Foreigners in the Old Testatment: Tracing the Foreigner from Joshua to Esther [Part 1]

Summary of the Foreigner in Joshua, Samuel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Esther

            In the book of Joshua, foreigners are overwhelmingly portrayed as obstacles to the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to Israel as inhabitants of the land of Canaan. In the first eleven chapters, the text presents multiple battles and wars between Joshua and the inhabitants of the land. These people and their cities were to be utterly destroyed. As a result, the inhabitants of the land were afraid of Israel. Joshua provides a good summary of Israel’s attitude towards the foreigner in 11:20: “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated.” Joshua exhibits this attitude in chapter 10 when he personally executes five foreign kings before Israel.

The tone of Joshua’s message about the foreigner undergoes a change in the last twelve chapters. As it turns out, the inhabitants were not utterly destroyed and many Israelite tribes have foreigners living among them. In Joshua 11:18-20, Joshua warns Israel about intermarrying the “survivors of these nations left here among you” and calls them “a snare and a trap for [Israel], a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes.” Israel is no longer called to utterly destroy the inhabitants of the land; they are now to drive them out. This task proved difficult due to the Canaanite military advancements, which made the Israelites afraid. While Joshua encourages Israel to drive out the foreigners, their presence in the land seems inevitable as the book comes to a close.

Two stories about foreigners do not conform to the pervasive enemy characterization that is presented throughout the book: Rahab and the Gibeonites. Interestingly, the characters in both of these stories fear the Israelites because they have heard of Yahweh’s mighty acts against the Egyptians and the Amelekites. They also believe that Yahweh has given the land of Canaan to the Israelites. However, these characters choose to respond to the Israelites in very different ways. Rahab lies to her own people in order to deal kindly with the Israelites and she is saved. The Gibeonites lie to the Israelites in order to save their own people. While they do become Israel’s laborers, they are also rescued by Israel from enemy attack. In both cases, the foreigners are not presented as enemies.

Like Joshua, the most common characterization of the foreigner in Samuel is that of Israel’s enemy. The Philistines attack Israel throughout the reigns of King Saul and King David. At most times, the Israelites are very afraid of them. At other times, the Philistines are afraid of Israel and of Yahweh’s presence in the ark. Other foreign kings are presented as ruthless and cruel. King Nahash of the Ammonites gouged out the eyes of his enemies and oppressed Israel. Even though Saul defeats him, Samuel later references his brutality as one of the motivating factors for the people’s desire for a king. The Amelekites are also presented as enemies and the Lord even commands Saul to devote them to destruction for their prior opposition towards Israel. Throughout Samuel, Israel’s enemies are referred to as “sinners” and “uncircumcised” and the Lord hands them over to Israel.

However, foreigner kings in Samuel are not just enemies – they are also political allies. King Achish of Gath, a Philistine city, becomes both a friend and ally of David. David goes to king as he flees from Saul and asks for a homestead. The king grants his request and soon after David is serving as the king’s mercenary. King Achish is not David’s only foreign political ally. He also sought the aid of the king of Moab, a former enemy routed by King Saul, to protect his parents from Saul’s wrath. Upon his defeat of the Jebusites in Jerusalem, David receives tribute from the King Hiram of Tyre – establishing an important alliance that would become very beneficial to the building of the temple in Jerusalem under King Solomon.

Samuel also tells the stories of three foreigners who came to David’s aid as he fled from Absalom. The first is Ittai the Gittite, who was placed in charge of one-third of David’s fighting men – which included several foreigners – after refusing to leave David’s side.  Second is Hushai the Archite. David sends him back to Absalom’s court to serve as his adviser and as a spy for David. Hushai’s counsel to Absalom saves David’s life. Finally, as David crosses the Jordan on his flight from Jerusalem, he is met by a group of three foreigners – Barzillai the Gileadite chief among them – that refresh him and his men with ample provisions. On his way back to Jerusalem after Absalom’s death, he meets again with Barzillai who escorts him across the Jordan. Barzillai is presented as a wealthy, powerful, and kind man.

