Reading Exodus with Leon Kass: Israel's Obligations to the Stranger

One cannot exaggerate the importance of the Bible’s novel—even revolutionary—teaching about the outsider who lives among the Israelites.

An illustration of the city of refuge described in “Mishpatim” from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster (1897). Wikipedia.

An illustration of the city of refuge described in “Mishpatim” from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster (1897). Wikipedia.

Feb. 12 2021
About the author

Leon R. Kass is dean of the faculty at Shalem College, professor emeritus in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute. A physician, scientist, educator, and public intellectual, he served from 2001-2005 as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Once a week for the next few months, Mosaic will be publishing brief excerpts of Leon R. Kass’s new book on Exodus, Founding God’s Nation. Curious about one of the foundational texts of the Jewish tradition? Read along with us. To see earlier excerpts, go here.

This week, Jewish communities all over the world begin their study of Exodus 21:1-24:18, a portion of the text named Mishpatim after its first significant Hebrew word. At the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses enumerates the civil laws that will govern the Israelites. The section ends with the Israelites’ ratification of the covenant, after which Moses ascends the mountain, disappears into mist, and remains there for forty days and forty nights.

One of the ordinances that the Israelites here accept commands them not to maltreat or oppress the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). Here, Kass unpacks the meaning of Israel’s duties toward the vulnerable stranger.

The stranger (ger), we note to begin with, is not some abstract or generalized “other,” a favorite subject of much contemporary moral discourse. The ger is instead a concrete someone, a specific person who dwells among you as an outsider. He is a foreign sojourner, a resident alien, a person—and this is crucial—away from his own home and homeland. Because he is a stranger in a strange land, he is vulnerable personally and politically.

In any ordinary host society, the attitude toward the ger can range widely between tolerance and xenophobia, hospitality and exploitation. At the extremes, do you feed him or eat him? Do you let him be, or make him your slave?

The Bible’s previous stories about how strangers are treated elsewhere suggest that, with few exceptions, mistreatment is the rule. In Genesis, we are shown the stark contrast between Abraham’s eager and unstinting hospitality, offered through an open tent door, to the three visiting strangers (angels appearing as men) and Lot’s more hesitant and guarded welcome of the same visitors when they come to his house in Sodom. In a frightening account, we see how all the men of that Canaanite city surround Lot’s house and demand that he turn those visitors over for homosexual rape. When Lot pleads against such wickedness, offering them instead his own daughters, the Sodomites condemn Lot as a stranger to their community who now presumes to judge them; they threaten to treat him worse than the others. (He is saved only by the superhuman actions of the angels.)

Editor’s note: At this point Kass offers more examples of the mistreatment of strangers from the biblical text which have been removed from this excerpt for reasons of space. He summarizes as follows.

The picture is nearly universal: people who leave home and become strangers in someone else’s land risk murder, sexual abuse, unjust accusation, imprisonment, and enslavement at the hands of the natives and their rulers.

Those stories in Genesis and Exodus have impressed upon the reader the need for a different way. We are therefore delighted to encounter the present ordinance against the mistreatment of strangers, but we wonder how it may be connected to the just-announced summons to monotheistic worship of the Lord, a call that is explicitly and uncompromisingly hostile to worshipping other (so-called) gods. Unlike polytheism, which offers multiple objects for human reverence, monotheism does not tolerate such divided devotions (“You shall have no other gods before Me”; “I Y-H-V-H your God am a jealous god”). Those who follow the Lord are to have one God, one standard of conduct, and one way of life, rejecting all others. Yet unlike the stranger-abusing polytheistic societies, this singular God and way of life insist on hospitality and humanity toward the stranger. What is the basis of this rejection of xenophobia and abuse of the ger?

Earlier, in discussing the Ten Commandments, I suggested that the right relation to God as the Creator (say, in Sabbath remembrance) was the basis for defining the right relation to other human beings within the covenantal community, as these are articulated in the principles of the so-called second table. And we have just seen that protecting the metaphysical boundaries that make human beings human also depends on acknowledging no god but Y-H-V-H. By implication, we are now invited to see that the same (exclusive) relationship to the Lord—the Creator God of Whom all human beings are equally the image—is also the basis for humane treatment of the stranger and the vulnerable who dwell among us.

That metaphysical reasoning, however, remains merely implicit. It will impress intellectuals and readers who remember the teaching of Genesis 1 about humankind in the image of God. But the political instruction of this collection of ex-slaves requires something more personal and experiential. The explicit reason the Lord gives for treating strangers decently appeals not to theology and the Creation but to historical memory and sympathetic identification: you know what it was like to be a despised and oppressed stranger in a strange land; remember it, for God’s sake, and do not impose such a fate on others. It is for this purpose that I have chosen you. And it is to serve this purpose that you will institute My Way in the Promised Land.

This is not an easy lesson for any nation to learn. The Torah must repeat multiple times its exhortation to the Israelites to remember their own experience in Egypt, and there are also numerous additional injunctions to respect and care for the stranger. Why? Because ex-slaves might relish having a turn at taking out their past suffering on others. They might enjoy doing unto others as they had been done by, rather than as they wish they had been treated. Also, the Israelite ex-slaves, chosen by the Lord to be His people and taught to despise the gods of other peoples, might feel themselves called, or at least entitled, to treat strangers with contempt. But precisely because of the difference between Y-H-V-H and the strange “gods”—a difference at least as great as the distinction between man and beast—the Children of Israel must not maltreat or oppress strangers as other peoples have done and still do.

As we suspected from the start, this humanistic aspect of God’s Way for Israel, and through Israel for humankind, is among the chief reasons why Egyptian servitude had to be the school for this political founding. Israel had to begin its national existence in bondage to learn firsthand the meaning of political suffering and oppression. Its path to a better way of life required that it encounter the Lord first as the Enemy of Slavery and Oppression. The fulfillment of the summons to be a holy nation—and the difference between holy and unholy politics—begins with the proper treatment of strangers and other vulnerable people. And it calls on each individual, one by one—“You, singular”—to answer the call to national holiness by striving for it personally.

The stranger who lives among you is welcomed not as “the other” or because he worships other gods or has a different culture. He is welcomed—or at least not abused and oppressed—not for reasons of theory but out of fellow feeling and empathy, extended to him because we recognize what it means to be vulnerable and exploitable away from one’s own land. This empathic teaching of fellow feeling, though not based on universal maxims or abstract philosophy, can nonetheless be generalized to embrace all kinds of human beings, should they reside in your midst. As we shall see, it can even be extended to domestic animals.

One cannot exaggerate the importance of this novel—even revolutionary—teaching about the stranger. The love of your own is central to most human associations; it is the basis of our familial, civic, national, and patriotic attachments. But all political communities, from ancient times to today, are at risk of exaggerating the (merely conventional) distinction between who is in and who is out. They are inclined to overstate—even absolutize—the difference between neighbor and stranger, born of an excessive love of one’s own and an equally excessive fear and hatred of the other—a hatred that takes support from the belief that the ways of others are inferior, even immoral and indecent. Even today, xenophobia is the oldest politics there is. The Bible wades into this problem with a sophisticated and humane teaching: remember what it was like to be an oppressed stranger. Reject the stranger’s ways, but honor his humanity. Be zealous in protecting the natural boundaries—between God and man, and between man and beast—that keep human life human. But be equally zealous in protecting the stranger from being treated as less human than yourself. The argument for doing so is written into your own people’s flesh.

Excerpted and adapted from Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus by Leon R. Kass. Published by Yale University Press in January 2021. Reproduced by permission.

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