeat of this prayer by Solomon was to be throbbing through Israel’s lifeblood as a people.

Interestingly, the nation of Israel saw themselves as strangers in the land. God reminded His people, “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me” (Lev. 25:23). The Promised Land was theirs to steward, but not ultimately to own.

God welcomed Israel’s tribes as guests into His own home. David acknowledged this status, declaring on behalf of the people: “For we are sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were” (1 Chronicles 29:15). When we recognize God as the true owner of all things, we discover our desperate dependence on Him, like the psalmist who prayed, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with You, a sojourner like all my fathers” (Psalm 39:12). Everything we have, we receive from the hand of God.

The prophets held out hope for that day when foreigners from all nations would stream into Jerusalem, to worship together there. (See Isa. 2:1-4; Jer. 3:17; Mic. 4:1-5.) And when they come, the Israelites are to extend the very welcome they themselves had received from God.

Jesus Welcomes Aliens

Israel’s King has always embraced outsiders, made them a part of His kingdom, and lavished praise on them. For instance, He transformed the Samaritan woman into an evangelist, highlighted the Roman centurion’s faith as the greatest He’d found in Israel, and asked of the lepers He healed, “Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” (John 4; Matt. 8; Luke 17:18).

And Jesus calls us, as His followers, to follow the example He set. Romans 12:13 says we are to “practice hospitality,” the Greek word philoxenos literally meaning “love to strangers.” Such caring for outsiders is not a dreary chore but something to be done in joy, “without complaint” (1 Peter 4:9). And we can do this with the expectation, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, that something amazing might take place: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (1 Peter 13:2). When you love on the stranger and care for the foreigner, you may find yourself in an encounter with the God of the Outsider.

 

Illustration by Adam Cruft

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1 Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons.

9 You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.

34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.

12 In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

19 When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

20 When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow.

21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow.

12 Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.

10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.

15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.

26 But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you

2 You shall also say to the sons of Israel: `Any man from the sons of Israel or from the aliens sojourning in Israel who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones.

22 But when you unwittingly fail and do not observe all these commandments, which the LORD has spoken to Moses,

23 even all that the LORD has commanded you through Moses, from the day when the LORD gave commandment and onward throughout your generations,

24 then it shall be, if it is done unintentionally, without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one bull for a burnt offering, as a soothing aroma to the LORD, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the ordinance, and one male goat for a sin offering.

25 Then the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and they will be forgiven; for it was an error, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their error.

26 So all the congregation of the sons of Israel will be forgiven, with the alien who sojourns among them, for it happened to all the people through error.

27 Also if one person sins unintentionally, then he shall offer a one year old female goat for a sin offering.

28 The priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven.

29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the sons of Israel and for the alien who sojourns among them.

30 But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people.

31 Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.'"

19 Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.' And all the people shall say, `Amen.'

16 Then I charged your judges at that time, saying, `Hear the cases between your fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him.

17 You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow's garment in pledge.

3 And 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 will be blessed."

7 Even those I will bring to My holy mountain And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples."

41 Also concerning the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country for Your name's sake

42 (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house,

43 hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name.

23 The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me.

15 For we are sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.

12 Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; Do not be silent at my tears; For I am a stranger with You, A sojourner like all my fathers.

1 The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 Now it will come about that In the last days The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it.

3 And many peoples will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways And that we may walk in His paths." For the law will go forth from Zion And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.

17 At that time they will call Jerusalem `The Throne of the LORD,' and all the nations will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the LORD; nor will they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart.

1 And it will come about in the last days That the mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains. It will be raised above the hills, And the peoples will stream to it.

2 Many nations will come and say, Come and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD And to the house of the God of Jacob, That He may teach us about His ways And that we may walk in His paths." For from Zion will go forth the law, Even the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

3 And He will judge between many peoples And render decisions for mighty, distant nations. Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war.

4 Each of them will sit under his vine And under his fig tree, With no one to make them afraid, For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

5 Though all the peoples walk Each in the name of his god, As for us, we will walk In the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.

18 Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?"

13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.

9 Be hospitable to one another without complaint.

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