AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE GĒR IN LEVITICUS 19:33 AND 34 AND THE TREATMENT OF THE IMMIGRANT*
J. Dwayne Howell
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, have caused many citizens of the United States re-evaluate their relations with each other as well as those of other countries. The tragedy is compounded by the rise in hate crimes against those citizens of foreign birth or ancestry. Especially affected by this rage are those of Middle Eastern descent.1 During such times of national crises there is a rise in xenophobia, the fear of the stranger, and often the innocent suffer from the effects of such fear. During World War II, internment camps were set up for Japanese-Americans because of a perceived threat that they posed to national security. In the present national (and international) situation what is the appropriate biblical response to the one of foreign descent or ancestry? Leviticus 19:33 and 34 states:
When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant. The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you, and you shall love the immigrant as yourself; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. 2
*This paper was presented at the Society of Biblical Literature
Meeting, Southeast Regional, Chattanooga, TN, March 15, 2003.
The purpose of the paper is to look at the concept of the gēr in the Old Testament to better understand the relationship one is to have with the immigrant. Leviticus 19:33 and 34 will be used as the paradigm passage in the paper.3
The Meaning of gēr
The Hebrew word gēr is translated variously as "sojourner" (BDB), "alien" or "resident alien" (NRSV, REB, NAB, NJB, NIV), and "stranger" (Koehler-Baumgartner, RSV, KJV).4 The noun is based on the verb gûr, "to sojourn" or "to tarry as a sojourner."5 Gēr conveys both the idea of a "temporary dweller" and a "new-comer who had no inherited rights since he would not be related to those in the community or tribe."6 G?r is used 96 times in the Old Testament with 22 of those occurrences in the Book of Leviticus.7 The gēr is not seen as a "foreigner" (nakrî); instead he or she resides in the land but is not a native of the land.
An overarching concept in the Old Testament is that the gēr was a foreign-born resident who had migrated to Israel. This designation seems to cover a large range of people. Biblical evidence shows that the Israelites were not the only people group to leave in the Exodus (Exod. 12:38). Joshua's address to the people at covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem suggests a wider variety of people present than just the Israelites.8
Not only were there those who were from other countries and backgrounds involved with Israel in the Exodus and the Conquest, there would also be the normal migration of non-indigenous people into Israel. This migration could arise for various reasons.9 First, there is the natural movement of people in and out of the region.10 Today, as well as then, groups of semi-nomadic and nomadic people travel throughout the region. A second reason for migration would arise out of natural causes such as drought, famine and disease. These frequently occurred in the ancient Near East leading to mass migration of people groups looking for food and relief.11 A third reason for the migration of people would be the constant warfare in the lands of the ancient Near East. Refugees would commonly search for peaceful areas to settle. Finally, people would migrate to escape from crimes and the vengeance of others.12
Using the background of the migration of persons and whole peoples groups, an appropriate definition for gēr would be "immigrant." Immigrant is defined as "a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence."13 On the one hand, terms such as "stranger" and "sojourner" emphasize the lack of local identity but do not suggest the permanence that an immigrant may experience in the land. On the other hand, terms like "alien," "foreign-born resident," or "resident alien" speak to one's permanence in the land but can be derogatory, and the latter ("resident alien") is considered an oxymoron.
The Treatment of the Immigrant in Leviticus 19
The “popular” image of the Book of Leviticus is that it is an endless list of rules and regulations for the priests. However, Leviticus provides instructions for proper worship and the maintenance of order in the society. Pertaining to the latter set of instructions are regulations for the people’s proper relationships with one another and with “the other.”
A common passage used in Jewish readings, such as the reading during the afternoon reading of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Leviticus 19 is a collection of admonitions encouraging the people to be faithful to God and to care for others.14 It focuses on the daily lives of the people of God and underlines the proper behavior in various circumstances.15 In other words, the chapter serves as a practical guide to daily living. While the text seems to be an eclectic listing of various ways the people are to be holy as God is holy (v. 2), it does contain specific emphases.
