“Sojourner” is the frequent translation of the Hebrew term gēr (Hebrew gēr [גר]; plural gērīm [גרים]). This Hebrew term and its translation convey the basic idea that a person (or group) is residing, either temporarily or permanently, in a community and place that is not primarily their own and is dependent on the “good-will” of that community for their continued existence. Besides “sojourner” there are several other translations by scholars that have tried to capture the meaning of the Hebrew term, including “resident alien,” “immigrant,” “foreign resident,” “client,” “foreigner,” and “stranger.” Further complication is that the Hebrew term (gēr) is only one of several words with similar or related meanings. These include nokhrī (נכרי) usually translated as “stranger,” sometimes as “foreigner”; zār (זר) usually translated as “foreigner,” sometimes as “enemy”; and ʾazraḥ (אזרח) usually translated as “native.” These latter three terms will not be dealt with directly in this article but are often alluded to in various discussions. Finally, there is the issue of how gēr should be translated into Greek, as προσήλυτος (proselyte) or as πάροικος (one who dwells). The importance of the term gēr (the equivalent of “sojourner” in this article) is its usage to refer to different entities. At times individual biblical figures sojourn: Abraham sojourned in Egypt (Genesis 12:10) and Gerar (Genesis 20:1); Joseph and his brothers sojourned in Egypt (Genesis 47:4); and a Levite sojourned in Judah and Ephraim (Judges 17:7–9; 19:1). On other occasions the whole of Israel is seen as sojourning in Egypt (Isaiah 52:4) or Babylon (Ezra 1:2–4). And frequently individuals are said to sojourn within ancient Israel (Leviticus 22:17–18; Isaiah 16:4). These individuals are to be treated well, especially the “widow, orphan, and sojourner” (Deuteronomy 10:17–18; 27:19), as well as the Levite (Deuteronomy 14:29; 24:19). The reason for treating the gēr well is because Israel was a gēr in Egypt (Leviticus 19:34; Deuteronomy 24:5). That the gēr (sojourner) is to be treated well in the community raises further questions. Are there restrictions on the participation of the gēr in cultic ceremonies? Can the gēr become a full member (proselyte) of the community after circumcision? Can an Israelite become a gēr in his or her own community? Why is a Levite classified as a gēr? What makes answering these questions difficult is that the Hebrew Bible is not always consistent in its understanding of the sojourner (gēr) and her or his role in the community. This variability in understanding is clear from examining the resources in this article. Furthermore, the problems with this inconsistency carry over into later translations of gēr and even into contemporary analyses of the gēr.
These pieces of scholarship provide a general overview of gēr (sojourner) in ancient Israel. Some are brief articles in encyclopedias or dictionaries. Some are full-length book treatments. They deal with questions about how to translate gēr: Who is a gēr? Where did the gēr come from? What is the relation of the gēr to the Israelites? What are the legal and cultic restrictions on the gēr? What are the responsibilities toward the gēr? Is the term used consistently in the Hebrew Bible? And does historical context play a role in defining a gēr? These and other questions are touched upon in these general discussions and dealt with in more detail in the other sections of this article. Selbie 1900, in the multivolume dictionary edited by Hastings, is the earliest discussion designed for the general audience. Mauck 1962 is next to provide an article for an extensive dictionary—The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Fensham 1962 presents the understanding of gēr in the larger ancient Near Eastern context into which the Old Testament usage fits. Van Houten 1991 provides a full-length discussion of the topic. Bultmann 1992 is a similar treatment in German. The next survey article was Spencer 1992 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ramírez Kidd 1999 is another full treatment of the topic. Zehnder 2005 is a general discussion, which is also concerned with modern issues of immigrants but differs with Bultmann 1992 on the origin of the gēr. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible presents a new article by Jobling 2009. Although mostly focused on Deuteronomy, another book treatment of the topic is Awabdy 2014.
Awabdy, Mark A. Immigrants and Innovative Law: Deuteronomy’s Theological and Social Vision for the גר. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2, Reihe 67. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.
