Debate rages about immigrants, migrants, and refugees around the world. Governments have fallen over the issue and we have stumbled from crisis to crisis, egged on by demagogues. The tradition has also wrestled with same issues, especially in Deuteronomy and the Gospel of Matthew in ways that may be instructive for our situation. This blog will have three parts. Part 1 will deal with the translation of the formula Widows, Orphans and Sojourners, Part 2 with the usage of the formula, and Part 3 with the New Testament usage.
Widows and Orphans
A formula about caring for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger occurs 10 times in Deuteronomy, and six more times elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. The frequency of the trope indicates its significance and the likelihood that it represents a major ongoing problem. Or as Queen Gertrude says in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (3.2.210).
The three terms of the trope require some explication for a modern reader.
A widow is indeed someone whose husband has died, but in the ancient world it implies a desperate state, one in need. The Hebrew ⁾almanah translated as widow means “one unable to speak.” A widow does not have a husband to speak for her, so she is silent and silenced. Without a husband, someone to speak for and support her, her situation could well be distressed and easily taken advantage of.
In English we normally think of an orphan as child who has lost by death both parents, but in the Hebrew Bible this word refers primarily to a “fatherless” child, which is how most older translations translated the Hebrew, for example, the KJV at Exodus 22:22-- “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.”
The third word, in Hebrew ger, frequently in English Bibles translated as stranger or sojourner, is much more difficult to translate. A number of possibilities have been suggested: stranger (KJV, JPS, TNK), sojourner (Fox, RSV), alien (REB, NRSV), resident alien (NAB), refugee (Jobling), and immigrant (Spina). I would add that in light of recent usage migrant might be appropriate. Each suggested translation has its problem and no English word is an exact equivalent.
By substituting some of the other suggested translations of ger one can understand the problem of translation and at the same time experience the power and radical sense of the text.
so you are to love the sojourner, (resident) alien, refugee, stranger, immigrant
for sojourners, (resident) aliens, refugees, strangers, immigrants were you the land of Egypt (Deut 10:19)
It is more difficult to know exactly to whom it refers. Like widow and orphan, this person is normally in need of aid. Such a one dwells in a land not their own, often with a connotation of landlessness. It represents not an ethnic group but a class, a very low class. Hebrew employs different terms for a foreigner. The Hebrew words for foreigner normally imply a negative sense, for example a foreign land (Exod 21:8) or foreign gods (Gen 35:2).
Often the Hebrew employs a wordplay when referring to the sojourner. Exodus 12:49 is a good example. Everett Fox’s translation exhibits the wordplay.
One Instruction shall there be for the native and for the sojourner that sojourns in your midst.
The NRSV obscures the wordplay:
There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.
One becomes a sojourner, refugee or immigrant in the ancient world because of a political or social upheaval. War, famine, plague, drought, economic troubles; all these are common and created a great deal of social dislocation. For this reason, one would become a ger, a refugee or immigrant.
Why this triad of orphan, widow and sojourner is not evident. Orphan and widow are an obvious pair; both lack the protection of a male. But why add on sojourner? It is not simply a metonym for the poor. Zech 7:10 groups the triad with the poor: “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor” (NRSV). It is true that the assumption would be that all three are poor. What all three lack is male protection; they need a patron.
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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.
Jobling, David. “Sojourner.” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009, 5:314-16.
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.
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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