Today we continue our study of Numbers 15. And in this blog post, we are going to talk about what the word stranger or foreigners in the Bible means. It is quite an interesting read but a long one. So you may want to grab a cup of coffee or tea before we begin our study today. We start this chapter with Numbers 15:5.
In verse 5 we see the mention of wine designated as the libation, that is, the liquid portion of the offering. It seems entirely appropriate that after the rebellion in which the scouts brought back the large cluster of grapes so symbolic of the fertile ground of the Land of Canaan, that God would choose to emphasize the need for wine as part of the sacrificial ritual.
I want to skip now to verse 14 because it opens an issue that is of importance to all students of the Bible, and especially those who already know Jesus as Savior.
“And if a stranger dwells with you, or whoever is among you throughout your generations, and would present an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord, just as you do, so shall he do.”
Now, the issue concerns what our English translations call “strangers” or “foreigners” within Israel. And it centers on what obligations these “strangers” or “foreigners” living in Israel have as regards sacrificial ritual and worship of God.
First, probably in our modern world, the best term that gives us a clearer mental picture of what is meant by stranger or foreigners in the Bible is “resident aliens.” In other words, these are legal immigrants from another race of people, another nation; non-Hebrews who continued living as non-Hebrews but doing so among the Hebrews. In the Biblical Hebrew, the word is “ger.”
So, before we look more closely at just what Numbers has to say about the obligations of a “ger,” let’s look more closely at just what a “ger,” in ancient Bible times, was.
First, the concept of a “ger” was, as so much else we find in the Scriptures about very early Israelite culture, common in the Middle Eastern region. So the concept was neither new to the Israelites nor was it a new scriptural invention with a new meaning to the Israelites just because it was included in the Torah.
In English, there is no adequate word to translate ger. In it’s simplest biblical sense it means a “protected stranger.” This concept of a protected stranger is sacred in the Middle Eastern cultural idea of what constitutes hospitality.
In other words, a guest in one’s home, even a complete stranger who only happened upon your house in his journey, was not only welcomed and given food and shelter but also given protection and sanctuary; and this protection was guaranteed by the very lives of the hosts.
But that concept could also carry one step further if that stranger wanted to remain in that village or family. And the idea was that in return for being protected, a person NOT of that tribe would have been cared for PROVIDED he was loyal to that tribe who he wanted to care for him.
Now the reason that we need to understand the many nuances of a ger is that the NT writings explain that Gentiles who come to faith in Jesus are both compared to gerim and contrasted to gerim (gerim is just the plural of ger).
In other words, those of us who are gentile Believers have biblical similarities to a ger, but also some significant differences. So if we’re to comprehend better this mysterious and complicated relationship that we have, as Gentile Christians, to Israel, we need to grasp the concept of a ger better as it was intended.
Perhaps a man named W.R. Smith wrote the most concise description of a biblical ger well over a century ago. And, he said this:
“The word ger goes back to a nomadic life, and it denotes a man of another tribe or district who, coming to sojourn in a place where he was not strengthened by the presence of his kin, put himself under the protection of a clan or a powerful tribal chief.”
During their time in Egypt and their flight from Egypt, Israel had many strangers; many “gerim” attach themselves to Israel. The same thing happened when the conquered Canaan, many Canaanites attached themselves to one Israelite tribe or another as “gerim.”
It was common knowledge what the rights of a “ger” were, and were not, in the ancient world. So the Bible doesn’t go to any length at all to explain it to us: it was but common knowledge in Bible times.
Because it is so difficult to define the word, precisely it is better to discuss the attributes of a “ger,” a foreigner, a stranger, a resident alien.
First, Israel regarded ITSELF as a “ger” both before it moved to Egypt (while the Patriarchs were living in Canaan), and during its time in Egypt. That is, they were protected strangers, resident aliens, in Canaan and Egypt because it wasn’t their land.
In fact, even after they possessed the Promised Land, theologically they STILL saw themselves as “ger”; and because God made it clear that while Israel would possess the land, they didn’t OWN it. It was God’s land, and the Israelites were essentially leaseholders.
