March 25, 2009

Cultural Relevance pt. 3 (Hospitality)

The near eastern responsibility of hospitality was reserved for the patriarch. It was his duty to meet the needs of foreigners and travelers that came to his beit av. To properly understand the importance of hospitality within the culture it is important to understand what traveling in the biblical world entailed. Family and land are not only the two most important possessions of individual ancient near easterners they are also the two essentials for living. The ancestral land and family was the life support of every individual. So for one to leave and travel meant that they would be leaving the things that were necessary for their own survival. The troubles that beset travelers are humorously recounted in “A Satirical Letter,” which describes a traveler who encounters the dangerous elements of the land, both natural and human. [1. James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 475-479.] There were no Holiday Inns or Motel 8’s so if people were going to travel they had to stay with people for protection. The hosts and travelers both understood this necessity and therefore acted in such a way to counteract it. Matthews and Benjamin describe the role of hosts and strangers this way,
  • Are fathers of households in their own village (Judges 19)
  • Offer an invitation, then repeat it (Genesis 19)
  • Wash stranger’s feet to signify they are guests (Genesis 18:4; John 13)
  • Provide food and protection (Genesis 19)
  • Do not question guests
  • Refuse first invitation, accept second (Genesis 19)
  • Remain only for agreed upon time, which may be extended (Genesis 18:2)
  • Do not ask for or covet their host’s possessions
  • Bless host’s household upon departing [ 2. Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel (1250-587 BCE), (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993), 83.]
Despite the initial welcoming a guest receives it was understood that he was not welcome for long, because he was using up valuable, depreciating resources. On the other hand the host might try and keep his guest there if he sees it is to his benefit to keep his guest within his household (Gen. 28-31, Judges 19).

Another interesting aspect in this discussion is the relationship of biblical humility to host-stranger or superior-inferior relationships. In Exodus 3 Yahweh and Moses discuss Moses’ calling to bring Israel out of Egypt and Moses says that he cannot do it. How much of that is humility and how much of it is a cultural nuance? It’s difficult to tell. (Some other examples include: Gen. 18; Job 31:31-32; Ps. 41; Is. 6; 40:22; Jer. 1; Luke 9; 10).

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