You Were Strangers

Welcome the Stranger, part 1

Reading: "Dwell in an Artist's House"

Leo Tolstoy said:
“All great literature is one of two stories: A man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.”
One may wish that it had occurred to Count Tolstoy that women go on journeys, too – and their stories have as much literary potential. Still, one sees his point. In either case – embarking on a journey or a stranger coming to town – it’s about the encounter with something new, something different, and what that encounter does to us. This is the compelling subject of literature and of life.

Without that encounter with the stranger – whether we head out or the stranger comes to us – life is a flat unchanging monotone. To open ourselves to the stranger – whether it is a human being who “isn’t one of us” or a part of yourself that you haven’t gotten to know very well – that you tend to repress – is to open ourselves to life.

Life is strange, as many have observed. More to the point, life is strangers – one stranger after another – from without and from within – met on our journey, or intruding into our town.

Hence the Torah, the central and most important part of the Hebrew Bible and which Christian tradition knows as the first five books of the Old Testament, urges hospitality to strangers. Exodus 22:21, in the King James Version, reads:
“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The original Hebrew word is geyr (gare) -- a guest; by implication, a foreigner:--alien, sojourner, stranger. The New Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible translate geyr as “resident alien.” The New International Version and the New Living Translation say “foreigner.” The English Standard Version says, “sojourner.”

But the Jewish Publication Society – the JPS -- translation of the Torah is arguably the one we should use to properly honor the fact that this was originally Jewish scripture long before being appropriated as Christian scripture. JPS uses the same word the King James Version uses: "stranger." So let’s go with that. I’ll be using today the most recent “New JPS” translation of 1985.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
What does this mean for us, today? You may be skeptical -- and I share that skepticism -- about treating this ancient text as a moral authority. After all, the sentence immediately before that says:
“Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the LORD alone shall be proscribed”
– that is, put to death. And I don’t think we are inclined to view that as a moral imperative. Still, there is this emphasis about strangers. The point keeps being repeated. Exodus 23:9 makes the point with additional appeal to empathy:
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:33 makes the stronger point that not only should we not oppress but should treat them as citizens and “love them as yourself.”
“When the stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Why would the Hebrew people want to emphasize this point this way? What human truth, what psychological or spiritual need, were they tapping into?

When they made it a rule not to sacrifice to other gods, they were saying, “look, we’ve got to stick together here. We are surrounded by Assyrians, Phoenicians, Philistines, Moabites, Hittites, Ammonites and others who will slaughter and enslave us if we can’t stick together and be loyal to each other. All of us sacrificing to the same god, is the most powerful effective way we have of doing two things: (1) expressing our loyalty to the group through demonstrations of dedication to the group’s symbolic authority figure, and simultaneously (2) enhancing and strengthening that loyalty.”

That’s why I think that part is in there. Group loyalty and cohesion was essential for survival. Leviticus also prohibits planting different crops side by side, prohibits wearing cloth woven of two kinds of material, and imposes extensive dietary rules. Why? Because having some restrictions that we all share helps foster group cohesion and loyalty -- even if, or especially if, those restrictions are entirely arbitrary.

But the one about strangers is different. It is in fact the opposite of “let’s be insular and protective and loyal to each other.” It’s precisely because this requirement of hospitality goes against the grain, that I think these passages about strangers are particularly important. It speaks to a spiritual need greater than survival itself – for it speaks to why we should bother to care about whether we survive.

This is part 1 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See next: Part 2: Defined, Yet Porous
Part 3: What's Your Hospitality Challenge?

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