Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Foreigners and Citizens

The Law of Moses has much to say about how the people of God were to treat foreigners.

Though there is some overlap in the Hebrew terminology, context makes it clear foreigners were of two very different types. There was: (1) the person of foreign origin who resided among the people of God, often referred to as a sojourner; and (2) the true foreigner, whose place of residence was elsewhere.

The latter term is sometimes translated “alien” or “stranger”.

Ruth used the word self-deprecatingly to describe her situation in Israel immediately after she emigrated from Moab, though that quickly changed. After all, her own testimony to Naomi was that “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” The change in status she had contemplated from the beginning was permanent; it only remained for the people she had chosen to fully accept her as one of their own. In the meantime, she would not presume on their kindness.

A sojourner might have been from a different people group, but he made his home among the people of God and was bound by most of the same laws they were. His stay in Israel might be months or years, even multi-generational, depending on his reasons for being among God’s people. What made a group of visitors “sojourners” rather than citizens is that they did not intermarry with the people of God and kept themselves genetically distinct. Everyone understood their arrangement was temporary.

On the other hand, a true foreigner did not live among God’s people. He might pass through their territory while traveling, or visit to engage in business, but his home, his god (or gods), his allegiances and his kindred were elsewhere. Interacting with sojourners was a regular feature of Israelite life, and their law says much about it. Interacting with true foreigners, on the other hand, required that someone had to first cross a border.

It is the laws about this latter type of foreigner that interest me today, because they introduce two concepts we may be familiar with from the New Testament relationship of the people of God to the unsaved world.

 The people of God should not impose God’s standards on foreigners

The OT people of God had a number of dietary restrictions imposed on them in the law that were not imposed on either sojourners or foreigners. For example:
“You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.”
This is one of the few times in the Law of Moses where sojourners are not held to the same standards as Israelites, and for good reason. Sojourners were often poor and might be reduced to gleaning the edges of Israelite fields to survive. Free meat was not to be sniffed at, even if its provenance was a little dubious. In their case, the meat was to be given away; Israelites had been instructed to love and take care of sojourners. If someone wanted to live in their midst and would play by their rules, that person was entitled to a few social benefits.

On the other hand, Israelites had no moral obligation to foreigners from outside their borders, who might be allies and trading partners one week and deadly enemies the next. The same meat could be sold to foreigners and profit made from the exchange. The foreigner had no interest in being held to the same standards as the people of God, and the people of God had no interest in imposing their own standards on foreigners. What these folks did was none of their business.

We find a similar thought in Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth: “What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” The unsaved world is foreign territory to believers. Beyond sharing the gospel with them, we have no obligation to meet their moral expectations, and they have no obligation to meet ours. Our obligations are to each other and to those who desire to walk among us on our terms, not theirs.

 Foreign standards should not be imposed on the people of God

Just as the people of God did not impose their standards on the Gentiles around them, so also the heathen nations were not to dictate what went on among the people of God. This was true first and foremost in the area of governance:
“You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.”
but it was also true in the matter of day-to-day interaction between the people of God and outsiders. No matter what a foreigner might think was reasonable, his property rights ended right at Israel’s border:
“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you … You shall not wrong him.”
Where there were two competing claims (the right of the foreign owner to repossess his property and the right of the escaped slave to find asylum among the people of God), it was claim of the ex-slave that was to be prioritized. Tough luck for the former owner of the slave, but a person who had risked his life to escape to the sanctuary offered by God’s people had earned the right to their protection. To turn him over to his former owner would have been a grave injustice. I have no doubt it was necessary for Moses to put this rule in writing, because the temptation would always exist among God’s people to kowtow to powerful foreign interests if there was a financial incentive involved. But the conduct of God’s people was not to be determined by the will of foreigners.

Again, we find a similar thought in the New Testament with respect to the relationship between the people of God and worldly authorities. As individuals, we are responsible to obey the secular authorities over us, but only so long as they “stay outside the border”, so to speak. When they address themselves to us as individual citizens benefiting from their rule and living in their territory, we are to respect their rule and obey their edicts. But when they “cross the border” and attempt to impose the world’s standards on the church of God, they have nothing useful to say to us.

We must obey God rather than men,” said the apostles. Silencing the word of truth is crossing a border which secular authorities have no right to cross. It is like dictating policy to a sovereign nation. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” said the Lord Jesus, “and to God the things that are God’s.” That last part is often forgotten. Caesar has his sphere of authority, God has his, and never the twain shall meet. Ceding authority to Caesar in territory claimed by God is a grave mistake. Again, Paul refers to magistrates and judges as “those who have no standing in the church”. Educated men may have all kinds of accreditation in the world, but their standards are not our standards and their rules are not ours. The greatest secular minds in history are inadequate to pass judgment on the faith and practice of God’s people.

The rights and authority of foreigners end at the border. As Israel belonged to God, so the church belongs to Christ.

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