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The Foreigner

Kill the Foreigner? Love the Foreigner?

What should our attitude be towards 'the foreigner’? Living in Belfast as an Englishman with a German wife and two Northern Irish children, I often feel that I occupy a strange position between ‘local’ and ‘foreigner’. This is not to complain in any way about the hospitality that I have received here, quite the opposite! However, the question of how we respond to the foreigner has intensified in recent years with the increased focus on migrants, and the question of how the church should respond to them.

Naturally, we can look to the Bible for guidance. However, when reading the Old Testament we come across various different responses to the foreigner, some of which appear on first sight to be contradictory. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy we find commands like 7:1-2, which tell Israel to wipe out the existing non-Israelites in Canaan, showing them no mercy. However, we also find commands like 10:18-19, where God says that he loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing, before commanding Israel to love the foreigner. How can we make sense of this, and how can they inform our response to foreigners today?1 Is Deuteronomy encouraging us to kill the foreigner or love the foreigner? In this article I will briefly outline a way to understand the relationship between these different commands both in their original context and (briefly) in light of New Testament perspectives.2

Kill the Foreigner?

Deuteronomy 7:1-2 falls into the commands about the conquest of Canaan, which are some of the most difficult passages in the Bible. I will not attempt to ‘solve’ a problem that has challenged interpreters for two thousand years.3 However, in relation to the contrasting picture of the foreigner in Deuteronomy we can note some basic points.

These commands are part of a one-off event: the conquest of the promised land. They are not intended to be the standard method for Israel to deal with foreigners, even in wars. Modern interpreters are united (a rare event!) in agreeing that this is not a pattern for believers to follow.

In their original context, the Deuteronomy commands are dealing with two specific issues for Israel in their relationship with God:

· Firstly, Israel are afraid of these Canaanite nations that are greater and stronger than them. They need to learn to trust in God who is greater than their enemies (7:1; 9:1; compare 1:19-46). This issue would not be relevant for weaker enemies.

· Secondly, the true danger of the Canaanites for Israel is not military but religious. Their worship of other gods could tempt Israel away from their relationship with God, and as the people of God they need to avoid this disaster (7:4; 8:19-20). These Canaanite commands in Deuteronomy come in a section (chapters 6-12) which is focussed on what it means for Israel to live out the first two commandments in particular, flowing from the command to love God and God alone with everything that they are (heart, soul, strength 6:4-5).

However, the Canaanite are not a danger because they are foreign. The same danger can arise within Israel (Deuteronomy 13). Moreover, in the stories of the conquest we see elsewhere that every Canaanite who seeks to side with God is accepted: Rahab (Joshua 2:9-13; 6:25) and the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:24-27). The focus in Deuteronomy is not on killing the Canaanites but on removing them as a danger to Israel’s relationship with God in the land.

Moving to the New Testament, there is no comparable conquest event (as noted above, it was one-off.) Moreover as Christians we no longer have a specific land as an integral part of our relationship with God. Like the Israelites, however, we have been given this relationship with God and all of its benefits, but we should not take it for granted. We are also tempted to live in ways that damage this relationship and we need to maintain a clear focus on God.

However, our focus needs to be internal – not on outsiders, but on us as individuals and a community (the church). We need to remove anything from ourselves that weakens our relationship with God (even, metaphorically, to the extent of cutting off our own hand or eye – Matthew 5:29-30), and constantly seek to transform ourselves into his likeness, including putting off the old self (Romans 6:6; Colossians 3:3-10).4 In this internal focus, foreigners as foreigners are not dangers to our relationship with God. Therefore, there is no reason to act negatively towards foreigners based on these commands in Deuteronomy.

Love the Foreigner?

The command in Deuteronomy 10:18-19 falls into a very different category from the conquest. Rather than relating to a one-off situation, it is part of guidelines for Israel’s ongoing life in the land.

The Hebrew word that is translated ‘foreigner’ (NIV) is ger, which is primarily used for a non-Israelite living among the Israelites.5 In the cultures of the time, one’s extended family was the key method of support (no NHS, welfare payments, police etc.) Because the ger had no extended family around, they were far more vulnerable than the average Israelite. (This is in clear contrast to the Canaanite nations who were greater and stronger than Israel.) Thus in the law they are often grouped with vulnerable members of Israelite society (the fatherless and the widow).

The laws are the guidance for how Israel is to live out their relationship with God in every area of their life. With regard to the ger, it is striking how much practical help and support Israel are to offer them. For example:6

· allow them Sabbath rest (5:14)

· support them with tithes (14:28-29)

· include them in festivals (16:11, 14)

· allow gleaning (24:19-22)

· avoid taking advantage of them or showing injustice towards them (24:14, 17; 27:19);

The ger does not have to follow Israel’s faith. (Israel aren’t just commanded to support fellow believers.) However, they can be included in the covenant (29:10-12; 31:10-13).

