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Travelers and Strangers:
Hospitality in the Biblical World

Dennis Bratcher

"Southern hospitality" is deeply imbedded in the local culture of the southwestern United States where I grew up. This informal "code" of hospitality helped otherwise fiercely independent people get along with each other. There may be some similar factors in the background of the hospitality customs of the ancient Middle East. However, the biblical customs concerning how a person should treat travelers and temporary residents were much different. They were more than simply ways to be polite or friendly, and went beyond entertaining guests. Hospitality customs were a vital part of the culture of the ancient world. The people followed these customs as formal, even sacred, codes of conduct.

Hospitality customs in the biblical world related to two distinct classes of people: the traveler and the resident alien. In most translations of the Bible, there is little attempt to try to separate the two.  Even in the original Hebrew and Greek, different word are sometimes used interchangeably for the two groups.  Either is called a stranger, one who does not belong to a particular community or group. Other terms applied to either or both are: foreigner, alien, sojourner, wayfarer, or gentile. In Israel, the law protected the resident alien, a foreigner who had settled permanently in the land. He could not own land, but he could participate in communal activities. The traveler, however, was extremely vulnerable. Only the force of the customs of hospitality protected him.

The environment of the desert and arid land in most of the Middle East is harsh. For a traveler, access to water and food was a matter of life and death. Most settlements were built near available water or wells. The traveler needed to have access to the water. Yet, it was also important for the settled community to have protection. As a result, strict codes of conduct developed to govern such encounters. These conventions of hospitality also applied equally to the desert dwellers who lived in tents as they followed the grazing herds (today called Bedouins)  They were obligated to provide for travelers that stopped at their tents, and under these customs could expect some protection from hostile actions from the "stranger."

The host was obliged to provide the traveler with food, water, and shelter. Abraham welcomed three such "strangers" (Gen 18:1-8) into his tent. He eagerly ran to meet them and lavishly welcomed them. Abraham’s words and actions, including bowing to the ground, seem exaggerated to us. However, this was typical of Oriental hospitality. He provided them with water to wash their dusty feet and a place to rest.

Often a servant washed the feet of the guest. This provided a needed and refreshing service. However, it also symbolized the acceptance of the stranger and the absence of any hostile intent by the host (cf. John 13:5-20). Abraham’s elaborate preparations for the meal indicate the importance of providing for the travelers. When they left, Abraham traveled with them a short distance "to start them on their way" (Gen 18:16, NEB).

Laban’s welcome of Abraham’s servant reflects similar customs (although shaded in the story by the fact that Laban had already seen the gold given to his sister; Gen 24:28-32). Luke recounts Jesus’ visit in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-47). Simon failed to greet Jesus and provide water to wash his feet. By this omission, he violated the most basic customs of Eastern hospitality. This was a profound insult and hinted at hostility to Jesus. Jesus used Simon’s insult as an example of the failure to understand the nature of sin and forgiveness.

The traveler was expected to accept what the host offered. To refuse such hospitality was an insult that only an enemy would inflict. On the other hand, a traveler would interpret a resident’s failure to provide food and amenities as a hostile act. The men of Succoth and Penuel refused to feed Gideon and his men (Jud 8:4-17). Gideon’s response was a violent overreaction. Yet, their refusal was a serious violation of Eastern customs of hospitality. Nabal nearly started a war over his refusal to feed David and his men (1 Sam 25).

The traveler had few legal or political rights in the ancient world. He was largely at the mercy of the residents where he journeyed. By accepting the traveler, especially in providing him food and sharing that food with him, the host also took the responsibility of protecting him. The story of Lot offers graphic evidence of the importance of protection. Lot offered his virgin daughters to an angry mob rather than betray the guests "who have come under the shelter of my roof" (Gen 19:8, RSV). In another instance, an old man pleaded with the men of his town not to harm a traveling Levite because "this man has come into my house" (Judges 19:23, RSV). Likewise, the traveler, by accepting the hospitality of the host, was responsible to honor the host and refrain from any hostile actions against him or his household (note these tensions in 1 Sam 25).

The sharing of food together was a token of friendship, a form of covenantal commitment. One of the most despicable acts in the ancient world was to eat with someone and then betray them (Obadiah 7; Psa 41:9; and of course Judas, John 13:18). This entire "code" of hospitality in the Middle East was so strong that it evoked a warning: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Heb 13:2).  It is also this dimension of mutual commitment in the sharing of food that provides the Eucharist with one of its most dynamic meanings.

See also Dennis Bratcher, s.v. "Stranger", Harper's Bible Dictionary, 1985, 1996.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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