Torah Keeping for the Gerim/Sojourners in Ancient Israel

POSTED 27 JUNE, 2010

How much of Torah were the gerim/sojourners expected to keep, when compared to the natives of Israel?

The sojourner or ger[1] (also commonly rendered as “alien” or “foreigner” in various English Bibles), the plural being gerim, was an outsider who entered into the community of Ancient Israel, and was certainly of a different class than a foreign worker or mere passer-by. The ger was one who acknowledged Israel’s God, repudiated idolatry, but had no inheritance in the Promised Land. Perhaps one of the most well known gerim was Ruth the Moabitess, who is classicly known for saying, “your people shall be my people, and your God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). In many cases, one gets the distinct impression that a majority of sojourners or gerim who entered into the community of Ancient Israel, were people who were poor and destitute, and as such much of the Torah legislation that is given regarding sojourners, was to make sure that they were not taken advantage of for their lowly condition.

There has certainly been a great amount of discussion and debate, in various Messianic quarters, regarding the Torah adherence of the ancient ger or sojourner in Ancient Israel—largely in order to determine or discern how much or how little of God’s Law that today’s non-Jewish Believers should be anticipated or expected to keep. Much of this discussion and debate has been focused around passages of the Torah detailing “one law” or “one statute” to be applicable to the native Israelite and the sojourner in Ancient Israel (Exodus 12:48-49; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 9:14; 15:15-16, 29-30). These passages, however, actually pertain to specific legislation, where a uniform set of instruction needed to be followed. What cannot be overlooked, though, is the educational imperative witnessed in a passage like Deuteronomy 31:10-13, where all within the broad community of Ancient Israel were admonished to heed and obey Moses’ Teaching:

“Then Moses commanded them, saying, ‘At the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of remission of debts, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this law in front of all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and children and the alien who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear the LORD your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live on the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.’”

It is witnessed in the Torah, that while the native Israelite and sojourner are not exactly the same, there were certainly many areas of commonality. The sojourner who entered into the community of Ancient Israel, was anticipated to keep a considerable bulk of the Torah’s commandments. A variety of Torah instructions, where the ger is specifically enjoined to Torah adherence, notably include:

  • Sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14)
  • a fair trial (Deuteronomy 1:16)
  • access to cities of refuge (Numbers 35:11; cf. Joshua 20:9)
  • participation in the Festival of Sukkot/Tabernacles and the Festival of Shavuot/Weeks (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14)
  • observance of the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29)
  • some expectation to observe the Passover (Exodus 12:49; Numbers 9:14)
  • observance of the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:19)
  • observance of sacrificial procedures (Leviticus 17:8; 22:18; Numbers 15:14-16)
  • atonement for unintentional and intentional sin (Numbers 15:16-31)
  • purification rites after eating unclean meat (Leviticus 17:15; Numbers 19:10)
  • prohibition on offering sacrifices to Molech (Leviticus 20:2)
  • penalties for blaspheming the name of the Lord (Numbers 24:16)
  • adherence to sexual and moral purity (Leviticus 18:26)
  • observance of the law of damages or lex talionis (Leviticus 24:20-22)
  • the option of being circumcised to keep the Passover, and consequently being regarded as a native (Exodus 12:43-47)

It should not be a surprise, that for an interpreter like D.I. Block, when these specific instructions referencing the ger are considered, that he can conclude, “sojourners were to be treated for the most part just like ordinary Israelites.”[2]

Of course, there were some notable differences between the sojourners and natives within Ancient Israel. An animal that died of natural causes could be given to a sojourner (Deuteronomy 14:21), and a sojourner could be placed into permanent slavery (Leviticus 25:39-43, 46, 54-55). Yet, these sorts of stipulations probably related to the widespread condition of most gerim being poor and destitute. The ger is targeted among several groups in Ancient Israel, as being those who were allowed to glean the crops of fields (Leviticus 19:10; 23:22). “[L]ike the widow and the orphan, the sojourner is in a distinct social class, part of a group which requires special care and protection. The Israelites are expected to provide this care and protection for these foreigners who live among them, because they too were once foreigners sojourning in a strange land” (ABD).[3]

To a theologian like R.J.D. Knauth, when viewing the main Torah instructions about the ger, his conclusion is, “one gains the distinct general impression that resident aliens were envisioned as being accorded equal treatment [by] the law (Lev 19:33-34; cf. Deut 24:14-15, 17-18), with only a few exceptions.”[4] Such exceptions would widely have been because of economic and social vulnerability.[5]

It is fair to say that much of today’s Messianic Jewish community—which tends to approach the issue of non-Jewish inclusion in their congregations, in a similar manner to how the ger was to be incorporated into Ancient Israel—will recognize how the ger or sojourner was specifically enjoined to keep a great deal of the Torah’s commandments. Yet, in addition to some of the economically-conditioned exceptions between the sojourner and native, it is widely believed among many Messianic Jewish leaders and teachers—who are following traditional Jewish interpretations of the Torah—that the ger was not likely to keep as much of the Torah as a Bible reader may be likely to conclude.

One common example that is often thought to enjoin specific Torah instructions upon the native Israelite, and likely not upon the sojourner, might be the kosher dietary laws. Leviticus 11:2 states, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘These are the creatures which you may eat from all the animals that are on the earth.” This instruction is directed to b’nei Yisrael, “the sons of Israel” or the “children of Israel.” No specific reference is seen regarding the ger in Leviticus ch. 11, where the lists of clean and unclean animal species are detailed. Later in Leviticus 17:10-11, though, it is specified that both those of Israel and the sojourners are not to consume blood:

“And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.”

