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Vayikra/Leviticus 19:33 And if a stranger is dwelling with you in your land, you shall not oppress him.
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This text comes towards the end of Vayikra 19, a chapter containing what many scholars suggest is a reworking of the Ten Commandments and other social legislation. The root - to sojourn or dwell - occurs twice in the verse: once as , a Qal, prefix, 3ms verb and once as , a masculine singular noun meaning a sojourner, stranger or foreigner.Targum Onkelos translates the first three words in the verse: , "if a convert converts among you"; Onkelos usually uses the post-biblical meaning 'convert' unless the context requires the biblical sense 'stranger'; so four times out of five occurrences in verses 33-34 are translated in that way (Drazin and Wagner). Plaut explains: "In rabbinic sources is used in the sense of "proselyte" - this shift reflects the great interest of the rabbinic teachers in converts who constituted a considerable a sizeable element of the community some two thousand years ago." Baruch Levine comments, however, that "the referred to in the Bible was most often a foreign merchant or craftsman or a mercenary soldier. This term never refers to the prior inhabitants of the Land; those are identified by their specific ethnic names, such as Canaanites and Amorites."
Two lines of comments are thus opened upon the meaning of this verse. One follows the original biblical meaning of , "foreigner".Ibn Ezra makes a connection to the previous verse and says that "just as one must show deference to the Jewish elderly - 'You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old' (v. 32, JPS) - because of their lack of strength, so too must one not wrong the stranger, for your power is so much greater than his. He is in your land, under your authority." The Bekhor Shor adds that the is vulnerable because "not knowing how business is conducted in your country, he is easy to cheat". Levine, looking at the apodosis - a Hif'il prefix 2mp from the root , to oppress or vex, so here "you shall not wrong" - notes that it "usually connotes economic exploitation, the deprivation of property or denial of legal rights. It was used with particular reference to those who suffered from lack of legal redress, such as the poor, the widow and the orphan, along with the foreigner." This can also be seen a few chapters later in "When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another" (25:14, JPS) and "Do not wrong one another, but fear your G-d; for I the L-RD am your G-d" (25:17, JPS).
The other line of comments, following the later rabbinic gloss on to mean "proselyte or convert" translates the apodosis phrase "do not harass him" (Artscroll).Rashi, drawing on b. Bava Metzia 58b comments that "this refers to verbal harassment. Do not say to him, 'Last night you were an idolater, and now you come to learn Torah which was given from the mouth of the Almighty?'". Steering a little close to the other meaning of , the Sforno says, "you shall not do him wrong - even by vexing him with words". Gunther Plaut explains that "the foreigner who is resident in the land of Israel must not only be protected but be shown positive love." Rabbi Hirsch, noticing that , "with you", is singular while , "in your land", is plural, deduces that "the change to the singular 'you' teaches that it refers, not to the individuals, but to the nation as a whole. 'Do not oppress him' in the plural, makes a demand to every member of the nation, in their general intercourse with strangers not to let them feel that they are newcomers, not even by a word that might hurt their feelings."
In either case, we need to ask ourselves how we treat strangers, whether visiting or resident, whether joining our circle or remaining outside. Mankind has a long history of xenophobia - fear of strangers - and the mistreatment of someone who is, for whatever reason, not part of the group. A stranger need not someone who is not a native, although race or colour often play a significant part in defining a person as 'other'; speech, an accent, size, a disability, hair-style, glasses, gender or clothes are all reasons why someone may be rejected by a group. Something as simple as bringing a packed-lunch when everyone else eats in the canteen, or being the only teen in the class with (or without) braces, may be enough to make someone an outsider. All sorts of differences can cause an individual or a minority group to be excluded or stigmatised. Once someone is defined as 'other', then the dominant group tend to ostracise them, to exclude them from conversation, activities, transactions and privileges. After a while, the group will demonise the 'other' in order to justify their mistreatment and exclusion; this defines the 'other' as below or of less worth, intelligence or value as the group, leading to bullying, verbal or physical abuse. In the extreme, such as the blacks in the days of slavery or the Jews during the Nazi era, the 'other' becomes sub-human and so can be excluded from basic human rights and, ultimately, destroyed.
Yeshua was invited to lunch at the house of Simon the Pharisee. "And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that He was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed His feet and anointed them with the ointment" (Luke 7:37-38, ESV). The text doesn't tell us in what way she had sinned, but does tell us that Simon was in no doubt: "Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner'" (v. 39, ESV). This woman, as far as the Pharisee was concerned, was an outsider, someone that Yeshua certainly should not have allowed to touch Him. He was probably trying to work out how he could have her removed from his house without making a scene, but before he got very far, Yeshua responded, "'Simon, I have something to say to you.' And he answered, 'Say it, Teacher.' 'A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?' Simon answered, 'The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.' And He said to him, 'You have judged rightly'" (vv. 40-43, ESV). Perhaps Simon was reluctant, guessing what might be coming; his answer certainly seems diffident enough. Then Yeshua closes the argument: "Then turning toward the woman He said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave Me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss My feet. You did not anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven -- for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little'" (vv. 44-47, ESV). In the parallel in Matthew's gospel, Yeshua adds: "Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her" (Matthew 26:13, ESV). The ultimate story - although there are others in the gospels - of an outsider becoming an insider! Although ostracised by polite religious society, Yeshua forgives the woman's sins and her story becomes memorialised by the gospel narratives: she was accepted by Yeshua.
James too teaches us a lesson in the same area: "Suppose a man comes into your synagogue wearing gold rings and fancy clothes, and also a poor man comes in dressed in rags. If you show more respect to the man wearing the fancy clothes and say to him, 'Have this good seat here,' while to the poor man you say, 'You, stand over there,' or, 'Sit down on the floor by my feet,' then aren't you creating distinctions among yourselves?" (James 2:2-4, CJB). The two visitors are not receiving equal acceptance; the apparently rich man receives favour, while the apparently poor man is considered to be of no or little value and put down accordingly. Later, even though as James points out, the rich are "the ones who oppress you and drag you into court" (v. 6, CJB), the poor man can be quietly slid out of the way while the rich man is fêted to gain his favour. The text indignantly points out, "if you show favoritism, your actions constitute sin, since you are convicted under the Torah as transgressors" (v. 9, CJB).
Further Study: Isaiah 65:2-7; Jeremiah 7:5-7
Application: Do you eye people up and down and discriminate against them by their appearance or sound? Many do, but it's time to put a stop to that in the name of Yeshua. Time to repent and ask the Ruach to help you get it right in future!
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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