Who are the Sojourners?

Who are the Sojourners? April 18, 2022


In the Old Testament (OT) we see the term ‘sojourner’ used 129 times (Hebrew gwr).  In the New Testament (NT) we see it only twice (in Greek form paroikus); Acts 7:6 during Stephen’s speech recounting Israel’s history and in 1 Peter 2:11, where Peter is addressing his fellow Jews.   However, the concept of sojourner is more prevalent than the term and more importantly interpreted by Jesus in perhaps an unexpected way which we will explore.  But, to understand Jesus’ interpretation and its impact we must first understand how it is used in the OT and among the people of Israel in their history.  After all, Jesus so often epitomizes how the NT (among its many other fruitful purposes) acts as a commentary of the OT and of the history of God and his human creation.

Israel as Sojourners

God, speaking to Abram (later Abraham) announces that Abram will be the patriarch of a chosen family and that this family will be sojourners in a foreign land for 400 years (Ge 15:13).  Thus, the people of Israel begin as sojourners in Egypt. But they are not without protection as God reports that he will be with them and in the end, punish those that treated the sojourners of Israel poorly (Gen 15:14).  The sojourners themselves will come out with “great possessions”.

So, from the start we have Israel identified as sojourners. Further, we see that God is prepared to punish those who treat sojourners poorly – which is something we need to keep in mind as we move forward. But…why emphasize the punishment of people who treat sojourners badly?  Some may find it rather random, but God does not do random.  Instead, we should understand that God is saying that sojourners are not just foreigners in a land to be treated as one pleases.  Those peoples hosting groups of sojourners have an expectation of caring for and even protecting the sojourners. Thus, Egypt in their role as host was expected to care for the sojourners who later would be called Israel. When they failed in this duty, God reacted – as always in his own timing.  Of course, there is more to God’s plan between Egypt and Israel than just how they treated the people, but we are focusing on this particular aspect of history involving the sojourning right now. History is complex and absorbing it all at once simply is not within human power. Now, this is a lot to pull just from this one verse, so let’s look at a few more of the 129 occurrences of ‘sojourners’ in the OT.

Contrast the Egyptian Pharaoh with another ruler, Cyrus of Persia.  Cyrus received the word of God and reacted in a way expected of a host towards his sojourners (2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4), releasing the sojourners to return to Jerusalem and providing for them with riches and property. We can see from Cyrus’ treatment in 2 Chronicles that he was receptive to the God of Israel and well thought of by God as well. By this contrast we can see that treatment of the sojourners, whom we have identified as Israel in this case, was at least a partial basis for reward or punishment.

Learning the Lesson of the Sojourner

Israel themselves was expected to learn this lesson and given the extremes (slavery/abuse to riches/property) it would seem a lesson of importance. Israel was reminded very directly and firmly that it was a lesson they should take to heart.  Israel and the Patriarchs lived as sojourners under the protection of fathers, father-in-laws, Canaanites (Exodus 6:4), Moabites (Ruth 1:1), and even later Egyptians to name a few. Some hosts were good hosts and some were not. Israel was expected to understand that the role of sojourner was a critical part of their identity, and they were not to forget it:

“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deut 10:19


“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”  Exodus 23:9

So, when the people of Israel had settled in their land and were no longer sojourning themselves, they were to become host to other sojourners. And the Lord expected proper treatment of the sojourners at the hands of Israel.  God again makes this clear repeatedly (Ex 22:11, 23:9; Le 19:10, Mal 3:5 to name just a few).

“You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” Le 24:22

Although, the sojourner is to be protected, they still do not have completely equal status in the Israel family. Often, they are equated with the widow, slaves, orphans, poor and the fatherless – not to say any of these groups are somehow less valuable in the eyes of the Lord, but only that they have a different status in the society of Israel.   Further, there are laws which the people of Israel were to follow, that the sojourner could get away with, for example Deuteronomy 14:21. In that passage the people of Israel may not eat animals that dies naturally, but they are allowed to give it to the sojourners to eat.  Israel was to be set apart as God’s portion and so they were directed to follow a select set of behaviors.

So, at this point we can see that:

  • Israel has part of its identity as a people as former sojourners
  • Hosting sojourners implies protecting and caring for them, even loving them.
  • Although care and laws extend to the sojourner, at this point they are still held as being different in status – food laws for example didn’t apply. Note that the food laws are one of the three Jewish identity characteristics (circumcision and Sabbath law being the other two).
  • God puts some real importance on treatment of sojourners, punishing those who treat them poorly and rewarding those who act properly.

At this point, we have reviewed how the sojourner is treated among humankind to humankind. However, if it is that important wouldn’t we expect God to also have a sense of this sojourning displayed from He himself?  Why of course we would… and we are not disappointed.

God’s Lesson in Sojourning

God presents himself as the lover and protector of the sojourner.  Cleary, the first example is the freeing of Israel from Egypt, which we have already covered and remains a core portion of the history of Israel. In several other passages the Lord is proclaimed the lover of the sojourner; Ps 146:9, Deut 10:18-20.  In these instances, the author of the passages is equating sojourner with Israel.  However, as we have already seen there is a reciprocating action expected from Israel.