A thorough study of term gēr. Prefers to translate gēr as “immigrant” rather than “resident alien” or “sojourner.” This implies gēr is an outsider to the community. Good examination of past discussions. Focuses on texts from Deuteronomy but also examines other ancient Near Eastern texts and communities.
Bultmann, Christoph. Der Fremde im antike Juda. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 153. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992.
A dissertation that seeks to understand the term gēr. Examines the gēr in the Deuteronomic law and the later Deuteronomistic works. Sees gēr as someone who migrates within Judah and is economically disadvantaged. Finally, explores the term in context of law and how the laws were designed to help raise the economic status of the gēr.
Fensham, F. Charles. “Widow, Orphan, and Poor in Ancient Near Eastern Legal and Wisdom Literature.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 21.2 (1962): 129–139.
Basically sees gēr (translated as “stranger”) in the category of the “poor.” Discusses treatment of the widow, orphan, and poor in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ugarit, and the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the apodictic laws of Yahweh protect these people. Rejects any claim that idea of caring treatment of these three groups of people originated with prophetic materials of Old Testament.
Jobling, David. “Sojourner.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 5. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 314–316. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2009.
A survey of the meaning of gēr. Sees “landlessness” as the basic meaning of the term. Focuses on the legal aspects of being a gēr and how the category is treated by the various law codes of the Hebrew Bible.
Mauck, T. M. “Sojourner.” In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 4. 5 vols. Edited by George A. Buttrick, 397–399. New York: Abingdon, 1962.
Good overview. Translates gēr as “sojourner.” Since Israel was a gēr in Egypt and saved by God, Israel needs to treat the gēr in its community with justice and care. In post-exilic period, gēr came to be understood as “proselyte.”
Ramírez Kidd, José Enrique. Alterity and Identity in Israel: The “Ger” in the Old Testament. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fϋr die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 283. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1999.
“Otherness” (alterity) is the key to understanding gēr as non-Israelite. Focuses on semantic context for differences in meaning of gēr but does not accept simple evolutionary development. Distinguishes usage of verb from noun. Holds that when LXX translated gēr as proselytos, the Greek did not originally have a religious sense of conversion. Deuteronomy added gēr to the pair of widow and orphan, suggesting Israel’s acceptance of outsiders.
Selbie, J. A. “Ger.” In A Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 2. Edited by J. Hastings, 156–157. New York: Scribner’s, 1900.
One of the earlier discussions of gēr. Gēr is temporary “dweller” in land—neither native nor foreigner nor slave. Had protection of family or tribe in which he or she dwelt. After Exile, when Israel was a gēr in Babylon, there was a close link between Israelite and gēr. Ezekiel expects gēr to be circumcised, and for P gēr is almost the same as “proselyte,” an understanding that is found in the Mishna and later Judaism.
Spencer, John R. “Sojourner.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 103–104. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
A brief survey of use of gēr in the Bible. Notes that the term applies at times to Israel and certain ancient Israelites as well as those living among the Israelites. Discusses the role of Levites as gēr and their listing with the sociological categories of widows and orphans.
van Houten, Christiana. The Alien in Israelite Law. Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1991.
Examines how the status of alien (gēr) changed over time. Argues that changes in laws were used to change society. Early laws (Covenant Code) focused on providing hospitality to foreigners, while later laws (Deuteronomic Code) focused on dealing with landless people. One issue is whether there is provision for “aliens” to join Israelite community. Claims “aliens” in post-exilic period were Israelites who remained in Palestine and had to be re-integrated into Jewish community.
Zehnder, Markus. Umgang mit Fremden in Israel und Assyrien: Ein Beitrag zur Anthropologie des “Fremden” in Licht antiker Quellen. Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testament 168. Stuttgart, Germany: W. Kohlhammer, 2005.
Sees both gēr and nokhrī as referring to foreigners, people of different ethno-political and religious tradition than Israel. They are not lower-class Israelites. Uses texts from Ugarit and Assyria in support. Spends time discussing implications for treatment of foreigners in modern society and how religious perspectives influence attitudes.
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