Abraham: from alien to citizen

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THE BIBLE HAS a great deal to say about welcoming the stranger. Indeed, its recounting of God’s labour to set right a fallen world can look like a long interconnected lesson in the redeeming importance of such hospitality.

In biblical terms, God’s call to Abraham is the fresh start in God’s human-battered plan to create a just and joyful world of peace. Responding to the call meant that Abraham must become a life-long stranger – a travelling alien: Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

And God’s initial judgement on other human beings would be in terms of their willingness to welcome and respect this stranger. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.

Abraham then spends many years crossing borders, encountering strangers, depending on their willing and peaceable welcome. Most of the time, things unfold hospitably, and blessings fall on willing hosts. Abraham himself is a model of hospitality when he has the chance.

The three strangers

The story of his encounter with three strangers “by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day,” is lyrical in its description of welcome. “When he saw the men, he ran to the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.” (Gen. 18:2). He organizes his household to prepare a feast, he sets a banquet before the guests, “and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”

The three strangers, of course, turn out to be the very presence of God. Did Abraham know that? Not, it seems, until the feast was eaten. But the point is there for all succeeding generations: meeting any stranger might be an encounter with God.

Abraham the hospitable immigrant at last makes graciously the transition to what we might call citizenship: the acquisition of land rights. The story of his purchase of the cave and field at Machpelah, in Genesis 23, shows Abraham at his peace-building best. He observes every detail of local law and custom as he bargains respectfully for land ownership in the country of his wanderings. The story watches the line between newcomer and citizen being graciously erased, with something like multiculturalism taken delicately for granted. An example for modern Canadians?

Egypt and Exodus

It is in the next stage of the biblical story of salvation – the sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus saga – that the ethical importance of welcoming crowds of strangers in their time of trouble is brought home.

The Hebrews in Egypt run the gamut of immigrant experience: in the days of Joseph they are favoured, provided for, admired for their skills, given a productive place in the local economy. Later, under Pharaohs “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), the Hebrews learn what it is like to be the social scapegoat, the group everyone else can fear and loathe, use and abuse, without being politically incorrect.

From being protected, they become slaves. When they learn at last to struggle for their freedom, they become public enemies. Finally they become fugitives, at risk everywhere, protected only by their God.

Remember when you were refugees

When the Hebrews of the Exodus become the Israel of God, planted in their own land, God makes it a matter of urgency that they should remember their former status as oppressed people, and as refugees without land rights. Because they can remember how a fugitive feels, they must be a community of compassion for all future refugee claimants.

As Leviticus puts it (19:33-34), “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

What about national security?

What about moral pollution of the host country’s life by newcomers who might be criminals, who might have a really unsavoury track record in their country of origin? These are genuine problems.

You can feel biblical Israel struggling with such issues, and contemporary Canada struggles too. There are good reasons for insisting that those who seek refuge here must speak the truth about why they are uprooted, and must not have blood on their hands, or in their minds contempt for the rule of law.

God offers a fresh start

And yet the God of the Bible, from the beginning and especially in the vivid stories and merciful actions of Jesus, is One who delights in giving human beings a second or third chance, a fresh start. For everyone’s sake.

Perhaps these days, when we are inclined to be nervous about each and every refugee claimant as a potential security risk or polluting factor, we should remember more the blessing promisedto every place that would welcome the wandering and gentle Abraham.

GROUNDINGS from the Fall 2005 issue of the Catalyst, volume 28, Number 4

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