Hospitality in the Old Testament

At its most basic level, hospitality means having an open home. It also implies having an open heart and an open hand to assist others, particularly those who are needy and who may cross one’s path unexpectedly.

There is no specific Hebrew word for hospitality in the Old Testament; however, the concept and principles are clearly demonstrated. There are many examples of those who hosted visitors in their homes and afforded them kindness: in patriarchal times, Abraham, Lot and Laban; later on, we read of Rahab, an old man of Gibeah, the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman. Job is worth mentioning too (Job 31:32). Some of these hosts were poor; others took a risk in accepting strangers.

In this brief study, the challenge will be to look back to a Middle Eastern culture of four thousand years ago, and then deduce scriptural lessons that are both practical and relevant to Christian testimony in the modern world. In those times of long ago, visiting travelers were not stopped at borders and expected to produce the appropriate visa along with proof of sufficient financial resources to support themselves during their stay. There were no cheap motels, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants dotted along the highways. There were no drop-in centers or soup kitchens for the homeless.

Thinking broadly, if we correctly discern the heart of our God, we learn that in the beginning He created a vast universe in which was a small planet where He fashioned a perfect home for man. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve lacked nothing. Many years later, when the descendants of Abraham were set free from bondage in Egypt, they wandered as strangers for 40 years through an inhospitable wilderness. God’s presence and protection were evident on the journey, as was His provision of daily food and drink. However, He had prepared a promised land for this pilgrim nation, describing Canaan as “flowing with milk and honey.” God was thus the perfect host, generously providing for those who could never have managed on their own.

In the language of the Old Testament, the stranger (ger) was commonly a person of another nationality who lived among the Jews. To a large extent, they were integrated into the nation. They were often initially poor, vulnerable, and dependent upon others for support. They were not to be mistreated but shown hospitality and care: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exo 22:21)[1]; “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:34). The Israelites were not to have short memories! They too were once made welcome in a foreign land, at least during Joseph’s time.

The Jewish law made special provision for the support of strangers, orphans and widows. During harvest time, the corners of the fields of grain and the second gleanings of fruit trees were reserved for these needy groups: “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 23:22); “When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow” (Deu 24:20-21).

By contrast, the foreigner (nokri) came from a markedly idolatrous and immoral culture. They were often self-sufficient and resisted integration into Jewish society. Because of these factors, they had the potential to corrupt others. King Solomon was a notable example of one whose testimony was compromised by their influence (1Ki 11:1). Ruth’s self-designation as a nokri was an expression of her amazement at the kindness Boaz was showing her, a lowly widow who had just come from Moab (Rut 2:10,12). She could easily have been ignored or shunned, but Boaz’s generosity went far beyond the demands of the law. Happily, in Ruth’s case, she had already come to trust in the Lord God of Israel.

Keeping in mind these few general background remarks, we turn to the specific example of hospitality most often cited – the story of Abraham receiving three strangers (Gen 18:1-15). This is probably what the writer to the Hebrews referred to when he encouraged the saints, though living through difficult times, not to forget to entertain strangers, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).

An Open Home – Receptivity

Abraham was sitting in the shade one hot afternoon, when he saw three men standing in front of his tent in Mamre. He ran to meet and greet them. With great courtesy, he welcomed them and humbly offered simple wash facilities and refreshments – “a little water … [to] wash your feet … a morsel of bread” – to which they agreed. The shared understanding was that, when they had rested, they would proceed on their journey.

One outstanding feature of this story is Abraham’s spontaneous eagerness to help. There was no hesitation. Even if it was the normal custom of desert dwellers receiving travellers, the patriarch was keen to be more than formal and to be genuinely hospitable. Did the three men look poor or look wealthy? We do not know. There is no record that they asked for assistance or pleaded any need of accommodation.

An Open Heart – Inclusivity

Did the visitors seem to be foreigners or was their physical appearance much like Abraham’s, a Chaldean? Again, we do not know. People can be initially uncomfortable when interacting with others of a different ethnicity. Abraham himself was an immigrant – we would call him today an Iraqi – and perhaps he had faced challenges of prejudice when he first reached the land of his adoption. He warmly welcomed the three men as guests.

An Open Hand – Generosity

We are delighted by the swift trajectory of our story. From the provision first offered in modest terms, Abraham hastily urged his wife, Sarah, to bake something substantial for his guests. He played his part too by quickly arranging for some fresh and tender meat to be prepared for the guests. As the men ate, Abraham stood by while Sarah remained inside the tent. One of the three men unexpectedly pronounced a blessing upon Sarah – she would give birth to a male child! The One who took the lead is considered to be the Lord Himself, a preincarnate appearance of Christ in temporary human form (Gen 18:10,13-14).

The guests must surely have departed with a favourable impression of their hospitable hosts. Abraham accompanied them on foot for a little distance (Gen 18:16). We still do this in Africa, “opening up the way” for our visitors.

What can we learn from Abraham and Sarah, even as we seek to serve God faithfully in our very different culture? Several applicable lessons lie on the surface. Further general points are also relevant to life today.

Be friendly to strangers visiting your assembly. Any unknown stranger arriving at the door is to be welcomed with a prompt and friendly greeting as they enter. They should not be left standing alone in a corner. It is appropriate to make a few initial enquiries as to their circumstances. (In the case of a believer, a letter of commendation serves as a scriptural and respectful means of introduction.) Those who are far from home might also appreciate an invitation to lunch.

Be generous to those sitting at your table. Reciprocal meal invitations between longstanding friends are good but also benefit from being widened to include others outside the normal circle. Wives go to a lot of trouble providing tasty meals, but their husbands have a part to play as well. Abraham, at 99 years of age, did not sit back and let Sarah do it all.

Be willing to invite others to stay overnight in your home. Truly, some strangers will turn out to be “angels.” However, we also have a responsibility to protect our spouses and children from any harm or danger. There may be an element of risk. It helps when a husband and wife have considered this together and are in agreement about their response to the emergency needs of others.

Be prepared for your kindness and hospitality to be abused. Many of us have stories to tell of times we have been deceived. (The Gibeonites were masters in the art, feigning distant origins and stricken circumstances, Joshua 9.) We recall that the Lord Jesus was well aware that some who followed Him were more interested in the physical – another free meal – than the spiritual (Joh 6:26). Do not stop being kind, whatever your past experiences.

Be aware that God will bless you, even as you bless others. Abraham and Sarah were shocked to receive affirmation of a divine promise. It was not a reward, of course, for their hospitality. Nevertheless, it was God’s way of informing them of the answer to their fervent hopes and prayers of many years. What might they have missed had they said they were too busy that day to host the heavenly guests?

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.