The Holiness of God. A recurring theme throughout Leviticus 19 is the holiness of God. In verse 2, the people are reminded to be holy because God is holy. In dealing with the sacrifice, verses 5-8 warn not to profane what is holy to God. Leviticus 19 can be divided into various sections by the use phraseology that stresses the holiness of God:16
"I am the LORD, your God" (vv. 3, 4, 10, 25, 31, 34, 36)
"I am the LORD" (vv. 12, 14, 16, 18, 28, 30, 32, 37)
The Ten Commandments. Leviticus 19 contains a listing of the Ten Commandments, whether directly referred to or implied by the context. The commandments are not found in their normal order, but instead in a listing conducive to practical application.17
Care for the Less Fortunate. Leviticus 19 speaks to how the less fortunate are to be treated by the Israelites. All dealings with the people of the community were to be based on justice and no partiality toward the rich or the poor was to be shown (v. 15).18 The less fortunate are described in a variety of ways in Leviticus 19:
vv. 9-10 – poor and immigrant (in the collection of gleanings from the fields)
v. 13 – laborer (payment of daily wages)
v. 14 – the deaf and the blind (against mistreatment)
vv. 20-22 – the female slave (protection)
v. 29 – the daughters (not to be sold into prostitution, cf. Dt. 23:17)
vv. 31-32 – the elderly (due respect and honor in society)
vv. 33-34 – the immigrant (concerning his or her treatment in the land)
Those included in the list would be among the most vulnerable in the community.19 They could easily be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people in the community. Especially vulnerable would be the immigrant who would have neither property rights nor family ties to rely on for protection. Thus, the Israelites are encouraged to care for the less fortunate in their community.
The Immigrant in Leviticus 19
The immigrant is listed among the less fortunate twice in Leviticus 19. In verses 9 and 10, both the poor and the immigrant are to share in the gleanings from the fields. In verses 33 and 34, the Israelites are called upon to love the immigrant as themselves, a direct parallel to Leviticus 19:18 where they are to love their neighbors as themselves.
Hospitality was an important part of everyday life in the ancient Near East. Unlike our concept of hospitality today (clean sheets and one's bed turned down with a complimentary chocolate on the pillow), hospitality in the ancient Near East was a matter of life and death.20 Hostile conditions and hostile relations between peoples groups put those traveling through the land at the mercy of the native people of a given territory. The temptation to take advantage of the less fortunate, including the immigrant, is seen in the warning against using false measures in Leviticus 19:35-36.
If the gēr is viewed as an "immigrant,” he or she is not just passing through the land, but is seeking to settle in the land. The admonition to care for the poor and neglected of one's own social group, as well as one simply "passing through" the land, is found in the writings of the ancient Near East. However, the call to also care for the immigrant who is settling in the land appears to be unique to the literature of the Bible.21 As with the poor, disabled, widows, and orphans, the immigrant could easily be taken advantage of in the land. The immigrant entered the land both homeless and landless.22 In order to survive the immigrant would often become indebted to another and end up a slave to that person. The regulation concerning the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 allowed for the immigrant (gēr) to be enslaved in perpetuity (vv. 45-46) while the "brother" who is indebted shall be as a "servant" or "sojourner" until his debt is paid or until it was forgiven in the year of Jubilee (vv. 35-43).
Leviticus 19:33 and 34 and the Israelites'
Relation to the Immigrant
While Leviticus 25 allows for the enslavement of the immigrant, Leviticus 19 calls for a higher relationship between the Israelite and the immigrant.
When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant. The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you, and you shall love the immigrant as yourself; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (NRSV)
You shall not oppress the immigrant. The first instruction the reader is to follow is to do the gēr "no harm" (lô’ tônû).23 The root yānāh can mean any type of harm from simple annoyance to taking advantage of another.24 The concept of not causing ill-treatment to the immigrant is a common theme in the Old Testament.25
The immigrant . . . shall be to you as the citizen among you. The Israelites are called upon to treat the immigrant "as a citizen" (kĕ’ĕzrāh).26 ’ĕzrāh has it basis in a botanical term which means a well-rooted tree and would be applied to the native or permanent residents of the land. Thus, the immigrant is to be given the same rights as the citizens of Israel.27 ’ĕzrāh is juxtaposed with gēr 17 times in the Old Testament.28 In Ezekiel 47:22 immigrants are seen as citizens in the re-established Israel and are even allotted a portion of the land with the Israelites. Equal responsibility under the law and religious rites for both the Israelite and the immigrant are common themes in the Pentateuch.29
You shall love the immigrant as yourself. The relationship of the Israelites with others is to be measured by love. This is not an abstract concept but an essential act that is to be lived out in everyday life.30 Leviticus 19:34b is a direct parallel to Leviticus 19:18b, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Leviticus 19:18b is quoted by Jesus in reference to the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39 and Mark 12:31) and is used to emphasize the Christian's relations to other people (Matt. 5:43; 19:19; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8). The same love that is shown a citizen is to be also expressed to the immigrant.
