The sojourner/resident foreigner: when just a translation simply will not do.

Brian Webster's picture

The NET Bible translates the Hebrew gēr as “resident foreigner.” But as we noted last time, this cultural term does not refer to just any non-Israelite residing in Israel’s borders. In Mosaic law, “resident foreigners” are essentially naturalized citizens. They have religiously, ceremonially, and legally become part of the congregation of Israel, have equal protections and obligations under the law, and participate in the worship of the Lord. So why does a gēr/resident foreigner/sojourner/naturalized citizen get to glean with the widows and orphans (Deut 24:19-21)? And why are they sometimes grouped with Levites to receive provisions (Deut 26:12)?

Four key elements are citizenship, land, need, and religion.
1) A gēr had given allegiance to the Lord and the covenant, essentially a naturalized citizen. Someone merely a foreigner (Hebrew nekar) did not receive these benefits.
2) The land was allotted to the tribes and to be retained by the tribes. A gēr could live in a city but not permanently own arable land. Similarly, the Levites lived in cities throughout the tribes but did not receive a tribal allotment. (Israel should not neglect the Levite “who is in your town” because he has “no share [of the land] or inheritance among you” Deut 14:27.) An orphan or widow might inherit land, but the missing father/husband would have been expected to work the land. (No offense intended ladies, but in the ancient world, without machines and their assistance in power, the difference in physical strength between a man and a woman was an inherent and significant factor in food production and the division of labor.)
3) The need for the orphan and widow arises from the difficulty of working the land. For the gēr and Levite it comes from not having land. The status of each presumes the need. (We assume that a gēr who rented land would not qualify to glean because he would be required to leave crops behind for those who would glean.)
Need is also implied by the fact that the provision is limited to natural food resources. There is no provision of processed goods (e.g. pottery, leather, furniture, flour, baked bread, housing) or other raw materials (e.g. water, wool, clay); the provision is just for the basic need of food (e.g. grain, grapes, olives).
4) This was a religious provision. Besides the gēr having become part of the congregation of Israel and worshiping the Lord, the tri-annual tithe set aside for the orphan, widow, gēr, and Levite was the tithe due to God. Deut. 14:22 says “You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year. Then verses 28-29 designate that every third year the tithe (to God) should be set aside for the orphan, widow, gēr, and Levite. God is the one lays claim to the 10% and directs how it is to be used. Thus it was not a tax by civil authorities

A translation such as “alien” (NASB, NIV), “stranger” (KJV, NRSV), “sojourner” (ESV), or simply “foreigner” (NLT, MSG) masks the true social and legal status of the gēr, as if there is no difference between other types of non-Israelites and the gēr. The NET’s choice of “resident foreigner” alerts the reader that there is more to the status than being Gentile, though “naturalized citizen” may be clearest. Either way the NET notes supplement in a unique way. (Look for expanded notes in a future edition of the NET Bible.)
When the religious allegiance and covenant status of the gēr (in the congregation of Israel) is masked by a translation, one easily understands that that can complicate or mislead the effort to apply the truths in our setting today.

While we will not take up a full treatment of appllying the teachings related to the gēr, we will offer a few observations pertaining to the material provisions for the the gēr in Israelite law:

The provisions were religious in nature.
The claim on the resources was made by God (e.g. the tithe).
The recipients were converted to the worship of the Lord (e.g. part of the congregation of Israel, circumcised males).
The provisions were need-based (deriving from status related to land ownership and ability to work the land).
The provisions were limited in scope, including some but not all life essentials, and not including processed or manufactured goods.
The provision of gleaning required the work of the recipients.
The provisions were a defined contribution, not a defined payout to recipients.
The contribution was a standard rate (e.g. tithe or 10%) which did not vary according to the wealth of the landowner.

Method should be considered as well as goal. Take the following example. The Bible says to help widows. Therefore we should use the force of government to take money from other people and borrow money from our children’s future earnings to give widows free HD TVs and electric cars (which is also good for the environment).
This absurd example illustrates the following paradigm:
The Bible says to be loving. I think such-and-such is loving. Therefore we should do this thing, through these means. Opponents of 'My-Loving-Idea' are bad and wrong. (By the way, don’t suggest criteria, don’t distinguish my method from my stated goal, and most certainly do not examine my results.)

We are a long way culturally, technologically, and religiously, from the provisions in Deuteronomy (or the care of widows in 1 Tim 5). But despite the differences, the related principles are still worthy of consideration in how we go about caring for others.

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