Here, a member of Beit Yisrael and the ger, are both decisively prohibited from consuming animal blood. Now, does this mean that the native Israelite was prohibited from eating certain unclean animals and from eating the blood of clean animals—and that the sojourner was only prohibited from eating the blood of animals, clean or unclean? This is what has been traditionally concluded in much of Judaism. However, further on in Leviticus 17:13, we see something stated that should give us pause to consider whether this conclusion is entirely proper:

“So when any man from the sons of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, in hunting catches a beast or a bird which may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.”

Here, the scene is what is to be done when one of the b’nei Yisrael, or someone who is a ger, is out hunting. The animals in view are those which may be eaten (Heb. asher yei’akeil), rightfully concluded to mean, as some dynamic equivalency versions have put it, “is approved for eating” (NLT) or “which is ritually clean” (Good News Bible).[6] The blood of such animals caught in the wild was to be drained out, and was then to be covered over with dirt (Leviticus 11:14). Would it make any logical sense for the ger or sojourner to be limited to eating permitted, clean animals caught in the wild—but not have the same prohibition for domesticated animals? Of course not.

In Leviticus 11:2 the b’nei Yisrael in view are rightly taken to be the entire, mixed assembly of Israel, as is the case in many, many places in the Pentateuch. In Leviticus 17:13, however, the ger is specifically mentioned to hunt and catch only permitted animals—likely as a reflection of most sojourners’ low economic status. For, those who frequently must glean a farmer’s field for crops, are the same who will often have to hunt and scavenge for wild animals to eat. The higher principle for sure, for both native and sojourner, is to abstain from consuming animal blood. Yet, a sojourner in Ancient Israel who was limited in what animals may be caught in the wild—the same animals that the native is only permitted to consume—will by necessity be pointed to know what domesticated animals may be eaten, which are largely detailed in Leviticus ch. 11. That the ger or sojourner, within the community of Ancient Israel, was anticipated to observe the kosher dietary laws along with the native, is definitely detectable.

The example of the sojourner being set on a certain trajectory toward eating kosher, i.e., keeping more of the Torah, given his likely economic conditions, is one of a selection that can only be best considered by a careful examination of specific places within the Pentateuch. Considering the various areas where traditional Judaism has concluded that the native Israelite was expected to follow certain instruction, and the sojourner was not, goes beyond the scope of this FAQ entry (but will play an important part in some planned volumes of the Messianic Helper series by Messianic Apologetics, and perhaps future commentaries in the Practical Messianic series as well).

While Bible readers need to recognize how the Torah anticipated outsiders, gerim or sojourners, entering into the community of Israel—turning away from their pagan idolatry, turning to God, with the natives of Israel enjoined to love and welcome them—such sojourners were by no means a monolithic group. A ger, who had just committed himself to the God of Israel, was in a much different position than a ger who had lived within the community for a number of years. Unless a ger had been left abandoned as a child, and was taken in by native Israelite parents and raised as though he were a natural son or daughter of a family—the considerable majority of sojourners were likely to have entered into the community as either adolescents or grown adults. These were not people who were raised within the community of Israel for their maturing years, they were widely not exposed to Moses’ Teaching to the same degree as natives, and those of all positions can recognize a higher priority placed on certain instructions to be kept by the gerim. Adherence to such instructions, though, would naturally and by necessity lead to the keeping of more instructions.

The main advantage that the native would have had over the sojourner, of course, would be precisely in being a native who had been presumably raised in an environment of Torah adherence his entire life. The main disadvantage of a sojourner within Ancient Israel, would be in how it would take time to learn many of the minor commandments that did not at all merit a capital penalty, but still needed to be understood and honored.

It is true that in the post-resurrection era, those non-Jewish Believers who are in Messiah Yeshua, are not at all to be regarded as any kind of sojourner—but instead, now as fellow citizens of the polity of Israel’s Commonwealth along with their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters (Ephesians 2:11-13, 19), and surely are beneficiaries of the supernatural compulsion of the Holy Spirit in Torah keeping as promised by the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27; cf. Hebrews 8:8-12; 10:16-17). A great many non-Jewish Believers make up the Messianic movement, and are appreciating the value of Moses’ Teaching more and more. Yet, a great many more non-Jewish Believers make up a Christian Church that widely sees itself as being separate from Israel. Thankfully, whoever we are, a much bigger sacrifice—that of the Lord Yeshua Himself—has absorbed all of our collective, human violation of the Torah (Colossians 2:14).

While there are many Christians, and many Jews for that matter, who break the commandments of the Law of Moses, some knowingly and some unknowingly—Romans 5:20 explains how, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Such grace is definitively found in the permanent atonement and forgiveness available in the death and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah. While each person who has placed trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob should be instructed by His Torah—there is a covering for transgression in the work of His Son, that those of Ancient Israel, whether native or sojourner, did not have. When today’s Messianic movement tries to evaluate how much or how little of the Torah is relevant for God’s people, we need not forget the importance of living in a post-resurrection era. We need only to go to the Father, in the name of His Son, to receive forgiveness for any of our violations of His Instruction.


NOTES

[1] Cf. the lexical entries in BDB, 158; HALOT, 1:201; CHALOT, pp 63-64.

[2] D.I. Block, “Sojourner,” in ISBE, 4:562.

[3] John R. Spencer, “Sojourner,” in ABD, 6:104.

[4] R.J.D. Knauth, “Alien, Foreign Resident,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, 31.

[5] Ibid., pp 32-33.

[6] John E. Hartley, Word Biblical Commentary: Leviticus, Vol 4 (Dallas: Word Books, 1992), 261 actually has, “that is lawful to eat.”

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