The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said there are three great commandments in the Torah. Jews and Christians often quote the first two: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. But too often we miss the third: love the stranger.
At least thirty-six times the Hebrew scriptures instruct God’s people to show mercy to outsiders. Rabbi Sacks cites Leviticus 19:33-34 as an example: “When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Those words move me today when so many refugees around the world leave their homeland because of poverty, war or climate change. The biblical mandate to love the stranger informs my response to documented and undocumented immigrants who enrich the culture of my home city of Elkhart, Indiana. Nations may need border controls, but the biblical mandate makes me reject xenophobia, nationalism and racism.
A four thousand year-old tomb, located at Beni Hassan cemetery in central Egypt, contains an image that comes to mind when I read that Israelites were “strangers in Egypt.” Laid to rest in this tomb was Khnumhotep II, nomarch or chief of the 16th Nome (province). Colorful paintings fill walls of the tomb, depicting noteworthy events of his administration. These include a series of cartoon strip-like images of delegations that visited Khnumhotep.
One such image portrays “Asiatics”—eight men, four women and three children of skin color different from others on the wall. Many scholars believe these were from Syro-Palestine (biblical Canaan), homeland of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and Joseph with his eleven brothers. Since Khnumhotep II lived approximately at the same time as Jacob and family moved to Egypt, the painting may illustrate something of their physical appearance.
When I was at a papyrus shop in Cairo earlier this year, a modern piece of artwork captivated me: a reproduction of those “Asiastics” portrayed in the Beni Hassan tomb painting! That painting, now in our living room, appears at the top of this article.
A hieroglyph above the ancient illustration says these Asiatics, led by a man named Ibsha, arrived bringing black eye-paint—makeup! Egyptians made eye paint from malachite, a green ore of copper mined in Syro-Palestine region. Presumably this is an extended family of traders on a commercial visit to Egypt.
In the Old and New Testaments we see multiple examples of people from Palestine visiting Egypt or residing there—from Abraham and Sarah fleeing famine to baby Jesus and his parents fleeing political violence. Biblical heroes knew what it meant to be strangers in a foreign land.
The New Testament book of 1 Peter speaks of Christians as resident aliens in the world. My own Anabaptist forbears sometimes were hounded out of parts of Europe. Jews through the centuries have had horrific experiences of persecution. Some Christians and other minority groups experience the same today.
I want to do my part to love the stranger and make room in my nation for persons different from myself.
***************************************©2020 J. Nelson Kraybill
For Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ discussion of biblical views of the stranger, see https://rabbisacks.org/loving-the-stranger-mishpatim-5779/
For more on Beni Hassan tomb images, see http://www.asor.org/anetoday/2016/07/the-beni-hasan-tomb-painting-and-scholarship-of-the-southern-levant/
Come with me to Bible lands! At this point no one knows what travel will be possible in the next year or two. But when COVID-19 subsides, I would love to have you join me on a pilgrimage. In 2021 and 2022:
“Bread for the Journey” (Egypt and Jordan, April 9-21, 2021). See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2021-egypt/
“Journey of Hope” (Jordan, Israel and Palestine, September 12-23, 2021). See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2021-jordan-israel-palestine/
“Thy Kingdom Come” (Jordan, Israel, Palestine, May 26-June 6, 2022, compatible with Oberammergau Passion Play, June 6-8). See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2022-jordan-palestine-israel/