Hospitality in the Hebrew Bible by Peter Altmann

What is one to do with strangers, those people out of place?

People away from home need protection, shelter, and food. They are at the mercy of the locals. In response, the Hebrew Bible makes a central value of hospitable care for such outsiders—whether travelers, refugees (those forced to relocate), and even neighbors (who are foreigners to the host’s residence). Israelites are often reminded that they too were aliens in Egypt (e.g., Lev 19:34); so they should care for strangers. The law in Deut 14:28-29 of the third-year tithe shows that food for foreigners became an important legal statute, uncommon in ancient Near Eastern laws.

Numerous narratives and laws put this concern on display. The quintessential example takes place when three men (who turn out to be divine) journey by Abraham’s tent. He runs out and invites them to stop. When they accept, he prepares a lavish feast for them (Gen 18). Though he only offers them bread and water to wash their feet, he proceeds to slaughter his tender calf—a rare treat—and to have Sarah his wife make fresh bread for a tasty meal accompanied by curds and milk.

Soon after, Abraham’s nephew Lot also provides a feast and protection to these same travelers, in spite of their desire to spend the night sleeping in the Sodom town square. Lot’s protection and provision contrasts with the attempt by the other inhabitants of Sodom’s to take advantage of the outsiders (Gen 19). The Bible highlights the value of hospitality in these two cases by recording God’s blessing on Abraham in the form of a child and the rescue of Lot and his daughters from the destruction of Sodom.

The tragic story of Judg 19 tells of the opposite, bearing similarities to the story of Lot. A Levite and his concubine journey back home from his father-in-law’s house. They plan to sleep in the open square of the Israelite town of Gibeon, rather than a foreign town. The Levite makes this choice because he assumes they will be safer among Israelites. A man from Ephraim, himself living as an outsider in Gibeon, takes them in. While this man provides them with shelter, food, and drink, the local Gibeonites demand to rape the Levite but satisfy themselves with his concubine. She dies as a result. Her death leads to a massive civil war, for this deed represented an atrocity for Israel. The irony is that the travelers may have been safer in the foreign town than they were in Israel.

A similar critique of the lack of hospitality appears in Deut 23:3-5, which excludes Ammonites and Moabites from the Israelite sanctuary because they refused to provide the Israelites with access to water when passing Moabite and Ammonite territory on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (but see Ruth for a story about hospitable treatment of a Moabite).

Finally, hospitality also plays an important role elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, including in the lives of the prophets Elijah (1Kgs 17) and Elisha (2Kgs 4) and in leading to marriage, such as for Moses (Exod 2). Thus, hospitality serves as an underlying core value for how the characters in the Hebrew Bible should treat others, for they, too, understood the precarious nature of life as an outsider.

Peter Altmann, "Hospitality in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 17 Dec 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/hospitality-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

altmann-peter

Peter Altmann
postdoctoral researcher in Hebrew Bible, University of Zurich

Peter Altmann is a postdoctoral researcher in Hebrew Bible at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He also teaches courses in Bible for Fuller Seminary. His publications include Festive Meals in Ancient Israel: Deuteronomy’s Identity Politics in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context (BZAW 424; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011) and a coedited volume with Janling Fu, Feasting in the Archaeology and Texts of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

foreigners

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Lev 19:34

34The 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 ... View more

Deut 14:28-29

28Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns;29the Levites, because they have no allotmen ... View more

Gen 18

A Son Promised to Abraham and Sarah
1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.2He looked ... View more

Gen 19

The Depravity of Sodom
1The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and b ... View more

Judg 19

The Levite's Concubine
1In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to ... View more

Deut 23:3-5

3No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly ... View more

1Kgs 17

Elijah Predicts a Drought
1Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be ... View more

2Kgs 4

Elisha and the Widow's Oil
1Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servan ... View more

Exod 2

Birth and Youth of Moses
1Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a f ... View more

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