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The Politics of Inhospitality—Genesis 18:1-15 (J. Leavitt Pearl)

1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ 10Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ 13The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” 14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ 15But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

There is perhaps no biblical virtue more foreign to the contemporary Western mind than hospitality. For us, the deeply ethical connotations of hospitality for the stranger—the resident alien or refugee—have been largely replaced with a call for general neighborliness and an often all-too-partisan welcome. Lost are the deep connections between hospitality and other prominent figures of Hebrew ethics: righteousness, redistributive justice, care for the marginalized.

At the Oak of Mamre, Abraham models a radical, ethical hospitality. Seated in his tent, during the heat of the day, Abraham spots three strangers. We, the readers, are immediately granted access to the truth of the situation—“the Lord appeared to Abraham”—but for Abraham the deep significance of this visit comes only gradually.

In the moment of hospitality, Abraham sees only “three men,” sojourning in the heat of the day. His response is unambiguous. Abraham does not wait for a plea for aid, he advances—even runs—to them. Abraham petitions them to be his guests, ceding control of the situation, becoming the servant: “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.”

Moreover, Abraham does not offer the remainder, but the first portions: “choice flour,” a calf “tender and good,” “curds and milk.” In short, he prepares a feast. The hospitality of Abraham is an excessive, irrepressible hospitality.

In the Biblical text, the hospitality of Abraham is immediately juxtaposed with the inhospitality of Sodom. Excepting Lot, the residents of Sodom are marked by a shockingly callous injustice. Where Abraham ran to the aid of three strangers, offering respite and a feast, the men of Sodom rush these angelic strangers with malice, violence, and rape. As the prophet Ezekiel would later proclaim: “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

This radical hospitality of Abraham stands at the heart of the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition. For the moral code of the ancient Israelites, to be a holy people, set apart for the work of God, was to care for the stranger. “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). Justice must be granted to the oppressed stranger, for the people of God were themselves shown justice while oppressed in Egypt. Conversely, to fail to care for the stranger, is to become Egypt—a nation that is, within the Hebrew scriptures, a prophetic symbol of inhospitality and injustice.

On June 12th, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court’s ruling against President Trump’s revised travel ban, upholding a similar appellate ruling issued by the Fourth Circuit in March. While this ruling may temporarily hold back a most vicious example of inhospitality, it nevertheless fails to address the deeper ethical deficit. The United States is bereft of a robust ethic of hospitality.

According to a recent survey released by Rasmussen Reports, half of likely-voters support the travel ban. More staggering are figures from March which indicate that, while support for the ban has waned among the majority of religious faiths, it has skyrocketed to 76% among white evangelicals. Similarly, over a third of Americans favor a border wall between the United States and Mexico, according to a February poll conducted by the Pew Research Center.

At the same time, while the United States permitted approximately 85,000 refugees and asylum seekers to enter the US in 2016, this is less than half of the 290,000 admitted to Germany—a nation with a population roughly one quarter of the United States—who had already accepted a staggering 890,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2015, the height of the global refugee crisis. What these figures indicate is an American crisis of inhospitality.

What the United States desperately requires is a reorientation of our ethical imagination, a rediscovery of hospitality as a principal ethical category. But radical hospitality will require much from our risk-averse culture. It will require, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida was wont to insist, both a preparation and the impossibility of preparation. “It must even develop itself into a culture of hospitality, multiply signs of anticipation, construct and institute what one calls structures of welcoming, a welcoming apparatus.” (Jacques Derrida, “Hostipitality” in Acts of Religion, trans. Gil Anidjar [New York: Routledge, 2010], 361).

Yet, at the same time, it must also recognize the necessity of a risk, a vulnerability. The radical hospitality that stands at the ground of Abraham’s archetypical act of generosity must also remain open to that which cannot be anticipated: the incoming of the alien. “To be hospitable is to let oneself be overtaken, to be ready to not be read, if such is possible, to let oneself be overtaken, to not even let oneself be overtaken, to be surprised, in a fashion almost violent” (Ibid.).

If such a restructuring of our ethical imagination is not possible, then we must be prepared to reconcile ourselves to a hard reality. We are not Abraham, running to the aid of strangers at the Oak of Mamre; we are the violent men of Sodom, whose “prosperous ease” has led us to neglect the stranger. We are not the people of God who “love the alien” as ourselves; we are Egypt, the oppressor of the alien.

More refugees died in 2016 than in any year in recorded history. The bodies of refugees—buried under Aleppo, washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean, lying in the sands of the Rio Grande—stand as a dark testament to a failure of ethical imagination. Like those of Revelation’s two witnesses, “their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt” (Revelation 11:8). Until we can overcome our inhospitality, we must consider the possibility that this city is America.


J. Leavitt Pearl is a PhD candidate at Duquesne University, and adjunct professor at St. Vincent College, currently completing a dissertation on the phenomenology and theology of the sexual body.

(2) Comments

  1. From what I can tell, the Pentateuch divided non-Israelites into essentially three groups. One consisted of Canaanite foreigners. By Canaanite foreigners, I mean the Canaanite peoples who are listed in Deuteronomy chapter 7. No mercy was to be extended to them. They were to be destroyed entirely — man, woman, and child. However, not all foreigners were to be treated so severely. Chapter 20 of Deuteronomy distinguishes Canaanite foreigners and non-Canaanite foreigners. The latter appear to have constituted a separate group for legal, social, and diplomatic purposes. Treaties were permitted, but the non-Canaanite foreigners were to serve the Israelites, not the other way around. The Israelites were permitted to sell certain types of unclean food to non-Canaanite foreigners (Deuteronomy 14.) Loans to non-Canaanite foreigners were not subject to “Sabbatical” discharge. (Deuteronomy 15.) Furthermore, the Israelites were permitted to charge interest on loans to non-Canaanite foreigners. (Deuteronomy 23.) This was consistent with God’s intention that the Israelites should lend to other nations, not borrow from them. (Deuteronomy 15.) It’s not clear to me whether any of the foreigners who composed this second group ever lived among the Israelites. Nevertheless, it appears that Israelite communities were ethnically mixed. The Pentateuch repeatedly refers to the presence of “sojourners.” My guess is that in Moses’ time they were largely, though not exclusively, Egyptians who had fled with the Israelites during the Exodus. God repeatedly admonished the Israelites to deal justly with them. Nevertheless, God established legal distinctions between Israelites and non-Israelite sojourners. In each of the following areas of law, material differences existed between the two groups: redemption of property (Leviticus 25); slaves and indentured servants (Leviticus 25); unclean meat (Deuteronomy 14); and participation in the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23). Then there is the matter of marriage. God forbade the Israelites from marrying Canaanite foreigners. (Deuteronomy 7; Ezra 9.) But what about sojourners? We know some Israelites married Egyptians and had children. The presence of non-Israelites within the Israelite community generated difficult legal issues. For example, to what extent were non-Israelites subject to the Law? (Leviticus 24: 10-16.) Ethnically mixed marriages continued to occur after the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Some mixed marriages were sanctioned. See, e.g., Joshua 6:25 (Rahab); Ruth 4:18-22 (Boaz marries a Moabite widow). Others were not. See, e.g., 1 Kings 11 (Solomon’s foreign wives), Ezra 9, 10 (those who had intermarried “pledged themselves to put away their wives”). In view of the foregoing, I think it is fair to say the relationship between Israelites and non-Israelites was complicated. Given the complexity, I think it is prudent to exercise caution in relying upon the “sojourner” passages in today’s debates over migration and national sovereignty.

    Respectfully,

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