17 July 2013

Leviticus 19:26-37

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (v. 34)


The final section of this chapter from the book of Leviticus is concerned with the identity of the community of faith in Israel. It is critical of physical, cultic or ethical practices which are important identity markers for other surrounding communities in the ancient Near East. It considers ways of mourning the dead (verse 28), for example, encouraging the Israelites not to mark their bodies as a sign of grief. There are other ways in which the community can mark their loss, but nothing should be done which confuses boundaries between themselves and other peoples.

So it is therefore somewhat surprising, here in this set of commandments that are so concerned with order and definition, to find a law which throws all social and religious order into confusion. Not only is the alien, foreigner or stranger to not be oppressed in any way, they are to be treated as the citizen. The foreigner becomes the citizen, the stranger becomes the one who is known. The circle of care and commitment, already extended beyond kin to neighbour, is now to include the resident alien.

The memory of being slaves in Egypt from where God rescued them and brought them to a new place, is invoked throughout the Hebrew Bible. The experience of living in another's land is understood to give the Israelites special insight and compassion for those who are far from home. But to find this encouragement in a part of the law so concerned with boundaries  (in a set of teaching often thought to reflect a time when national identity was needing to be strengthened in the face of the overwhelming power of the Persian Empire) is yet another example of how as readers of the Bible we are never allowed to settle too comfortably in our own assumptions and prejudices.

To Ponder

  • How do other people identify you as a person of faith?
  • How might your local church or community be welcoming of the stranger?
  • What gifts might you receive from those who are 'resident aliens'?

Bible notes author

Rachel Starr

Rachel Starr is the Methodist tutor at The Queen's Foundation for ecumenical theological education in Birmingham, where she teaches studies in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Before that she spent three years in Buenos Aires completing doctoral studies at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (Instituto Universitario ISEDET).