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Strangers and Gentiles

Ancient Israel was acquainted with two classes of strangers, resident aliens and foreigners who considered their sojourn in the land more or less temporary. The latter were referred to as zarim (זָרִים) or nokhrim (נָכְרִים), terms generally applied to anyone outside the circle the writer had in view (e.g., Ex. 21:8; 29:33). They retained their ties to their original home and sought to maintain their former political or social status. On occasion they came as invaders (II Sam. 22:45–46; Obad. 11). More often they entered the land in the pursuit of trade and other commercial ventures. The usual laws were not applicable to them, and they were protected by folk traditions concerning the proper treatment of strangers (cf. Job 31:32) and by special conventions resulting from contractual arrangements between the Israelites and their neighbors (cf. I Kings 20:34). In the legislation of Deuteronomy, an Israelite may charge a foreigner usury though he may not do so to a fellow Israelite (Deut. 23:21), and the septennial remission of debts does not apply to the debts of foreigners (Deut. 15:3). On the other hand, barred from the cult (Ex. 12:43), the foreigner was also not bound by the ritual laws, and it was permissible to sell him animals that had died a natural death (Deut. 14:21). The fact that Deuteronomy includes a special prohibition against foreigners' ascending the throne (Deut. 17:15) and that Solomon specifically requested that God listen to their prayers (I Kings 8:41) may indicate the important position some foreigners occupied during the age of the monarchy.

In contrast with the foreigner, the ger (גֵּר), the resident alien, lived more or less permanently in his adopted community. Like the Arabic jār, he was "the protected stranger," who was totally dependent on his patrons for his well-being. As W.R. Smith noted, his status was an extension of that of the guest, whose person was inviolable, though he could not enjoy all the privileges of the native. He, in turn, was expected to be loyal to his protectors (Gen. 21:23) and to be bound by their laws (Num. 15:15–16).

Prior to the Exodus, resident aliens as a class were unknown in Israel. On the contrary, the Israelites themselves were gerim (Ex. 22:20) as were their ancestors (Gen. 15:13; cf. 23:4; Ex. 2:22). Aliens were apparently attracted to their ranks when they left Egypt (Ex. 12:38, 48), and their numbers were further augmented during the time of the conquest of Canaan (Josh. 9:3ff.). By far the greatest number of gerim consisted of the earlier inhabitants of Canaan, many of whom were neither slain as Deuteronomy commands (cf. e.g., 7:2) nor reduced to total slavery (cf. I Kings 5:29; II Chron. 2:16–17). Immigrants also were numbered among them – foreigners who sought refuge in times of drought and famine (cf. Ruth 1:1) and refugees who fled before invading armies.

Since all of the landed property belonged to Israelites (cf. Lev. 25:23–24), the gerim were largely day laborers and artisans (Deut. 24: 14–15; cf. 29:10). Both the Book of the Covenant which classed them among those who were dependent (Ex. 23:12) and the Decalogue which referred to them as "your stranger" (gerkha; Ex. 20:10; cf. Deut. 5:14) attest their inferior position in Israelite society. While a few acquired wealth (cf. Lev. 25:47), most of them were poor and were treated as the impoverished natives. Thus, they were permitted to share in the fallen fruit in the vineyard (Lev. 19:10), the edges of the field, and the gleanings of the harvest (Lev. 23:22; see also Poor, Provisions *for). Like the other poor folk they were also granted a share in the tithe of the third year (Deut. 14:29) and the produce of the Sabbatical Year (Lev. 25:6).

Since the foreigners' defenselessness made them vulnerable, the Israelites were frequently reminded of God's special concern for the weak (Ex. 22:21–22; cf. Deut. 10:17–19) and were enjoined not to molest them (Ex. 22:20; cf. Jer. 7:6). They were not to be abused (Deut. 24:14) and were to receive equal treatment before the law (Deut. 1:16; cf. 24:17; 27:19). In case of accidental homicide, the cities of refuge were open to them as well (Num. 35:15), for there was to be "one standard for stranger and citizen alike" (Lev. 24:22). Moreover, the Israelites were enjoined to be especially solicitous of the welfare of the ger and to befriend him as one of their own, since they could recall the sufferings of their own people in the land of Egypt (Lev. 19:34; cf. Deut. 10:19).

