Hospitality in the Old Testament
The concept of hospitality is a significant theme that runs throughout the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. In the book of Genesis (12:1-4), God called Abraham to leave his family and his country and go to a land that God would show him. Abraham was obedient, left his relatives and his country, and went to the land of Canaan. Ultimately, the nation of Israel came from Abraham and his descendants.
As you read the story of Abraham and the development of the Israelite nation, it is obvious that the Israelites knew what it meant to be aliens and strangers in a foreign land. And because of this communal experience, God forbade the Israelites from mistreating the aliens or strangers who lived among them. God expected the Israelites’ collective memory as mistreated and oppressed strangers in a foreign land to influence their treatment of strangers (Exodus 22:21, 23:9).
Not only were they to refrain from negative behavior toward strangers; they were to be proactive in treating them positively. Strangers were to be treated as native-born Israelites, and were to be loved by them. God wanted the Israelites to know that it was He Who required them to treat strangers correctly. But He knew the requirement would be difficult for them to implement, so He put the full weight of His authority behind it by adding, “I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).
The prohibition against mistreating the stranger, and the proactive principle of loving them, was not based solely on God’s authority, but on His character and His relationship with the Israelites. The Israelites believed in God. But, according to Deuteronomy 10:12-22, it wasn’t enough for them to simply believe in Him; they were to love Him with all their hearts and souls.
They were to love God because He loved them first. As a result, the Israelites’ love for strangers, and their ethical treatment of them, was to be based on their relationship with God. On God’s character, His love for them, and on His ethical treatment of the stranger. In other words, the Israelites were to imitate God in their treatment of aliens in the land of Israel.
In Deuteronomy 26:12-13, God required the Israelites to take a portion of the produce of their land (10 percent) and bring it before the priests as a thanksgiving offering. This was called the law of the tithes and first fruits. This tithe was to be distributed among several groups of people, including the Levites, the aliens, and the fatherless and widows. It was not just for the needs of the religious leaders, the priests and Levites, but also for the provision of food for the aliens.
In Genesis 18, Abraham practiced hospitality toward three strangers that appeared to him one hot summer afternoon. He invited them to come into his tent, and prepared a meal for them. The three strangers turned out to be three divine messengers: two angels and the Lord Himself.
Through this direct encounter with God, Abraham received a divine reaffirmation of the promise that Sarah would have a baby, and that it would finally come the following year. Twenty-four years earlier, God had promised they would have a baby; and now He was telling them it was about to happen. This encounter between God and Abraham also resulted in the deliverance of Abraham’s nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the Old Testament God’s testimony of a man named Job was that he was blameless and upright. In one of his responses to his critical friends, Job based his claim to having lived a proper and acceptable life before God on the fact that he practiced hospitality. He had never allowed strangers to sleep in the streets; his doors had always been open to them (Job 31:32).
By the time of the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites had institutionalized many of their religious practices, and prided themselves on their ritualized fasting. At one point, the prophet records the Israelites’ wondering why God was not taking notice of them while they fasted. Through the prophet, God told the Israelites that He was in fact, taking notice of their fasting. But He was not pleased. He reminded them of His mandate for exercising hospitality and concern for others.
In Isaiah 58:6-7, He chastised them concerning their idea of fasting, and the way they behaved during their fasts. He said,
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
The Israelites’ behavior during and after their fasts displeased God. And through Isaiah, God told the Israelites what the proper elements of a fast were. He said,
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
These were the exact opposite of the things the Israelites were doing.
From this brief overview it is easy to see how important practicing hospitality toward the alien was to God in the Old Testament. It was a practice that had to come from the heart, based on a person’s relationship with Yahweh. It was not just an external ritual to be followed.