Immigrants and Refugees

Siding with outlaws and fugitives

By Bernard Brandon Scott | 7/9/2018

This second blog on Immigrants and Refugees will deal with the usage of the formula Widows, Orphans and Sojourners in Deuteronomy.

Keeping the Commandments

A pivotal text is Deut 10:17-19. It occurs in the conclusion (10:12-11:32) of Moses’ speech introducing the laws that begin in chapter 12. In some ways it functions as a summary of Torah. While addressing the assembly of Israel, Moses asks:

And now, O Israel,

what does YHWH your God ask of you

except to hold YHWH your God in awe,

to walk in all his way

and to love him

and to serve YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your being

to keep the commandments of YHWH and his laws which I command you today,

to have it go-well for you? (Deut 10:12-13, Fox.)

This introduction echoes the extended verses of the Shema (Deut 5:4-7). Then comes a summary of the laws:

[F]or YHWH your God,

he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords,

the God great, powerful, and awe-inspiring,

he who lifts up no face (in favor) and takes no bribe,

providing justice (for) orphan and widow,

loving the sojourner, by giving him food and clothing.

so you are to love the sojourner,

for sojourners were you the land of Egypt (Deut 10:17-19, Fox).

The passage has a careful rhetorical structure. The second and third lines exalt the greatness of YHWH with first a double doublet (the God of gods and the Lord of lords) and then three adjectives (great, powerful, and awe-inspiring). This God is not subject to the inducements of the powerful but is open to those who have no power. YHWH provides for the widow and orphan what they need, justice, and in loving the sojourner gives them what they want, food and clothing. The particularity of the text is notable. Frank Spina has suggested, “This may represent the first time in human history in which the divine world was seen to side with ‘outlaws, fugitives and immigrants’ rather that with the political structures whose policies and use of power made such social types inevitable” (333).

The motivation for this response to a sojourner on the part of Israel is “for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.” The message is clear: do not treat the refugee the way Egypt treated you when you were a refugee. This theme of Israel being a sojourner is deep in the self-understanding of Israel.

The first use of ger in the Hebrew Bible announces this theme. In a dream the Lord YHWH tells Abraham,

And he said to Avram:

You must know, yes, know

that your seed will be sojourners in a land not theirs;

they will put them in servitude and afflict them

for four hundred years (Gen 15:13, Fox).

The introduction to the Decalogue, while not referring to Israel as a sojourner, invokes the larger narrative of sojourning in Egypt.

I am YHWH your God

who brought you out

from the land of Egypt, from the house of serfs (Exod 20:2, Fox).

While Israel’s clear identification of itself as a sojourner in Egypt is a recurring trope, it is limited to the period prior to the settlement in Canaan. Israel in exile in Babylon is not referred to as a ger, “sojourner.”

Charity or Injustice?

The identification of Israel with the sojourner and the need to care for the widow and orphan clearly puts YHWH on the side of the outcast and the downtrodden. But frequent reference to this triad and their woes indicates that while God was on their side, in actuality things did not change very much. In the Hebrew Bible this is not a warrant for social reform.

Harold Bennett in his intriguing and thorough Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers, and Orphans in Ancient Israel has pointed to the dark side of this issue. He sees the Deuteronomistic legislation coming from the Temple priests of the northern kingdom in the ninth century bce. The building programs of the kings had drawn off funds from the Temple. So, the legislation dealing with tithes (Deut 14:22-29; 26:12-15) and the Feasts of Weeks and Booths (Deut 16:9-15) ensure support for the Temple. This same legislation also concerns the support or welfare of the widows, orphans, sojourners (Deut 24:17-22). This passage repeats the formulae we saw above:

You are not to cast aside the case of a sojourner (or) an orphan,

you are not the seize for payment the clothing of a widow.

You are to bear in mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt,

and YHWH your God redeemed you from there,

therefore I command you to observe this word (Deut 24:17-18, Fox).

In verses 19-22 there follows the regulations on gleanings concerning “harvest in your field,” olives, and grapes.

When you cut off (grapes in) your vineyard, you are not to glean after you;

for the sojourner, for the orphan and for the widow it shall be.

You are to bear in mind that serf were you in the land of Egypt,

therefore I command you to do this thing (Deut 24:21-22, Fox).

Bennett argues that this legislation exempts the Temple from providing support for the widow, orphan, and the sojourner, while forcing the peasant farmer who must also pay the tithes to bear the burden of their support. Furthermore, this means that relief for these poor in need is only available during harvest time. Instead of improving their plight, it legalizes it. Thus, the title of his book: Injustice Made Legal. Bennett’s provocative and compelling reading of the Deuteronomistic legislation helps us to see it from the point of view, not of the author, the priests in the Temple, but from the point of view of the widow, orphan, and the sojourner.

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

Books Mentioned:

Bennett, Harold V. Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers, and Orphans in Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002.

Fox, Everett, trans. The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. New York: Schocken, 1983. This is by far my favorite translation of the Pentateuch. It displays the English in sound bites that mimic the Hebrew. This is as close as you can get to the Hebrew in an English translation.

Spina, Frank. “Israelites as gerim, ‘Sojourners’ in Social and Historical Context.” The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth. Carol Meyers and Michael O’Connor, eds. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983) 321-35.

Photo of Bernard Brandon Scott

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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