So, let’s backtrack a bit and explore the Lord’s relationship with the sojourner.

8 but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations,..” Deut 7:8-9

This is part of what is often called a suzerain contract, which is an ancient concept briefly described as a relationship between a powerful person (like a king) and the recipient of the king’s favor, the vassal.  In the Biblical context God is the suzerain and all humanity is the vassal (although in the OT initially Israel is characterized as the vassal).  The rest of the scripture works to detail the exact nature of this relationship.  In basic terms we can start with the Shama (a Jewish term referring to the core belief statement found in Deut 6:4) and the response, v5:

4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. (Deut 6:4-6)

God is our God and we are indented to love him with all we have. Now, returning to Deut 7:8-9, we see that because God has loved us, we are to love him and demonstrate this love through obedience.  The vassal concept should sound familiar, as it demonstrates a level of care and protection that we see in the host-sojourner relationship. This is enforced further through Leviticus:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33–34

Here Israel is being instructed to “love him (the sojourner) as yourself”.  This comes on the tail of another passage in Leviticus pointedly quoted in the NT:

18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. “ Leviticus 19:18

Sojourners in the NT

In the NT this is quoted in Matt 19:19, Mark 12:31, and Luke 10:27.  In each of these passages we have a lawyer (or scribe) questioning Jesus about the greatest commandment. A side note – the term ‘lawyer’ is used to describe not a modern judicial agent, but a person who has dedicated their life to the study and interpretation of the Torah (Jewish law, basically the OT and related writings).  In all the cases the response is a combination of the Deut 6:4 and the Lev 19:18 passages.  The interesting part comes with the extended response to a secondary question in Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?” The question is asked by the lawyer to Jesus. Given our look at the OT so far, the expected answer would have been “your fellow people of Israel, the original sojourners.”  However, Jesus chooses another route explaining the answer with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).  You should read it now if you haven’t in a while… go ahead… I will wait…

Notice that the Samaritan is in Jericho and quite far from his home.  This would make the Samaritan a sojourner in the land of Israel.  It is the sojourner who ultimately cared for the fallen stranger, who has been given no designation as sojourner or Israelite. Then the final pointed question from Jesus, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  The lawyer responded, “the one who showed him mercy.” The response we might have given ourselves is “the Samaritan.” However, to the Jewish people of the time, the Samaritans were despised and thus for the Jewish lawyer to admit that the Samaritan was the ‘good guy’ would have been tough to swallow.  Consider carefully now what Jesus has done to the interpretation of sojourner.  He has now equated ‘sojourner’ with ‘neighbor’.  The Samaritan (a sojourner) is the neighbor. The line that had separated the sojourner as a different class of people in the eyes of Israel has been broken down. Jesus has set the stage for his disciples, and by extension humankind, to include all peoples within the household of God, as neighbors and as brothers and sisters.

Sojourners and Neighbors

With this in mind, you might want to go BACK to the OT and look at some of the 132 occurrences of ‘neighbor’ to get a full impact of what Jesus has done by interpreting the OT sojourner-neighbor relationship the way he did. Such an interpretation was foreshadowed in the OT, though only now might it be clear:

23 “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. 24 And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land.” Leviticus 25:23–24

God lays claim on the land here and reports to Israel that they along with all inhabitants are sojourners in this land, and with the coming of Christ may interpret land as this world as well as chosen people of God as all humanity. Thus, we are under the Lord’s protection and good grace. As such we are expected to treat one another in the same way.

Why it matters

  • As Jesus has interpreted, sojourners as are our neighbors and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves – as God has loved us. This has ramifications on how we treat people who come to where we live whether they be foreigners visiting, immigrants (of any status), refugee, or simple traveler from out of town. We must consider in our behavior, laws, and speech are we honoring God’s wishes on how we treat his human creation.
  • Considering that God is the suzerain and creator/possessor of all things, as sojourners in his world how are we doing? Are we treating the rest of creation in a way that properly reflects our status as sojourners and caretakers?  Or are we treating this world as if it was ours to do as we please?
  • Are we considerate of God’s incredible emphasis on the treatment of sojourners and neighbors at a local level? It is not just grand and global scales which we must consider. It is our own daily behavior that actually has the power to change the rest of the world and governments. If we cannot treat our family, co-workers, baristas, sales clerks, and generally all the people we come into immediate contact on a daily basis with love and respect, then how can we begin to force our governments and world powers to do the same.
  • The emphasis in both OT and NT on the treatment of others and in particular the treatment of people who one group might consider foreigners recalls to my mind a particular passage from another scholar, Miraslov Volf, in an interpretation of life of sojourning humans that the Lord may have been warning us about as being part of our fallen nature:


“The principle cannot be denied: the fiercer the struggle against the injustice you suffer, the blinder you will be to the injustice you inflict.  We tend to translate the presumed wrongness of our enemies into an unfaltering conviction of our own rightness. In seeing to do justice we pervert justice, turn it into “poison” (Amos 6:12).” Mirasolv Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, pg 217-218.

I interpret one point of this quote as that our treatment of others must start with the loving of others (even oppressors) as our neighbors, such that we seek to stop the injustice done as opposed to seeking retribution on the oppressors we perceive as guilty.



Browse Our Archives

Close Ad