For you were immigrants in the land of Egypt. Israel is reminded that they were once in a similar situation as the immigrant in their land. The time spent in Egypt has a two-fold significance for Israel. First, their ancestors had migrated to Egypt during a time of famine while Joseph was a leader in Egypt (Gen. 46:1-47:28). However, once they had settled in Egypt after the time of famine there arose a Pharaoh who "did not know Joseph" (Exod. 1:8) and oppressed the Israelites in Egypt (Exod. 1:9-2:25). Israel's ancestors in Egypt experienced both the hospitality of Egypt in time of need and the tyranny of Egypt during a time of servitude.
Exodus 22:21 and 23:9, as well as Deuteronomy 10:19 parallel Leviticus 19:33-34. In these passages Israel is likewise reminded that it had sojourned in Egypt. Exodus 23:9 states that the Israelites know the "heart" of the immigrant because of their time in Egypt.31 In A People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible, Paul D. Hanson sees the early community of Israel as "living in memory" of the Exodus.32 Central to that memory would be God's compassion in the act of deliverance. Hanson believes that this memory should lead Israel to practice "compassionate justice." Thus, the Egypt sojourn reminded the Israelites of the importance of hospitality for the ones who would now sojourn in their land.33
The Risk in Aiding the Immigrant
Leviticus 19:33 and 34 set the idea for the treatment of the immigrant by the Israelites. John R. Spenser notes, however, that while equal treatment was to be the norm, "the sojourner did not enjoy the same social status as that of the Israelites."34 Spenser notes that the immigrant:
1) has been singled out for biblical legislation;
2) differs in Israelite society;
3) is listed last in the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:10, perhaps reflecting social status;
4) is often mentioned in association with the widow, orphan and poor (Lev. 23:22; Deut. 10:18; 24:17,19; Jer. 7:6; 22:3; Ezek. 22:7,9; Zech. 7:10; Pss. 94:6; 146:9).35
Hesitancy to aid the immigrant in the land may arise from the possible repercussions of such an act. Utmost among those concerns is that the immigrants that are aided may in return become one's enemy.36 However, little, if anything, is said in the Old Testament concerning the danger that the immigrant presents. Leviticus 25:42-53 deals with the redemption of an Israelite who has sold himself into slavery to a prosperous immigrant. However, this was not the norm.37 The immigrant is most often grouped with the less fortunate of society, especially widows and orphans. The primary concern of the text is the care for the less fortunate in society. Due to the distrust of strangers, communities were encouraged to care for the immigrants in their land.38 The scripture is more concerned about the proper treatment of the immigrant than about the possible concerns that may emerge from offering aid to the immigrant.
The Israelites are called to be a people set apart, "holy," in Leviticus 19. This includes not only their worship of God, but also their treatment of others. Especially singled out for care in Leviticus 19 are the less fortunate in society, including the immigrant (gēr). The immigrants are not simply people traveling through the community, but are those who have settled down in the community. In Israelite society they would be without any land and means of making a living, so they would be at the mercy of the inhabitants of the land. Leviticus 19 establishes a relationship between the Israelites and the immigrants. The Israelites are to treat the immigrants with fairness, compassion, and as fellow citizens. The reason for this emerges out of God's own gracious acts toward Israel in delivering them out of being immigrants in Egypt.
Leviticus 19:33 and 34 has direct implications for today. The injunction to do the immigrant no harm, to treat him or her as a citizen and to love him or her as one's self is still important. In light of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, the United States has had to reconsider its treatment of citizen and immigrant populations. For the sake of national security, individuals have been jailed with little or no civil rights afforded them based on alleged ties to terrorist organizations. Also, hate crimes against foreign born residents have also risen, especially those of Middle Eastern descent. Following the call of Leviticus 19:33 and 34, people must ensure that all are protected and afforded the rights granted citizens by the laws of the land. This includes the natural born citizen, the naturalized immigrant and even the illegal immigrant.39 This involves risks in a dangerous world.40 However, in the effort to avoid terrorism, we cannot forget that, at present, there are approximately 150 million refugees in the world who are outside of their homeland, immigrants in foreign lands.41 The purpose of a vast majority of such immigrants is not violence, but a search for a better life for themselves and their families. Just as Israel was reminded of its sojourn in Egypt, residents of the United States must remember that we also are a nation of immigrants. Out of that memory we should practice "compassionate justice."
1 Cf. Margo Monteith and Jeffrey Winters, "Why We Hate," Psychology Today 35 (May/June 2002), p. 44. Monteith notes in her article that within five months of the September 11 attack over 1700 cases of abuse were reported against Muslims. Cf. "Raging Against Each Other," Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project (Winter 2001). Online: http:www.splcenter.org/intelligenceproject/ip-4t6.html. This reports notes that by October 11, 2001, 167 hate crimes had been reported in the just the Los Angeles area.