Where did they get that idea? Read Leviticus 25:23:
“The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me.” (NAS)
What the original Hebrew says is that the land is mine, for you are but “GER” with me. By ancient tradition, “gerim” could not own property. So, the Israelites WELL understood what God meant that they were “gerim” with Him: they would NEVER be able to sell their property because they could never OWN it in the first place.
Therefore, “gerim” had to either be employed as workers on someone else’s land or as craftsmen with trades. Often they were wards of the state: that is, they were under the authority of the tribe, but they also received a kind of welfare to survive.
Just as, theologically speaking, Israel itself were “gerim” to the Lord even after they possessed Canaan, so were the Levite’s “gerim” to the Israelites. The Levites could own no land, and they were under the protection of the tribes of Israel.
So, there was kind of a pecking order established. There was NOT full equality between the “ger,” and the tribe or nation he was sojourning among. A “ger” was, in some respects, a 2nd class citizen.
Among Israel the “ger” the person of another race who came to live among Israel had equal protection under the law but didn’t always have the same privileges as an Israelite. Where was the difference? If we can divide Israel’s laws into civil and religious, this is where we see the distinctions.
In other words, when civil laws such as murder, rape, adultery, theft, etc., came into play, the “ger” and the Israelite were on equal footing. And both were obligated to obey the civil law, be punished according to the public law, and to live under the terms of the civil law.
Let me be clear: this is NOT a law separate from Torah. I am referring to the Torah, which contains both civil and religious law.
However, obedience to the religious laws was another matter. Just as the whole law can be seen as divided into two primary groups (civil and religious), so Hebrews have always seen the religious law divided into two basic groups:
- The group that prohibits and
- The group that commands something to be performed.
Sometimes these two categories are called negative commandments (those that prohibit something), and positive commandments (those that demand something to be performed).
In general, a “ger” must obey the negative religious commandments but is not always required to obey the positive religious commandments.
As an example of this, the “ger” has no requirement to observe any of the Biblical Feasts (although he is perfectly welcome to join in). However, if he DOES decide to join in, then he must do it properly. He cannot do it in his way.
By way of an example of how a “ger” must obey a negative religious commandment, we can look to Lev. 17:15-16;
“And when any person eats an animal which dies or is torn by beasts, whether he is a native or an alien, he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening; then he will become clean. But if he does not wash them or bathe his body, then he shall bear his guilt.” (NAS)
Where the verse says that this applies to “native or an alien,” the Hebrew is “native or ger.”
And this also gives me an opportunity to mention something that I have only recently come to understand, and it is this: that often in the Torah we will see a statement something on the order of… ” … There shall be one law for you and the resident stranger…” Or, using our Hebrew, “there shall be one law for you (Israelite) and the ger….”
In fact, this is NOT a general principle. It is referring ONLY to the law, regulation, or command that is within the context of that statement. So, when a commandment is given, and then just before or after it says there shall be one law for the Israelite or the ger, it is referring to THAT particular law and NOT all the laws in general.
And this is fully validated by many Rabbis, and especially Ibn Ezra and is an important thing to understand, indeed.
Now, understanding just what a ger is. Ger is usually translated (though not particularly thoroughly), by the English words a stranger of a foreigner. And that indeed a “ger” is a second-class citizen, even though they are required to obey the negative commandments just as all Israelites are. I have a question for you. Are you, a gentile Christian, and a ger included in Israel? Or are you something else?
Turn to Ephesians 2:8-22.
Aha. Here is the proof we need. Gentiles were at ONE TIME foreigners, “gerim,” to the covenants of Israel. We were strangers, aliens, gerim who were excluded, as gerim are, to the NATIONAL LIFE of Israel.
But, faith in Jesus has brought us near. In fact, we are made fellow citizens. So, we are NOT ger, we are now a part of that entity called TRUE ISRAEL by Paul in Romans, and here in Ephesians called the “household of God.”
We don’t become fleshly citizens of earthly Israel; we become spiritual citizens, along with our fellow Jewish Believers, in Spiritual Israel. And, this is all using the covenants God created WITH Israel.
We’ll go further into chapter 15 in my next blog post and begin to address some more of the deep, and foundational God-principles found here.