Samuel also presents the foreigner as more righteous than Israel. The stories of Uriah the Hittite and Rizpah daughter of Aiah, the Hivite, are the best examples of righteous foreigners. Both of these characters were treated unjustly at the hands of King David. Uriah, who was unaware of all that David had done and would do, refused David’s pleas for him to sleep with his wife while the ark of the Lord and his fellow soldiers were still at battle. His refusal and subsequent arranged murder led the prophet Nathan to speak out against the king and call him to repentance. Rizpah, who was very much aware of the king’s injustice, cried out and mourned over the bodies of her sons that were left to rot in disgrace. The king is forced to hear her cries and give her sons an honorable burial. The Lord proves Rizpah’s righteousness by ending Israel’s famine after David buries her sons.

The text begins in Ezra by presenting King Cyrus of Persia as a sort of redeemer for Israel. He is obedient to the stirring of the Lord in his spirit and showers Israel with his blessings. He ends the captivity of Israel and seeks to restore the worship of Yahweh at the temple in Jerusalem. King Artaxerxes, a successor to Cyrus, is shown to be forgetful, slightly gullible, and overly concerned with maintaining his power in his letter of response to those who were opposing the temple construction. King Artaxerxes reappears in Nehemiah as gracious and understanding of Nehemiah’s concern for Jerusalem. He grants Nehemiah’s requests for a royal endorsement in order to guarantee safe passage and building supplies. King Darius is portrayed as a restorer of justice for the Israelites as he re-instates temple construction based on the decree of King Cyrus. Like Cyrus, he lends his full support to the construction of the temple and even asks for sacrifices and prayers to be offered at the temple on his behalf. Overall, the foreign kings of Persia enjoy a highly favorable image in the Ezra-Nehemiah text.

The people of the land, including the foreign governors and officials, foreign women, and foreign merchants, are presented as those who oppose reconstruction and cause the newly returned exiles to turn from God. They are first identified as adversaries, even though they seem eager to help with temple reconstruction since they worship Yahweh as well. However, their opposition is solidified when the leaders of Israel want no company with them and reject their offer to help. As a result, the people of the land go to great lengths to prevent the successful completion of the temple. In Nehemiah, two governors of the land – Sanballat and Tobiah – along with Geshem the Arab, quickly emerge as staunch opponents of wall construction. They make several attempts, some extremely hostile, to stop wall construction. However, the text reveals that Tobiah was well respected among many Israelite leaders, including the priest Eliashib, and due to marriages between his daughters and returned exiles. Both Ezra and Nehemiah express a deep sense of disgust over marriages with foreign women and force the Israelites to break off these marriages. Nehemiah also shows anger against foreign merchants selling on the Sabbath. He characterizes these foreign women and merchants as a pollution that must be removed from Israel’s presence.

A final group of foreigners is seen in the genealogy of Ezra and Nehemiah. Six hundred fifty-two people were allowed to return from exile even though they could not prove their Israelite family heritage. Three families of priests were also held in suspicion after their failure to find sufficient proof of their lineage. These priests were excluded, declared unclean, and prohibited from priestly practice until another priest could consult Urim and Thummim.

In Esther, the text presents the prominent foreign characters very negatively, while two supporting characters are seen in a positive light. King Ahasuerus is a main character and is shown to be exploitative, weak, self-centered, aloof, and easily persuaded by others. While he is shown respect throughout the story, the other characters – both foreign and Israelite – successfully manipulate and control his actions. Haman also figures prominently in the story and is presented as the angry enemy of the Jews, who resents them for their strange laws and wants them cruelly annihilated. He is motivated by jealousy and self-importance and is ultimately shown to be foolish and shameful. The foreign Queen Vashti plays a supporting role in the story as she refuses to be paraded for the king’s guests. Her blatant disobedience of authority strikes fear into the kings officials. Although she is punished by the king, her behavior is never viewed negatively by the text. The king’s eunuch Hathach appears to be friendly to Esther and serves obediently as her communicator with Mordecai. Finally, the text seems to imply that the foreign inhabitants of King Ahasuerus’ kingdom were not very happy with the Israelites. The text records that several thousand people hated the Israelites and were killed by them. Eventually, the foreign inhabitants come to fear the Israelites because of the great power held by Mordecai. The text attributes foreigners in Esther with very few redeeming qualities. The primary message of the text communicates a sense of distrust and hatred of foreigners that results in their destruction by the triumphant Israelites.


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