Who was a “sojourner”? (Translating cultural terms.)

Brian Webster's picture

The Hebrew word is gēr (גֵּר). What was a sojourner/ foreigner/ immigrant/ resident alien/ stranger? It is not the same thing to be an immigrant in, say, Japan, as it is to be an immigrant in America. Was it the same thing for Abraham to be a sojourner in Canaan as it was for someone to be a sojourner in Israel? The translators of the Septuagint didn’t think so. And for good reason. And does that difference make any difference when Peter calls us “foreigners” (NET)/ “aliens” (NIV)/ “sojourners” (ESV)/ “strangers” (KJV)?

There’s an old saying that goes something like:
You can move to Japan, but never be Japanese;
You can move to Germany, but never be German;
You can move to China, but never be Chinese;
You can move to America, and pretty soon...

We might apply the word “immigrant” to people living in two different countries, but their status is not really the same. In some countries, legal immigrants are not allowed to own land or a house. In others, legal immigrants can. Immigrants vary in their status because it depends on the laws and customs of the country they reside in.

A number of Mosaic laws are designed to protect or provide for the gēr (גֵּר). Natural born Israelites and gēr/sojourners were to be treated the same under Israel’s laws. Same obligations and punishments (Exod 12:49; Lev. 17:15; 18:26; 24:22; Num. 15:16,29; 19:10; 35:15; Deut. 1:16; 24:17; 31:12). Other ancient law codes, like the Code of Hammurapi, gave different punishments depending on your social position. So this equality with Israelites was huge. Israel was forbidden to oppress the gēr/sojourner (Exod 22:21; Lev 19:33). More than that, they were told to love the gēr/sojourner (Lev 19:34).

Gēr/sojourners were permitted, along with widows, and orphans, to glean in the fields after the farmers had harvested their crop (Deut 24:19-21). The farmers were told not to go back for grain they might drop, and not to go back over their olive trees and other crops a second time. Those resources were left for the widows, orphans, and gēr/sojourners. Also, every third year, a tenth of the crop, the farmer’s tithe, was to be stored in the towns for the Levite, the widow, the orphan, and the gēr/sojourner (Deut 26:12). That means the resources of Israelites were to be transferred in part to gēr/sojourners.

Gēr/sojourners appear to have enjoyed equal rights under the law as well as the benefit of social welfare programs. In fact, there are only a few verses that make distinctions between Israelites and gēr/sojourners. It’s minor stuff like who can eat meat from a cow that just keels over dead on its own.

Even in religion they are similar. Gēr/sojourners were to rest on Sabbath just like the Israelites. They could make sacrifices to the Lord, and celebrate festivals like Passover. As long as the males were circumcised.

But that brings us to a different type of distinction that is very important. Not any foreigner could celebrate Passover. You see, while a “sojourner,” a gēr, is a foreigner, that term does not simply mean “foreigner.” Hebrew has other words to refer to different types of foreigners. For example a “foreigner,” Hebrew nekar, is not permitted to eat the Passover, but a foreigner who is a “sojourner,” a “gēr,” can eat the Passover, if the males are circumcised.

Circumcision you may recall was a symbol of God’s covenant with Israel. So why would the gēr/sojourners be circumcised? Just to be allowed to eat Passover? No, because they had given their allegiance to the Lord God of Israel and become members of the covenant.

The first and last passages of Mosaic Law that deal with the gēr/sojourner are critical. Exodus 12 gives regulations for the Passover meal. Verse 19 forbids eating anything with leaven (yeast). If anyone does, whether a gēr/sojourner or native born, that person should be cut off from the congregation of Israel. But someone cannot be cut off from the congregation of Israel unless first of all they are a part of the congregation of Israel.

The last mention of gēr/sojourners in the books of Moses, Deut. 29:10-13, answers the question. The essential outline of the passage is that Moses says “You stand today, all of you, before the LORD your God... that you may enter into the covenant with the LORD your God... in order that He may establish you today as His people.” At the beginning he makes a list specifying who is meant by “all of  you” who are entering into covenant with the Lord. That list includes: your chiefs, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the gēr/sojourner who is within your camps.”

So it is clear. Mosaic law envisions the gēr, the “sojourner,” as those who have joined the covenant, submitted to Israel’s God and Israel’s laws, and become part of the people of God. With those criteria and rights under the law, the Hebrew word gēr might be best translated as “naturalized citizen.”

So the “sojourner,” or gēr, does not refer to just any foreign person. It does not refer to visiting traders, foreign dignitaries, or raiders, etc. and in a legal context not even to a foreigner who just happens to be living in the land. The term gēr applies to those who have religiously, philosophically, ceremonially, and legally, joined Israel. They were not Israelites in the sense of being descendents of Jacob, but they were not simply immigrants. Their rights and provisions came not from merely being there, but from pledging allegiance to the Lord and his covenant with Israel.

Next time, we’ll explain why they are included with the widow and orphan in receiving certain benefits and the nuances of term outside Mosaic Law. But back to the Septuagint. We opened by pointing out that the Septuagint distinguished between different uses of gēr/sojourner. Throughout the Laws of Moses that describe the protections and provisions for the gēr/sojourner, the Septuagint employs the term proselyte (προσήλυτος), “convert.” In this way the LXX recognizes the position of converts to Judaism as full members of Israelite society. It also underscores that from the beginning of Israel as a nation, the covenant was being extended to non-Jews, to Gentiles. (In fact Solomon counted 153,600 gēr/ προσήλυτος/ converts/ naturalized citizens in 2 Chr 2:17.) The Law was a source of grace to both Israel and the believing gentile.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.