Sunday, March 07, 2021

Strangers and Sojourners

Abraham was a sojourner, as were Isaac, Jacob and their children. Moses too was a sojourner. They acknowledged themselves to be “strangers and exiles”, and thus their history provides a useful and familiar illustration of the relationship of believers to the world in which we live. Jesus said of his disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” The apostle Paul wrote that “our citizenship is in heaven” rather than in any earthly nation. The Hebrews were urged to “go to him [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured”.

That’s one side of the story. There is another.

Sojourners Among God’s People

For all the references to believing sojourners in the Old Testament who traveled through countries not their own looking for a city whose builder and maker is God, as Abraham did, there are a far greater number of references to a second group of sojourners among the people of God; foreigners who traveled with and lived with God’s people, sometimes for extended periods, but who are nevertheless distinguished from them.

Anticipating a time in which Israel would be sojourners no more and would possess the land God had given them, a distinction is made in Exodus 12 between those who would be “native[s] of the land”, the genetic descendants of Abraham, and those who would sojourn alongside them. Both groups would be bound by the same laws, but they were not identical.

If you wanted to travel or live with the Israelites, you had to play by God’s rules, including having the males of your household circumcised and keeping away from leavened bread during Passover, keeping the Sabbath, observing the Day of Atonement, offering sacrifices, avoiding eating blood, observing the laws of ceremonial cleanness and obeying all the rules against unlawful sexual relations. Under the Law of Moses, there was no such thing as freedom of religion in Israel (though sadly during most of Israel’s history there was far too much “religious liberty” indulged in, all of it heartily condemned by God.) The sojourner who offered his child to Molech or blasphemed the name of the Lord was to be stoned as speedily as any native Israelite caught doing the same thing. Sojourners who committed crimes were subject to the same penalties as the native born, up to and including execution. There was no special exception made for them because they had been born into a culture with different values, and no appeal to be heard on their behalf because they were foreign-born. Once you made yourself subject to the laws of the land, you had to go all the way.

But in return for assuming the same responsibilities as the Israelites around him, the sojourner enjoyed the same privileges under law as the native born, including the protection of the cities of refuge, along with the strict instructions that he be treated equally — loved “as yourself”.

In short, it would be difficult to argue that the Law of Moses was in any way unfair to the foreign-born men and women who made their homes among the people of God.

Adjusting to New Obligations

Some sojourners adjusted to their new obligations better than others. Ruth the Moabite converted to the faith of her mother-in-law and would not be parted from her. Obed-Edom the Gittite was a Philistine sojourner whose household was blessed because he did not fear to give a temporary home to the ark of the Lord. Uriah the Hittite was exemplary among David’s fighting men for his commitment to the ark of the Lord and to his new nation. Ittai the Gittite, who is referred to as a “foreigner and exile”, showed exceptional loyalty to David when even his own son had turned against him.

On the other hand, in the wilderness, it was the non-Israelite minority in the camp that initiated the call for meat and brought a plague on the nation. The first person in the Israelite camp stoned for blasphemy was a sojourner, the son of an Egyptian father. Doeg the Edomite felt free to strike down 85 Israelite priests on the instructions of King Saul when, for fear of God, no other servant of the king could bring himself to commit such an atrocity. Doeg’s attachment to the people among whom he sojourned and to their God was evidently not on the level of the average native-born Israelite soldier. Likewise, a young Amalekite son of a sojourner testified confidently that he had personally put to death the Lord’s anointed, and David had him struck down for it.

Then there is the unusual case of the Gibeonites. They tricked the leaders of Israel into accepting them as permanent sojourners, but unlike Ruth, their motive was primarily self-preservation rather than a desire to enter into fellowship with the people and God of Israel. The Gibeonites succeeded in preserving themselves and became cutters of wood and drawers of water for the congregation in perpetuity, but their peace treaty with Israel became the cause of a great battle. Over 200 years later, the Gibeonites remained a largely unassimilated ethnic group living among the tribes of Israel. Further, when King Saul in foolish zeal attempted their genocide, his actions brought three years of famine on Israel which were only brought to the end with the execution of seven of Saul’s relatives. The Benjamites at least could have been forgiven for arguing these sojourners were more trouble than they were worth.

Becoming a Sojourner: OT vs. NT

One feature which distinguishes the Old Testament people of God (the nation of Israel) from the New Testament people of God (the church) is this: after the very first generation, the OT people of God entered into covenant relationship with him by way of birth and not by personal choice. Customarily circumcised as early as the eighth day of life, Israelite children were brought into a covenant made with and agreed to by others. With maturity, being an Israelite might lead them to become people of faith, or else they could simply drift along in unbelief performing the same religious routines as everyone else with no personal investment in or relationship with the God of Israel. On the other hand, no one truly becomes a member of the church without making a decision to trust Jesus Christ for salvation. It is a very personal matter. Having the “right” parents or family, and even performing all the “right” religious rituals, will never get you there.

Because he entered the assembly of the people of God by choice and not by birth, the Old Testament sojourner in some ways serves as a better illustration of the Christian experience than even the Israelite. Like those who became sojourners among the people of Israel, some profess belief in Christ for more exalted reasons (“Your people shall be my people, and your God my God”) and others for less exalted ones (“We feared greatly for our lives”). Again, like sojourners, only time will tell the two kinds apart. The wheat and the weeds grow together until harvest.

Real and False

Sometimes sojourners moved to Israel for self-serving reasons. Perhaps Ittai, an exile from Gath, did something like that. Likewise, sometimes people profess faith in Christ in hope of buying themselves “fire insurance”, but over time enter into a real relationship with him, as Ittai clearly did with David, and very likely with David’s God as well.

A sojourner could even take up arms and fight for his new king and country — both Doeg and Uriah did that — but only one of them understood and appreciated what he had signed up for. Doeg was serving the king’s expressed wishes, but clearly had no concept of the sojourner’s duties to the God of Israel. David calls him “a worker of deceit” and “a man who would not make God his refuge”. Likewise, there are many in the church today who are quite active in the name of Christ, but will one day hear the words, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

Choosing to sojourn among the people of God is a commendable decision, but it is no guarantee of anything. For some — like the “mixed multitude”, the blaspheming son of the Egyptian or the young Amalekite who claimed he had put Saul to death — sojourning among the people of God put them at greater risk of immediate judgment than if they had simply stayed home.

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