The Consummate Host
Published by SarahSchreiber
Genesis 18 paints a picture of the consummate host: we are told that Abraham is sitting in his tent during the heat of the day when he sees three men nearby. He rushes to meet them and bows low to the ground. There’s no mention of mutual introductions or pleasantries about the weather. Abraham doesn’t bother to offer directions or ask where the men are going. Instead, right away he offers a place to wash and rest, eat and drink. When the men accept his invitation, Abraham and his household waste no time preparing a meal for the guests.
In fact, the Hebrew words for “run” and “hasten” occur a total of five times in the first seven verses of Genesis 18. It appears that the household drops everything to receive the unexpected visitors. Abraham and Sarah select the best flour and calf, and it is not a servant but Abraham himself who serves the meal to the men.
Perhaps this story of Abraham and the three visitors is the first one that comes to mind when we think of hospitality in the Old Testament. Abraham’s response to the strangers in his midst meets and probably exceeds the cultural expectations for hospitality in that time and place. Contrast Genesis 18 with Genesis 19: instead of hospitality we see violent hostility from the men of Sodom. Reading these chapters together as stories about welcoming the stranger sets up Abraham as a hero and moral exemplar.
But allow me to suggest that the Old Testament presents a host and a model of hospitality even greater than Abraham in Genesis 18. The paragon is actually Yahweh—God is host and Israel is guest. Consider the exodus from Egypt and Israel’s journey to the promised land. As Abraham escorts the men under a tree to rest in the heat of the day, so does the Lord usher his people through the wilderness with a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night (Exod 13:21-22). Abraham calls for water so that the visitors’ feet may be washed; God makes it so that the feet of the Israelites never swell nor their clothes wear out (Deut 8:4). The Lord makes bitter water sweet and sends water from rock (Exod 15:22-27; 17:1-7; Num 20:1-13). Like any good host, God supplies not only fresh water but plenty of food, a regular supply of manna and quail (Exodus 16)—though the Israelites would have preferred Abraham’s choice selections!
The Lord is not only a guide or host in the wilderness, but also the landowner where the Israelites eventually would settle. One Old Testament text that emphasizes divine ownership of the land is the legislation for the Year of Jubilee. There the Lord commands Israel: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners (gērim) and strangers (tôshābim)” (Lev 25:23, NIV). The promised land ultimately belongs to God even though it is also a gift to Israel. The Israelites recall being foreigners in Egypt, subject to their Egyptian taskmasters; they are foreigners still, but now subject to the ongoing hospitality and goodwill of the divine landowner.
The Old Testament speaks again and again about God’s concern for foreigners (gērim), not only Israelites but also non-Israelites. A gēr (pl. gērim) is someone who is apart from native land and people, so gēr may be translated in English Bibles as sojourner, foreigner, stranger, or (resident) alien. According to the Talmud, there are no fewer than thirty-six biblical laws that concern the well-being of the gēr, making this the most-repeated instruction in the law (b. Bava Metzia 59b). According to the law, proper treatment of the foreigner is tied to who God is and who Israel is. In Deuteronomy we read,
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner (gēr) residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners (gēr), for you yourselves were foreigners (gērim) in Egypt (Deut 10:17-19, NIV).”
The Lord loves foreigners, so must Israel love foreigners. The Israelites were foreigners in Egypt, so they must love the foreigners in their midst (see also Exod 22:21, 23:9; Lev 19:33-34). In New Testament terms:
“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
What does this love look like? Deuteronomy 10 mentions food and clothing. We can imagine that as an outsider, a gēr living among the Israelites typically would be a vulnerable person in the community. According to the law, Israelites must not oppress or mistreat the foreigner (Exod 22:20, 23:9; Lev 19:33). Instead, foreigners living among them should be treated fairly, subject to the same laws as the Israelites (Lev 24:22; Num 15:15). Harvesters must leave grain and grapes in the fields for foreigners who are needy (Lev 19:10; Deut 24:19). Foreigners should be allowed to rest and be refreshed on the Sabbath (Exod 23:12). By these means and others, God loves the foreigner, and one foreigner—Israel—loves another.
There is no Hebrew word for “hospitality,” but the Old Testament gives numerous examples and counter-examples of welcoming and loving the stranger. The best model is our very own God who calls a people to himself and intends to bless all others through them. Our standard today for welcoming the stranger is not the hospitality of any culture near or far, past or present, but the unilateral act of God toward humanity. Our Lord is the ultimate host. The table fellowship of Abraham with his visitors and the gifts of manna and quail must point our attention ahead to the table where our savior, Jesus Christ, welcomes all who once were strangers to share the feast he himself has prepared for us. Even greater than the passing shade of Abraham and Sarah’s tree is the eternal home God is preparing in the new heavens and the new earth. And at this feast and in this home there is always room for more.
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