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Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


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Person from a different racial, ethnic, and linguistic group as in contrast to a "native." Circumstances during biblical times often forced people to emigrate to another country, where they would become "resident aliens" (see Genesis 19:9; Ruth 1:1 ). A less permanent settler was known as a "stranger" or "temporary resident." Sometimes the term "foreigner" is used to translate a Hebrew word that generally means an "outsider" from a different race, tribe, or family.

The Old Testament . The creation account records the first human residence in the garden of Eden. With the fall, humanity is exiled from God's immediate presence into a "foreign" land. This is the background to the important Old Testament theme of the promise of land.

After the judgment of the flood, the Book of Genesis records the Table of Nations (chap. 10), portraying the remarkable growth of the human community with its variety of racial, linguistic, and political divisions. The tower of Babel incident (11:1-9) is the reason for these divisions, as God confuses the language and disperses the human race. A divided humanity, alienated from God and from itself, is in desperate need of a home.

If the early history of the Bible ends with curse—the disintegration of humanity into many nationsthe beginning of Israel's national history (chap. 12) commences with blessing as a family receives a divine pledge of land and a promise of progeny that will bless the alienated nations. Abram and his family, the founders of the Israelite nation, obeyed the call of God to emigrate to this land, leaving Mesopotamia to become resident aliens in Canaan (12:10; 20:1; 23:4). The patriarchs' lives were marked by a rootlessness, as the only land they actually received was a grave for Sarah, Abraham's wife (chap. 23). This pilgrim existence characterized early Israel (Exodus 6:4 ), as the embryonic nation was shaped in Egypt, another foreign country (Exodus 22:20; 23:9 ).

When Israel was constituted as a nation at Sinai (Exodus 19-24 ), a concern for resident aliens was etched into the legal system. The alien peoples received special protection under the law (Exodus 22:21; 23:9 ), and were even to be loved as native Israelites (Leviticus 19:34 ). Such protection was particularly necessary as immigrants would not have the social network of kinship relations for support during exigencies. Yet, although ancient Near Eastern law codes stressed protection for the widow and orphan, only Israel's contained legislation for the resident alien. This was probably due to the peculiar circumstances of her origin.

After Sinai and the wilderness wanderings, Israel received the gift of the promised land. In order to occupy it, however, she had to purge the land of its foreign population. Foreigners in this context represented hostile agents that would contaminate Israel and render her unholy before God. For the same reason, covenants and marriages with foreigners were forbidden. Paradoxically, only if her religion was pure could Israel be of help to foreigners (cf. Rahab, Ruth, Naaman, the widow of Zarepath). If Israel became sinful in the holy land, she would lose God's permanent presence, as he would become like a temporary resident (Jeremiah 14:8 ).

And yet Israel's entire existence was bound up with being a blessing to foreigners (Genesis 12:3 ). Some psalms envisioned the time when all nations would become subject to an Israelite king who would rule the world with justice. Solomon's prayer at the inauguration of the temple implied that it was to be a house of prayer for all peoples, as Israelite and foreigner could both pray to its Lord (1 Kings 8:41-43; cf. Isaiah 56:3-8 ). The prophets predicted that all nations would go up to Jerusalem to learn the Torah and depart changed people, no longer alienated from each other (Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-5 ). There would be one humanity (Isaiah 19:23-25 ), speaking a purified language (Zephaniah 3:9 ).

Although Israel received a residence in the promised land, she was reminded that the land was God's and that he allowed her to settle on it as a resident alien (Leviticus 25:23; cf. 1 Chronicles 29:15; Psalm 39:12; 119:19 ). Israel must wait for a true home.

The New Testament . By the time of the New Testament, Israel had become extremely exclusive, largely forgetting her mission to the nations. When the Messiah arrived, however, foreigners were present (Matthew 2:1-12 ). During his ministry, he constantly interacted with them, indicating that God's love embraced the world (Luke 17:18; John 4 ). A Roman soldier pronounced a eulogy at his death ( Luke 23:47 ). Death broke the hostile powers that caused human divisions (Ephesians 2:14-18 ). In Christ there was no longer any important racial, linguistic, or ethnic difference (Galatians 3:26-29 ). Pentecost (Acts 2 ) reversed the judgment of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9 ).

At the same time, there was the realization that while members of the church had their citizenship in heaven, they were resident aliens on earth (1 Peter 1:17; 2:11 ). Before the coming of the kingdom, they had to live a nomadic existence as strangers and pilgrims, much like the patriarchs of the Old Testament (Hebrews 11:9-16 ). They must live in hope and faith, praying for the invasion of the kingdom and waiting patiently for the gift of a new Canaan, a new Eden, where they can reside with their God (Revelation 21-22 ). Meanwhile the church must act by helping literal strangers and foreigners, remembering her own identity and God's love for the powerless (Matthew 25:35,38,43,44 ). Hospitality (philoxenos, lit. love for the stranger) is to be a characteristic of the follower of Christ (1 Peter 4:9; cf. Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2 ).

Stephen G. Dempster

See also Nations, the

Bibliography . G. Ahlsträ , TDOT, 4:52-58; F. C. Fensham, JNES 21 (1962): 129-39; D. E. Gowan, Int 41 (1987): 341-53; D. Kellerman, TDOT, 2:439-49; B. J. Malina, Int 41 (1987): 354-67; G. C. Moucarry, Themelios 14 (1988): 17-20; R. Patterson, BSac 130 (1973): 223-34; H. E. von Waldrow, CBQ 32 (1970): 182-204.

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Foreigner'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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