2 The passages is quoted from the NRSV. I have chosen to translate the Hebrew gēr as "immigrant" instead of “stranger.” See discussion on the meaning of gēr on pp. 2-7.
3 Several passages in the Old Testament refer to the treatment of the “gēr." Lev. 19:33 and 34 was chosen as a paradigm passage for several reasons. First, it is included in an extended discussion of the treatment of the less fortunate in Lev. 19. Secondly, it provides a developed concept of the treatment of the gēr. Finally, the passage parallels Lev. 19:18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" which is the second great commandment quoted by Jesus (cf. Matt. 22:39 and Mark. 12:31) and is commonly used in the New Testament (Matt. 5:43; 19:19; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8).
4 Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), p. 201.
5 Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), p. 158.
6 Ibid. See also D. Kellerman, "rwg (gvr)," The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), p. 439. Kellerman notes that the gēr held a position in society between the native citizen and the foreigner (p. 443).
7 Kellerman, p. 442. Kellerman notes that gēr is used altogether 36 times in the Priestly source and 22 times in Deuteronomy. Thus, over half of the occurrences of the word occur in the Pentateuch (58 times). Cf. Theophile James Meek, "The Translation of GER in the Hexateuch and Its Bearing on the Documentary Hypothesis," Journal of Biblical Literature, 49 (1930), pp. 172-180. Meek shows a development of the concept of gēr in the first six books of the Old Testament. It could mean "immigrant" (one entering the land), "resident alien" (one settled in the land), and "proselyte" (one who has adopted the ways and culture of the people of the land).
8 In Josh. 24:14 and 15, Joshua addresses the people as those who are "from beyond the River" (Mesopotamia), those who dwell in the land (Canaanites/Amorites), and those who once worshiped the gods of Egypt. Those present would not just be Israelites, descendants of Abraham, but would also be representatives from other peoples groups.
9 Cf. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament: The New Koehler-Baumgartner, vol. 1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), p. 201. See also Kellerman, p. 443.
10 Cf. Abraham refers to himself as a gēr (Gen. 15:13; 23:4).
11 Cf. Joseph (Gen. 43-50), Ruth (Elimelech takes his wife and sons to Moab from Bethlehem during a time of famine. Also, Ruth is a widow and a immigrant in Israel when she returns with her mother-in-law Naomi. She even partakes in the practice of collection "gleanings" as prescribed for the poor and immigrant in Lev. 19:10.
12 Exod. 2:11-22. See also Exod. 18:3. Here Moses explains the name of his son Gershom (gēršôm) "because I have be a sojourner (immigrant) in a foreign land" (kî... gēr hāyîtî bĕ’ĕrĕs nākĕrîyāh).
13 Cf. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: C. & G. Merriam Company, 1977), p. 573.
14 Ibid., p. 1131.
15 Martin Noth, Leviticus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), p. 130. Noth acknowledges that while Lev. 19 seems diverse and disordered, it deals with the right behavior of individuals. Cf. Kaiser, p. 1132. Kaiser views a connection between faith and ethics in Lev. 19: "The character of God stands behind the moral duties of humanity."
16 Cf. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 1597. Milgrom views Lev. 19 as being 16 separate units equally divided in the use of the two phrases pertaining to God's holiness. Those involving religious duties (vv. 2b-10) use the longer formula, while those involving ethical duties (vv. 11-18) use the shorter formula. The final section dealing with the miscellaneous duties (vv. 19-37) uses three of each formula.
17 Kaiser, p. 1131. Kaiser views the Ten Commandments as an organizing principle for Lev. 19.
18 Roland deVaux, Ancient Israel: Social Institutions, vol. 1 (New York: McGraw-Hill Company, 1965), p. 73. DeVaux notes that in the prophets the rich are grouped with other influential people and political leaders who faced prophetic condemnation. The poor though are seen as individuals who were not a part of a social class, but were isolated and defenseless.
19 Two groups not included in the list in Lev. 19 but are common in other passages about the less fortunate are the "widows" and "orphans." Cf. Donald E. Gowan, "Wealth and Poverty in the Old Testament: The Care of the Widow, the Orphan and the Sojourner," Interpretation, 41 (1984), pp. 341-353.
20 Cf. Bruce Malina, "Hospitality," in Handbook of Biblical Social Values, John J. Pilch and Bruce Malina, eds. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), pp. 115-118. Malina's article deals primarily with the New Testament concept of hospitality but is also applicable to its practice in the ancient Near East.
The practice of hospitality in the ancient New East is still being carried out in the Middle East today. The lifestyle of the Bedouin peoples provides insights to the practice of hospitality in the Middle East today. Cf. Lila Abu Lughood, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in the Bedouin Society (Berkeley: University of California press, 1986). The author, a woman, describes her travels in Bedouin groups and their various practices, including hospitality. See also Clinton Bailey, Bedouin Poetry from Sinai to the Negev: Mirror of a Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991). This book contains several Bedouin poems that deal specifically with hospitality.
21 Gowan, p. 343. Instructions to care for the poor citizens in one's community can be found in the Code of Hammurabi , ca. 1700 B.C.E. (cf. Richard D. Peterson, "The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor in the Old Testament and Extra-biblical Literature," Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 130 [July 1973], p. 226). Such instructions can be found in the Egyptian Instructions of Amen-em-ope, ca. 1250-1000 B.C.E. (cf. Amy G. Oden, ed. And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), p. 17.
22 Cf. Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), p. 28. Pohl notes that immigrants were "landless in an agrarian society where land was usually distributed by inheritance and where access to land was essential to life."
23 Hif’il imperfect 2 mp from yānāh "to oppress, to, suppress, to maltreat" (BDB, p. 413).
24 Cf. H. Ringgren, hnfyf (yānāh), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 104-106. Ringgren notes that the verb yānāh is used 14 times in the Hif'il and all of the occurrences are found in the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) and the Covenant Code (Exod. 20:22- 23:33). Lev. 19:33 is similar to the statement in Exod. 22:20, but in Lev. 19:34 the Israelite is given the further injunction to treat the immigrant as a citizen.
25 Ibid. See Jer. 22:3. Cf. Ezek. 22:7-29.
26 ĕzrāh literally means "native" or "one arising from the soil" (BDB, p. 280). Cf. Levine, p. 134. Levine sees the word coming for the idea of a firmly planted tree.
27 Cf. Koehler-Baumgartner, vol. 1, p. 201. A possible definition of gēr is "protected citizen."
28 R. Martin-Achard, "rwg (gvr)," Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1997), p. 309. See also Kaiser, p. 1135.
29 Concerning the regulations for both the native and the immigrant in observing the various rites of Israel see, Exod. 12:49; Lev. 24:22; Num. 15:15,16,29.
30 Abraham Malamat, "Love your Neighbor as Yourself: What it Really Means," Biblical Archeology Review, July/August 1990, p. 51. Malamat states that the Hebrew ’āhēb (love) "denotes the act of being useful and beneficial to its object."
31 Each of the passages in Exod., Lev. and Deut. are found in the three major codes of the Pentateuch: The Covenant Code (Exod. 20:22-23:19 – one of the oldest Israelites legal codes); The Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 4:44-26:8, 28:1-68); and the Priestly Code (Exod. 25:1-Num. 10:10). Cf. Martin-Achard, p. 309. Martin-Achard dates the references as follows: Exod. 22:20b is the oldest followed by Deut. 10:19 and finally Lev. 19:34. He views Lev. 19:34b as developing from Deut. 10:19.
32 Paul D. Hanson, A People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986), p. 45. In this section Hanson is actually dealing with Exod. 22:20b and its relation to the Covenant Code.
33 In several biblical passages the Israelites are reminded that they are still strangers/sojourners in the land because the land belongs to God (Lev. 25:23; 1 Chron. 29:15; Pss. 39:12 [v. 13 in Hebrew] and 119:19).
34 John R. Spenser, "Sojourner," Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1996), p. 104.
36 Cf. Exod. 1:8-10 concerning the Pharaoh's concern over the rising Hebrew population.
37 Cf. Matt. 5:43-48. Quoting Lev. 19:18 Jesus extends love from not just one's neighbor but also one's enemy.
38 Levine, p. 134. Levine notes that the xenophobic attitudes of people often led to violence against stranger in a community.
39 Plyler v. Doe 457 U.S. 202 (1982). Online: http://www2.law.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/foliocgi.exe/historic/query. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan who gave the Opinion of the Court opinion on Plyler v. Doe (1982) stated: "Whatever his status in the immigration laws, an alien is surely a 'person' in the ordinary sense of that term. Aliens, even aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful, have long been recognized as 'persons' guaranteed due process of law by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments." This decision concerned the education of illegal immigrant children in Texas.
40 Cf. Lori Hope, "Did I Save Lives or Engage in Profiling?" Newsweek 139, p. 12. This article details the quandary one had in taking risks.
41 "Working Far From Home," World Conference Against Racism. Online:http:www.un.org/WCAR/e-kit/migration.htm.