What is a sojourner?

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The Old Testament has but a shadow of the good things to come (Heb 8.5, 10.1). Some of the good things to come are obvious, like the sacrificial ending with Christ’s sacrifice being offered once for everyone for all time (Heb 10.12-14). Some are not, like the future of the sojourner.

What is a sojourner?

In ancient Israel a sojourner was someone, or perhaps a family, who lived among Israel, but had no blood relationship with the nation. There are several Hebrew words used to describe such individuals and they appear to describe different levels of integration into Israelite society. For the purposes of this article verses that use the word gēr ( גֵּר) or gwr (גור), which is the verbal form of gēr, to refer to a sojourner will be used since they (the gēr, or gwr) appear to have enjoyed the highest level of integration into Israelite society. There are several Hebrew words that end up translated as “sojourner” in English translations, which gives the impression that there is no distinction between them, which does not appear to be the case, thus the limitation to gēr and gwr.

In Israelite society sojourners were not just temporary visitors passing through. They weren’t really even what we would consider resident aliens today. They were really closer to proselytes (converts) than anything else. They were not a physical descendant of Abraham, but they wanted to live and worship among the Israelites. For this reason there were certain provisions in the Law for them.

For example:

  • Had access to the cities of refuge if they killed someone (Num 35.15)
  • Judges were to hear their case fairly and not show favoritism to a native (Deut 1.16)
  • When the Law was read every 7 years sojourners were to be present (Deut 31.12)
  • Were forbidden from eating leavened bread during the Passover (Ex 12.19)
  • Could observe the Passover if all the males were circumcised (Ex 12.48-49; Num 9.14)
  • Included in the Day of Atonement (Lev 16.29)
  • Expected to keep the Feast of Booths (Deut 16.14)
  • Were allowed to offer sacrifices (Num 15.14-16)

They were also subject to certain punishments under the Law:

  • Could be put to death for blaspheming the name of the LORD (Lev 24.16)
  • Had to make the appropriate restitution for killing or injuring a human or animal (Lev 24.17-22)
  • Could be put to death if they offered a sacrifice to a foreign god (Lev 17.5-9)

What really separated a sojourner from a native is inheritance. When Abraham, Issac, and Jacob sojourned in Canaan (Ex 6.2-4) they had no inheritance there. They had dealings with people who lived there, but had no inheritance among them. When Israel sojourned in Egypt they did not have any inheritance rights in Egypt either. They were part of Egyptian society, but without inheritance rights it was not their home. Their experience in Egypt was to form the foundation for how they were to treat other sojourners after they took possession of the promised land: Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. - Deut 10.19 (See also: Ex 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:33-34). They had no inheritance in Egypt and were treated poorly. They were not to repeat this treatment to others who sojourned amongst them. Thus, under Israelite law sojourners enjoyed certain protections and benefits (see above) and could even participate in their religious ceremonies. However, because they were not ethnically part of Israel they had no land inheritance among the Israelites. Israel was not their home.

However, the Old Testament does anticipate a day when the sojourners will one day share in the inheritance of Israel:

“So you shall divide this land among you according to the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the sojourner resides, there you shall assign him his inheritance, declares the Lord GOD. Ezek 47.21-23

This part of Ezekiel is part of an apocalyptic (spiritual truth revealed through a divine intermediary) section which began in chapter 40. The whole vision is one of a restored Israel. In the verses quoted above land is being allocated, which indicates that one day sojourners and Israelites will be fully equal as they will both have an inheritance in the Lord’s land (Lev 25.23). There will no longer be a distinction between the two groups. They will both be equal and share in the inheritance that God has for them.

The New Testament reveals that the inheritance for God’s people is not land in a physically restored Israel, as many Jews were expecting, but the Kingdom of God, which is not of this world (John 18.36), and eternal life. Flesh and blood will not inherit these things because they are a spiritual, not a physical, inheritance (1Cor 15.50). This inheritance comes through faith, and it is faith in Jesus Christ that makes someone a child of Abraham and an heir, not obedience to the law or ethnicity:

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were -baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. Gal 3.23-29

In this way then, I think, the sojourner who lived amongst Israel prefigures the Christian who lives in the world today. We do not have an inheritance, a home, a city amongst those we live with (Heb 13.14). Our inheritance is the heavenly Jerusalem which will be revealed in the new heavens and new earth at the end of days, where God will dwell with us, and where there will be no more death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain (Rev 21.2-4).

In closing I leave you with the words of the Apostle Peter:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1Peter 1.3-5

Photo by Jude Wilson on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary