Thou Shalt not Oppress the Stranger: A Review of "The Immigration Crisis" by James Hoffmeier
The Purpose of the Book
The purpose of this book was to prove that the commands regarding Israel’s treatment of strangers were only intended to apply to legally resident aliens. In order to prove this point, Hoffmeier put forward the claim that
“In the Hebrew Bible the alien (ger) was a person who entered Israel and followed legal procedures to obtain recognized standing as a resident alien.”
In contrast, Hoffmeier described the foreigner (nekhar) as
“those who were passing through the land with no intention of taking residence, or perhaps they
would be temporarily or seasonally employed.”
I purchased this book, because it was recommended as one of the best defenses of this claim, but I found Hoffmeier’s reasoning to be embarrassingly weak and his evidence to be paltry at best.
First Example of Flawed Logic: Jacob
For an example of Hoffmeier’s reasoning, consider his conclusion after he pointed out that Jacob purchased land from the sons of Hamor in Genesis 33. According to Hoffmeier:
“Once again we see that the Hebrew patriarchs did not presume for themselves the right to live wherever they wanted but had to obtain permission, and then Jacob purchased land.”
Hoffmeier uses this and similar examples in an attempt to prove that the term “ger” in the Bible only refers to those who have permission from the government to live in a given region. The only problem with this argument is that the patriarchs hardly ever sought government permission before buying land. The permission that they sought wasn’t from the government. It was from the landowner. Jacob obtained permission from the sons of Hamor before buying land because he was buying land from the sons of Hamor. To take this and then claim that Jacob had to have permission from the government before buying land is a huge leap in logic that Hoffmeier makes no effort to explain.
Second Example of Flawed Logic: Charging Interest
Another example can be found in Hoffmeier’s claim about charging interest to foreigners. Here’s what Hoffmeier wrote:
“For a good example that illustrates the difference in status between the foreigner [nekhar] and the alien [ger], consider the laws regarding paying interest. Leviticus 25:35-37 records that Israelites should not charge interest on loans to fellow Israelites and aliens. Foreigners (nokharim), on the other hand, could be charged interest (Deut. 15:3). Clearly there is a difference in status between the ger and the nekhar and zar as reflected in the laws regarding interest.”
At first glance, Hoffmeier would seem to have made an excellent point here, and if the passages that he referenced actually said what Hoffmeier thinks they say, then this claim would be a very powerful point in his favor. Unfortunately, for Hoffmeier, the passages that he listed are speaking of two completely different issues.
The passage in Leviticus is in fact a passage about charging interest, but Deuteronomy 15:3 has nothing to do with interest. That passage is actually about the release of debts every seven years. Hoffmeier’s case would have been stronger if he had referenced Deuteronomy 23:20 instead, for that passage does speak about charging interest. In fact, referencing Deuteronomy 23:20 would have fit perfectly with Hoffmeier’s claim since that passage uses the word “nekhar” for the stranger instead of the word “ger” which is used in Leviticus 25:35. Deuteronomy 23:20 says that the stranger (nekhar) can be charged interest whereas Leviticus 25:35 mentions a stranger (ger) in the context of not charging interest. Using Deuteronomy 23:20 would have helped Hoffmeier’s case tremendously, and I can’t figure out why he chose to use Deutereonomy 15:3 instead.
Nonetheless, even if Hoffmeier had used Deuteronomy 23:20, the difference in Hebrew terminology here still would not have been sufficient to prove his point. According to Hoffmeier, Leviticus 25:35-37 teaches that the Israelites were not allowed to charge interest to either a fellow Israelite or a stranger (ger). However, I have not been able to find a single translation of Leviticus 25:35 which identifies the stranger (ger) in this passage as a resident alien. Without fail, every single translation that I have read identifies the stranger in Leviticus 25:35 as a fellow Israelite. The KJV is a great example of this:
"And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee."
Similarly, the ESV translates this verse as:
“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.”
In every translation of this passage, we can see that the stranger being referenced here is not a resident alien, as Hoffmeier claims, but rather a fellow Israelite. Thus, the Leviticus passage is teaching that the Israelites were not allowed to charge interest on loans to fellow Israelites, and Deuteronomy 23:20 similarly indicates that the Israelites were not allowed to charge interest on loans to fellow Israelites. The Deuteronomy passage goes further by explaining that interest could be charged on loans to foreigners (nekharim), but neither passage gives any indication that the term “ger” refers to resident aliens as opposed to the term “nekhar.”
Third Example of Flawed Logic: Ruth
Hoffmeier’s most obvious logical fallacy, of course, is found in his treatment of Ruth. Throughout the book, Hoffmeier repeatedly identified Ruth as the ideal example of the term “ger” being a reference to legally resident aliens. Twice in chapter 2, twice in chapter 4, throughout most of chapter 5, and twice again in chapter 9, Hoffmeier focuses on story of Ruth as a case study for how legally resident aliens were treated in ancient Israel. Unfortunately for Hoffmeier, the term “ger” (which he claims is the appropriate term for a legally resident alien) is never once used in Scripture in reference to Ruth. Instead, Ruth is identified by the term “nekhar” in direct contradiction to Hoffmeier’s claims. And what was Hoffmeier’s explanation for this discrepancy?
“Perhaps Ruth did not realize that in Israel, thanks to the special protective status of the alien in biblical law, she had a right to glean the fields. Alternatively, she may have used the term in a self-deprecating manner in order to accentuate the generosity of Boaz.”
This is a rather bold speculation on Hoffmeier’s part. Ruth presents a direct contradiction to the primary claim of Hoffmeier’s book, and his best response is to say that maybe Ruth didn’t understand the Hebrew language as well as he does.
First Example of Insufficient Evidence: The Babylonian Captivity
In addition to Hoffmeier’s flawed logic, he also failed to consider some pretty important evidence which contradicts his claim. For example, when writing about Israel and Judah’s eventual captivities, Hoffmeier said:
“What is intriguing about the period of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities is that the Jews are never called aliens (gerim), and neither is the verb “to sojourn” nor “to live as an alien” (gwr) ever used in the Hebrew writings that treat the exile period. Rather they are called “exiles” (golah or goluth), and they were “exiled” (hegelah) to Babylon.”
While Hoffmeier is correct in saying that the term “ger” was never applied to the Hebrews during this period, he neglected to point out that the term “nekhar” was used during this time. The Jews were not just called “exiles.” Judah was also referred to as a stranger (nekhar) when he was carried into captivity (Obadiah 1:12).
This use of “nekhar” is significant because it doesn’t quite fit with the way that Hoffmeier’s defined this term as referring to “those who were passing through the land with no intention of taking residence, or perhaps they would be temporarily or seasonally employed.” The Jews were not just passing through the land of Babylon. They were going there to live, and in fact, God specifically commanded them to make Babylon their home (Jeremiah 29:4-7). The command in Jeremiah 29 would be much more consistent with Hoffmeier’s definition of “ger” than with his definition of “nekhar,” yet God Himself used the word “nekhar” to describe Judah at this time.
This is just one of several significant uses of the term “nekhar” of which Hoffmeier seems to be completely unaware. Another important use of the term “nekhar” in Scripture can be found in the account of David’s flight from Absolom.
Second Example of Insufficient Evidence: Ittai the Gittite
When David fled Jerusalem during Absolom’s rebellion (II Samuel 15), he was joined by a band of soldiers from Gath led by Ittai. When David saw that Ittai and his men had joined him, he took him aside and told him that he did not need to flee with David since he was just a stranger (nekhar). Ittai replied by telling David in terms very similar to Ruth’s speech to Naomi that his proper place was with David no matter what may come. Now, we do not know exactly how long Ittai had been in Israel at this point, but we can tell from his response that he was not there as someone who was just “passing through the land with no intention of taking residence.”
We could also consider that the term “nekhar” was used in reference to Solomon’s wives in I Kings 11 in spite of the fact that they were very obviously in Israel as citizens.
Hoffmeier’s definition doesn’t seem to fit these usage of “nekhar,” but there is an alternative definition that I think fits not only these passage but also every use of “nekhar” throughout the Old Testament.
