Week 6,“Who is ‘the Sojourner’”?: A “Stained-Glass” Word

Monday, April 3

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.  If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (Exod 22:21-24).

In this passage, we know of course who the widow and the orphan are. We can understand why a special command might be needed to ensure their just treatment: in the clan-based economy of ancient Israel, a women without a husband to ensure her access to property, or a child without a parent’s protection, could well fall through the cracks.  However, who is the ger (“resident alien” in the NRSV)? The old King James often uses “sojourner” for ger and related terms. At one time, “sojourner” meant something in our culture—consider the nineteenth-century heroine, escaped slave, abolitionist, freedom fighter, and feminist who called herself Sojourner Truth (pictured above). But in our day, “sojourner” is used in hymns, prayers, or Bible readings, but never found outside our sanctuaries, making it difficult to say what it means. It has become a “stained-glass” word.

To find the best contemporary translation for ger, it may help to consider how this word is used in our Old Testament. The ger is a person of foreign birth, living within the borders of Israel but without land or legal status. That is why the ger is so often listed together with the widow and the orphan: like widows and orphans, the gerim are vulnerable: they have no one to look out for their rights. This is why a special command is needed to ensure their just treatment, and why generosity to the ger is a consistent biblical principle.

So, who is the ger in our own time and context? The NRSV “resident alien” is accurate, but bookish and stodgy; far more vigorous, and no less accurate, is the Common English Bible rendering “immigrant”—particularly if we include those sometimes vilified as “illegal immigrants,” and those we call “refugees.” As the political rhetoric of the recent campaign has made tragically apparent, these “sojourners” are perhaps more vulnerable and at risk now than ever before—making these passages of Scripture more relevant than ever before. As today’s passage demonstrates, the ultimate guarantor of rights for the ger in Scripture is the Lord, who assures us, “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword”—which should, to say the least, give us pause.

Prayer: Vilifying the outsider has always been far too easy for us, O God. Open our eyes and hearts and hands to the “sojourners” in our midst, we pray, through Jesus Christ, who said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40), Amen.