The laws give reasons for this treatment of the ger, including:

· Israel are to remember that they were the equivalent of the ger when they lived in Egypt (10:19; 26:7). The most striking example of this is in the ‘creed’ that the Israelites are to say when they bring their firstfruits to God, which starts ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’ (26:5) and summarises how God saved their ancestors and gave them everything that they have (land, food etc.) They are then to include the ger and other vulnerable in their celebrations (26:11-13). In light of the recent Syrian refugee crisis, it is interesting to note that another translation for ‘wandering Aramean’ is ‘Syrian ready to perish’ (KJV). The wandering was not done for pleasure!7

· As noted above, God loves the ger. In contrast, God is not described as hating foreigners, even the Canaanites. Their religious acts are detestable to him (12:31), but these acts are equally (or arguably more) detestable if done by Israel (18:12).8

Moving to the New Testament, there is no direct link between the memory of our salvation and treatment of foreigners such as Deuteronomy 23.9 However, we see in Jesus a continual focus on the vulnerable and marginalised, and a challenging of boundaries. This is true from the beginning, where his ‘mandate’ focusses on the oppressed and upholds foreigners (Luke 4:18-19, 25-27). It also appears, for example, in his parable on what it means to love one’s neighbour, refusing to set limits but rather exhorting the believer to act like the despised (foreign) Samaritan who helps a ‘foreigner’ (Luke 10:25-37).10

The exact nature of the challenge to the church concerning our support of the modern equivalent of the ger among us is beyond the scope of this short piece.11 However, one good place to start would be the assumption that our provision as Christians should at least equal that within the Old Testament law. What does that mean in practice for us as individuals or churches?


One way to summarise these two very different sets of commands is to turn to Jesus’ summary of the Old Testament in the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37-40).

· ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul and strength.’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) The Canaanite commands in Deuteronomy are part of this greatest command to be utterly devoted to God in everything that we are and everything that we have. This includes removing anything that might weaken or compete with that devotion. However, even in the Old Testament the problem was not foreigners as foreigners. Moreover, in the New Testament the focus is strongly internal (the individual and/or the church), and no part of this involves negativity to foreigners.

· ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:18) This chapter also contains the command to love the foreigner as yourself (verse 34), and treating the vulnerable foreigner well is an ongoing theme in the Old Testament. In his treatment of this commandment, Jesus holds up the ‘foreign’ Samaritan as an example, with a challenge to his followers: Go and do likewise!



1 How the Old Testament laws should be used by Christians is a complex topic beyond the scope of this short piece. For this purpose, I will assume that there are principles within the laws that we can study and attempt to apply in our context. For a more detailed discussion, see chapter 9 of C. J. H. Wright (2004) Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Nottingham: IVP.
2 For reasons of space we will focus on Deuteronomy. However, this is part of a wider issue within the Old Testament. For a discussion of the attitude to foreigners in the historical books, see D. G. Firth (2019) Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets. London: Apollos.
3 For more details on this issue, see the further reading suggested in [link to ‘God Commanding Violence’ website article].
4 For more on the New Testament outworking of this, see J. H. Walton & J. H. Walton (2017) The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest: Covenant, Retribution and the Fate of the Canaanites. Downers Grove, IVP, Part 6.
5 Other translations are: ESV ‘sojourner’; NRS & KJV ‘stranger’; NAS ‘alien’. There is no single English word that covers the exact meaning of ger. There are other terms in the OT for foreigner with slightly different nuances, although ger is the most common. For more details, see H. Wuench (2014) ‘The stranger in God's land - foreigner, stranger, guest: what can we learn from Israel's attitude towards strangers?’ Old Testament Essays 27.3. (My interest in this area arose from supervising a former student’s dissertation. Thanks, James!)
6 These examples are just taken from Deuteronomy. There are other laws in Exodus-Numbers, including the command to treat and love the ger as yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34; compare the more famous love of neighbour in 19:18).
7 We cannot draw an exact comparison between Jacob’s family (the original wandering Aramean) who fled to Egypt because of famine and the modern Syrian refugee situation. Nevertheless, we can still be challenged by this. For more on refugees, see F. S. Houston (2015) You Shall Love the Stranger As Yourself: The Bible, Refugees and Asylum. London: Routledge.
8 In Malachi 1:2-3 it is said that God hated Esau/Edom. In context, however, this love/hate language relates to Israel’s covenant relationship with God, a key theme of Malachi. God is in a special relationship with Israel and therefore he loves them in a greater way than Edom, rather than literally hating Edom. The same language is used in a similar contrast of Jacob’s love for Rachel (greater) and Leah (less) in Genesis 29:30-31. Compare also Jesus’ words in Luke 14:26 about hating one’s own family, where the point is the same. We shouldn’t literally hate our family, but rather love God so much more than them.
9 We could note the point that Gentile Christians (the vast majority of us) have come into the faith as ‘foreigners’ in one sense (Romans 11) but this does not have a direct link to how we treat actual foreigners.
10 Moreover, in Paul’s letters there is the wider issue of what it means to be the people of God, and the danger of focussing on identity markers such as circumcision.
11 For some brief suggestions, see Wuench (2014), section D and J. Corcoran (2012) ‘The alien in Deuteronomy 29 and today’ in D. G. Firth & P. S. Johnston (eds) Interpreting Deuteronomy. Nottingham, Apollos.