Abraham received one such unexpected blessing. Sitting at the entrance to his tent one day, resting in the shade of the great trees of Mamre, Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. He hurried toward these strangers and greeted them as honored guests. “Let a little water be brought,” he said, encouraging them to rest with him, “and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way” (genesis 18:4–5 niv). Abraham asked his wife, Sarah, to bake bread for the strangers, and he personally selected a tender calf from his herd for his servants to prepare for the guest to eat. As they enjoyed the special meal together, the strangers spoke. They brought a word from God: within the next year, they said, Sarah would bear a child, a son (genesis 18:1–15).
In welcoming strangers, Abraham learned something about God, and about God’s plan for him. “This first formative story of the biblical tradition on hospitality is unambiguously positive about welcoming strangers,” Christine Pohl writes in Making Room. “It connects hospitality with the presence of God, with promise, and with blessing.” It also contributes to the overarching story of Israel as a people who were aliens and strangers chosen by God to be his people, his family.
Perhaps Abraham offered hospitality so willingly to strangers because he himself knew what it was to be a stranger. God had called him to leave his family and his homeland, and to settle in a foreign place. And Abraham knew that his descendants would need that same kind of hospitality, too. When God promised to make Abraham’s descendants as innumerable as the stars in the sky, God had warned Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years” (genesis 15:13).
Generations later, that prophecy was realized. Famine had driven Abraham’s descendants to Egypt, and over time, the Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites, trapping them in servitude far from their home. After Moses led God’s people out of Egypt and slavery, he delivered God’s laws to them. God reminded his people that even as they enjoyed their freedom and their new home, they were to view themselves as sojourners. God owned the land, and they were to be its stewards, but they were still “strangers and sojourners” (leviticus 25:23). Hospitality was fundamental to the way of life God planned for his people. “You shall not oppress a sojourner,” the law given to Moses commanded. “You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (exodus 23:9). The Israelites’experience of vulnerability was key to their welcome of others.
What did it mean to be a “sojourner” in the Middle East 3,000 years ago? Nowadays we often think of sojourners or strangers simply as travelers, people who prefer to see the world rather than to plant roots. Perhaps we think of immigrants or refugees, those who whether by choice or circumstance leave their homes and settle elsewhere. But in a mostly agrarian society, to be a sojourner had a distinct meaning. Because access to land was essential to life, the landless sojourner’s place was precarious; her safety and well-being depended on the willingness of a community to welcome her. Sojourners were among the most at-risk in an agrarian society, like the poor, the widow, and the orphan.
Hospitality to the stranger was recognized as a sacred duty based on shared humanity throughout the ancient eastern world, but for Israel it was also explicitly legislated. In fact, love for the stranger and love for the neighbor were for God’s people commands on equal footing (leviticus 19). Specific laws ensured that Israel would care for sojourners, paying them timely and equal wages (deuteronomy 24:14–15) and even including them in religious life (deuteronomy 29:10–15).
The book of Ruth offers us a clear picture of how some of these laws worked. Born a Moabitess, Ruth married into an Israelite family that was living in Moab to avoid famine in Bethlehem. When all the men in the family died, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi encouraged her to return to her hometown and find a new husband. Ruth refused. She wanted to stay with her mother-in-law, declaring, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (ruth 1:16 niv).
Trusting in the God of Israel, these women moved to Bethlehem. They were deeply vulnerable: both were widows, and although Naomi was an Israelite, Ruth was a foreigner—and a foreigner from a nation with a particularly bad reputation. In generations past, the Moabites had not welcomed the Israelites as they escaped slavery in Egypt, and immoral relations with Moabite women had led God’s people to worship false gods (numbers 25:1–2). In fact, God had declared that “No . . . Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation” (deuteronomy 23:3–6 niv).
So Ruth the Moabitess and her mother-in-law Naomi must have returned to Bethlehem wondering how they would be greeted. Would they find welcome, a place to live, a way to support themselves? Perhaps Ruth knew that the God of Israel had made special provisions in the law for widows and foreigners like themselves, instructing his people:
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. (deuteronomy 24:19–22)
Since Ruth and Naomi did not have land of their own, Ruth said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor” (ruth 2:2 niv). As it turned out, the field in which she found work belonged to Boaz, who happened to be a close relative of Naomi’s (ruth 2:3, 20). Boaz encouraged her to continue gleaning from the field, and showed her great kindness, even beyond what the law commanded, eventually marrying her. Their son Obed was the grandfather of David, the greatest King Israel had ever known. Boaz’s obedient hospitality folded a foreigner into the family of Israel, and God blessed Ruth’s faith and Boaz’s obedience, making Ruth the Moabitess part of the line that would eventually produce the Messiah, Jesus (matthew 1:5–6).
God extended hospitality and care to the Israelites, who knew what it was to be strangers and aliens in need of welcome and a place to belong, and God expected his people to make that same kind of hospitality integral to their identity in the world.