An Alternative Definition: Location vs. Heritage
Hoffmeier is correct to note that the terms “ger” and “nekhar” are not completely interchangeable in the Old Testament. There is a difference between these two terms, but I don’t think that Hoffmeier can defend his particular distinction. I think that a better explanation of the two terms would be that the term “ger” refers to one who is from a foreign place whereas the term “nekhar” refers to one who is of foreign blood or descent. In other words, the difference between the two terms is one of location as opposed to heritage.
The Definition of “Nekhar”
The validity of this set of definitions can be easily seen when we consider the terms that are used as opposites of the terms “ger” and “nekhar” in the Bible. For example, I previously mentioned that Deuteronomy 23:20 uses the word “nekhar,” and when we look at the opposite of “nekhar” in this verse, we find that opposite to be the term “brother” (ach in Hebrew). The term “brother” is a term of relation. It is a reference to one who is a blood relative. To an Israelite, a brother would be anyone else who was also a descendant of Jacob. The term “nekhar” is used here as the opposite of a brother which would indicate that it is a reference to anyone who was not a descendant of Jacob.
Throughout the Old Testament, the term “nekhar” is repeatedly used as the opposite of those who were of the same descent. This distinction is made very clear in Genesis 17:12 where “nekhar” is used to refer to one “which is not of thy seed.” And the most interesting use that I have found of this distinction is in Ezekiel 44 where the “nekhar” is identified as one who is uncircumcised in either his heart or his flesh. Circumcision of the flesh is what identified one as being of Israeli blood, but circumcision of the heart is what God identified as what truly made one and Israelite. This concept is what the Apostle Paul referenced in Romans 2:25-29.
This definition also makes sense of the fact that the term “nekhar” was used in reference to Ruth, Ittai and the wives of Solomon. Each of them was of foreign descent regardless of their civic status within the nation of Israel, and therefore, each of them could be referred to by the term “nekhar.”
The Definition of “Ger”
In contrast with the usage of the term “nekhar,” notice the terms which are used as opposites of the word “ger.” In Joshua 8:33, for example, the term “ger” is used as the opposite of “he that was born among them.” This is a reference to location. The focus is not on the parentage of the individual but rather on the location of his birth. The stranger (ger) in this passage is the one who was born somewhere else. Similarly, the strangers (gerim) mentioned in II Chronicles 30:25 were Israelites who left their homes in the northern kingdom in order to live in the southern kingdom of Judah. They were of the same blood, but they were strangers in Judah because they were from a different place, i.e. the northern kingdom of Israel. And then in Ezekiel 47:22, we find the term “ger” again being used as the opposite of one “born in the country.” The term "ger" occurs in 83 verses of the Old Testament and it is repeatedly identified as the opposite of one born in the land (see Exodus 12:19, 12:48, Leviticus 16:29, 17:15, 24:16, 24:22, Numbers 9:14, etc.)
As far as I can tell, every use of the terms “ger” and “nekhar” falls within these two definitions. “Ger” is a reference to someone from a different location. “Nekhar” is a reference to someone who is of foreign descent. If these definitions are accurate, then all of the commands for the Israelites to "not oppress a stranger" must apply equally to legally resident aliens and illegal aliens (although the concept of an illegal alien is a relatively modern concept that didn’t even exist in America until about the beginning of the 20th century, but that’s a discussion for another time). These definitions succeed everywhere that Hoffmeier’s definitions fail, and they have a much greater explanatory scope in that they have applications beyond just our current, 21st century immigration debates.
9/16/2017 07:55:55 pm
Not mentioned: Exo_12:49 One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.
10/10/2017 09:25:28 pm
Thank you so much for posting this! I did a simple word study and could see that Hoffmeier’s claim doesn’t hold up if it is studied. I am appalled that his ideas are quoted over and over and considered to be fact. How can he say that because the Israelites had to ask permission of the dictatorial kings of pagan nations to pass through their land that Israel required the same thing. We have the laws that God wanted for Israel. God told Israel to not be like the other nations. It is not logical to say that the ger must have followed some legal proceeding that is never mentioned.
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Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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