With the passage of time, the gerim were assimilated culturally and religiously. Doeg the Edomite, for instance, was a worshiper of YHWH by the time of Saul (I Sam. 21:8), as was Uriah the Hittite in the reign of David (II Sam. 11:11). Hence, the ger, in contrast to the nokhri, was required in many cases to conform to the ritual practices of the native Israelite. Thus, gerim were subject to laws dealing with ritual purification (Num. 19:2–10), incest (Lev. 18:26) and some of the food taboos (Lev. 17:10–16; but cf. Deut. 14:21). They were expected to observe the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14), participate in the religious festivals (Deut. 16:11, 14), and fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29). They were permitted to offer up burnt offerings (Lev. 17:8; 22:18; Num. 15:14ff.) and, if circumcised, even to sacrifice the paschal lamb (Ex. 12:48–49; Num. 9:14). Indeed, they, no less than the Israelites, were expected to be loyal to YHWH (Lev. 20:2; cf. Ezek. 14:5–8).

However, social differences did remain, and some gerim were better received than others. While third generation offspring of Edomites and Egyptians might "be admitted into the congregation of the Lord" (Deut. 23:8–9), Ammonites and Moabites were not to be admitted "even in the tenth generation" (23:4). Furthermore, even while the Holiness Code admonished Israelites not to subject their fellows to slavery (Lev. 25:39), they were specifically permitted to do so to the children of resident aliens (25:45–46). A Hebrew slave belonging to a ger could be redeemed immediately, and if not redeemed served until the Jubilee Year (25:47ff.), but one belonging to an Israelite served until the *Jubilee (25:39ff.). Correspondingly, a Hebrew could serve as a hired or bound laborer (25:40) of an Israelite, but only as a hired laborer of an alien (25:50). Indeed, the humble position of the ger generally was emphasized by the usage of the term in the Holiness Code: e.g., "The land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me" (25:23; cf. 25:35, but see *Proselyte).

In practice, of course, there were Israelites who became propertyless and destitute and had to support themselves as day laborers (Deut. 24:14; cf. Lev. 19:13), and no doubt there were also gerim who became prosperous and acquired land. This narrowed the gap between the two classes and resulted in frequent intermingling. Marriages between the two groups did take place, only marriages between Israelites and the aboriginal inhabitants of Palestine being prohibited in Deuteronomy 7:3–4. On close examination it appears that even in the theory (and it was hardly more) of the author of Ezra-Nehemiah only marital alliances with the non-Israelites of Palestine were illegitimate, because the laws of Deuteronomy 7:3–4 and 23:3–9 applied to them. The absorption of converts from other nations is reported with equanimity – Ezra 2:59–60 (= Neh. 7:61–62); Ezra 6:21; Nehemiah 10:29 ("and everyone who withdrew from the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands [note the plural] to the teaching of God"). The phenomenon of such conversions is alluded to in Isaiah 56:3 and Zechariah 2:15; 8:20ff., and the predictions of the conversion of the gentiles in Isaiah and Jeremiah are well known. In late Second Temple times, the term ger had become virtually synonymous with "proselyte," and strangers were admitted to the religious fellowship of Israel (Jos., Apion, 2:28).


W.R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889, 1956), 75–79; M. Guttmann, in: HUCA, 3 (1926), 1–20; T.J. Meek, in: JBL, 49 (1930), 172–80; Pedersen, Israel, 1–2 (1926), 40ff., 505; 3–4 (1940), 397, 583–4; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 2 (1947), 191–2, 459; idem, Golah ve-Nekhar, 1 (19542), 226ff.; L.A. Snijders, in: OTS, 10 (1954), 1–154; de Vaux, Anc Isr, 74ff.; ET, 6 (1965), 296–304.