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.
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