Who is described as a "stranger" in the Bible?

Various words are used indiscriminately in different Bible translations, which can make it difficult to unscramble the different categories used; and the differences between Old and New Testament, again, complicates the issue. In the New Testament the word stranger is not generally used in any specialised sense; however, the Hebrew scriptures have three different categories which can be described as "stranger", "foreigner" and "sojourner":

  1. Stranger. This is the person who does not belong and it can carry the implication of usurping a position. In many references it is equated with Israel's enemies

  2. Foreigner. (For example, "Solomon loved many foreign women" (1 Kings 9:1ff).) Tends to relate to one whose stay is temporary, though there is a religious implication in that many of them would have worshipped false gods. This led to the prohibition on intermarriage which became particularly marked after the exile.

  3. Sojourner. The Israelites, for example, were "sojourners" in Egypt. This implies the need to live in a foreign country for a considerable period of time while maintaining a continuing interest in the homeland. This category give their loyalty to their new home but never quite belong.

The sojourner had many privileges.

The Israelites must not oppress the sojourner (Exodus 12: 21, 23. 9; Leviticus 19: 33, 34). Indeed, they are to go further and love them (Deuteronomy 10: 19). One reason given for the observance of the Sabbath is that the sojourner may be refreshed (Exodus 23: 12). The gleanings of the vineyard and the harvest fields are to be left for them (Leviticus 19: 10 & 23: 22; Deuteronomy 24: 19-21).

The sojourner is included in the provision made in the cities of refuge (Numbers 25: 15; Joshua 20: 9) and is ranked with the fatherless and widow as being defenceless. God is their defence and will judge their oppressors (Psalms 94: 6, 146: 9; Jeremiah 7: 6 & 22: 3; Ezekiel 22: 7, 29; Zechariah 7: 10; Malachi 3: 5).

As far as religious life is concerned, the sojourner is bound by the law that forbids leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12: 19). They must abstain from work on the Sabbath and on the Day of Atonement (Exodus 20: 10; Leviticus 16: 29). They share in the prohibitions on eating blood (Leviticus 17: 10, 13), immorality (Leviticus 18: 26), idolatry (Leviticus 20: 2), and blasphemy (Leviticus 24: 16). On the plus side, however, they may eat unclean meat (Deuteronomy 14: 21), are not compelled to keep the Passover, but if they wish to do so, a male may be circumcised (Exodus 12: 48).

They are indeed virtually on a level with the Israelite (Leviticus 24: 22), and in Ezekiel's vision of the messianic age the sojourner is to share the inheritance of Israel, and their children will be counted as if they were Israelites (Ezekiel 47: 22-23).


Questions for consideration

  1. How do the different categories outlined above ( "stranger", "foreigner" and "sojourner") relate to the types of foreigners present in Britain today

  2. How do the Bible passages suggest we should treat foreigners?

  3. How near is this to what actually happens?


Also see Refugees and the Bible - readings to explore and Wandering people - learning from the Bible