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Hospitality in the Hebrew Bible

Abraham and the Birth of Isaac
Abraham and the Birth of Isaac

What is one to do with strangers, those people out of place?

People away from home need protection, shelter, and food. They are at the mercy of the locals. In response, the Hebrew Bible makes a central value of hospitable care for such outsiders—whether travelers, refugees (those forced to relocate), and even neighbors (who are foreigners to the host’s residence). Israelites are often reminded that they too were aliens in Egypt (e.g., Lev 19:34); so they should care for strangers. The law in Deut 14:28-29 of the third-year tithe shows that food for foreigners became an important legal statute, uncommon in ancient Near Eastern laws.

Numerous narratives and laws put this concern on display. The quintessential example takes place when three men (who turn out to be divine) journey by Abraham’s tent. He runs out and invites them to stop. When they accept, he prepares a lavish feast for them (Gen 18). Though he only offers them bread and water to wash their feet, he proceeds to slaughter his tender calf—a rare treat—and to have Sarah his wife make fresh bread for a tasty meal accompanied by curds and milk.

Soon after, Abraham’s nephew Lot also provides a feast and protection to these same travelers, in spite of their desire to spend the night sleeping in the Sodom town square. Lot’s protection and provision contrasts with the attempt by the other inhabitants of Sodom’s to take advantage of the outsiders (Gen 19). The Bible highlights the value of hospitality in these two cases by recording God’s blessing on Abraham in the form of a child and the rescue of Lot and his daughters from the destruction of Sodom.

The tragic story of Judg 19 tells of the opposite, bearing similarities to the story of Lot. A Levite and his concubine journey back home from his father-in-law’s house. They plan to sleep in the open square of the Israelite town of Gibeon, rather than a foreign town. The Levite makes this choice because he assumes they will be safer among Israelites. A man from Ephraim, himself living as an outsider in Gibeon, takes them in. While this man provides them with shelter, food, and drink, the local Gibeonites demand to rape the Levite but satisfy themselves with his concubine. She dies as a result. Her death leads to a massive civil war, for this deed represented an atrocity for Israel. The irony is that the travelers may have been safer in the foreign town than they were in Israel.

A similar critique of the lack of hospitality appears in Deut 23:3-5, which excludes Ammonites and Moabites from the Israelite sanctuary because they refused to provide the Israelites with access to water when passing Moabite and Ammonite territory on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (but see Ruth for a story about hospitable treatment of a Moabite).

Finally, hospitality also plays an important role elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, including in the lives of the prophets Elijah (1Kgs 17) and Elisha (2Kgs 4) and in leading to marriage, such as for Moses (Exod 2). Thus, hospitality serves as an underlying core value for how the characters in the Hebrew Bible should treat others, for they, too, understood the precarious nature of life as an outsider.

  • altmann-peter

    Peter Altmann is a postdoctoral researcher in Hebrew Bible at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He also teaches courses in Bible for Fuller Seminary. His publications include Festive Meals in Ancient Israel: Deuteronomy’s Identity Politics in Their Ancient Near Eastern Context (BZAW 424; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011) and a coedited volume with Janling Fu, Feasting in the Archaeology and Texts of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014).