Hospitality plays no small role in the realm of biblical ethics. Biblical admonitions exhorted the Israelites and the early Christians to practice this virtue. Its practice characterized Abraham ( Gen 18:2-8 ) and the church leaders ( 1 Tim 3:2 ; Titus 1:8 ). And, as hospitality is an attribute of God, one finds its images in the biblical proclamation of the relationship between God and the covenant people.
Hospitality in the ancient world focused on the alien or stranger in need. The plight of aliens was desperate. They lacked membership in the community, be it tribe, city-state, or nation. As an alienated person, the traveler often needed immediate food and lodging. Widows, orphans, the poor, or sojourners from other lands lacked the familial or community status that provided a landed inheritance, the means of making a living, and protection. In the ancient world the practice of hospitality meant graciously receiving an alienated person into one's land, home, or community and providing directly for that person's needs.
Some forms of hospitality toward nonforeign strangers appear to have been commonly practiced among the nations of the biblical world. There appears to have been some decline in hospitality from the period of the Old Testament to that of the New Testament, since hospitality is omitted from later Greco-Roman virtue lists. In its literature, Israel alone seems to have included the foreign sojourner along with those other alienated persons who were to receive care: the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Although the narratives of the patriarchal period advocate receiving the foreigner/stranger at least on a temporary basis (Gen. 18-19), landed Israel showed some ambivalence toward foreign strangers by favorably distinguishing the sojourner, who made some allegiance to the Israelite community of faith, from the foreigner, who might represent some threat to cultic purity. For the early church, hospitality remained an important expression of lovingkindness, one that received support in the teaching of Jesus ( Matt 25:31-46 ; Luke 10:30-37 ; 14:16-24 ; 16:19-31 ).
Hospitality took several forms. Acts of hospitality included the humble and gracious reception of travelers into one's home for food, lodging, and protection ( Gen 18:2-8 ; 19:1-8 ; Job 31:16-23 Job 31:31-32 ), permitting the alienated person to harvest the corners of one's fields ( Lev 19:9-10 ; Deut 24:19-22 ; Ruth 2:2-17 ), clothing the naked ( Isa 58:7 ; Ezekiel 18:7 Ezekiel 18:16 ), tithing food for the needy ( Deut 14:28-29 ; 26:1-11 ), and including the alien in religious celebrations ( Exod 12:48-49 ; Deut 16:10-14 ).
The hospitable act of the communal meal possesses great symbolic significance. In the ancient world, to share food with someone was to share life. Such a gesture of intimacy created a bond of fellowship. Hence, God's meal with the elders of Israel ( Exod 24:1-11 ), Jesus' meals with tax collectors and sinners ( Luke 11:37 ; 15:1 ; 19:5-6 ), the Lord's Supper ( Mark 14:17-26 ), Jesus' postresurrection meals ( Luke 24:30-31 Luke 24:40-43 ; John 21:12-13 ; cf. Acts 1:4 ; 10:41 ), Peter's meal with Gentiles ( Acts 10:48-11:3 ), and the common meal of the early Christians ( Acts 2:42-47 ) communicated a powerful message of intimacy and unity.
The Old Testament. Israel as Guest, God as Host. Old Testament teaching identifies the Israelites as alienated people who are dependent on God's hospitality ( Psalm 39:12 ; see also Heb 11:13 ). God graciously received the alienated Israelites and met their needs, redeeming them from Egypt and feeding and clothing them in the wilderness ( Exod 16 ; Deut 8:2-5 ), bringing them as sojourners into God's own land ( Lev 25:23 ), where God offered them health, long life, peace, and fertility ( Deut 11 ). In a figurative sense, table fellowship is offered during meals of peace offerings and religious feasts where part of the sacrifice is offered to God and the rest is eaten by the sacrificer or community ( Lev 7:11-18 ; 23 Psalm 23:5 ; Prov 9:1-6 ; Isa 25:6 ). Indeed, God serves as host to humanity as the one who provides food and clothing for all ( Gen 1:29-30 ; 2:9 ; 3:21 ; Psalm 104:10-15 ; 136:25 ). God particularly cares for the alienated person ( Exod 22:22-24 ; Deut 10:17-18; Psalm 145:14-16 ; 146:9 ).
Israel as Host. Old Testament teaching also expected the Israelites to practice hospitality and serve as hosts, treating human life with respect and dignity. Hospitality is an act of righteous, godly behavior. When the angels journeyed to Sodom and Gomorrah in search of a righteous man, only Lot and his family were set apart to be saved. Lot was deemed righteous by the fact that he alone imitated Abraham's behavior of hospitality ( Gen 19:1-8 ; 18:2-8 ). Besides presenting the model of Abraham, the Old Testament specifically commanded hospitality. As Israel received the loving care of Yahweh, so Israel was to love and care for the alienated person ( Exod 23:9 ; Lev 19:33-34 ; Deut 10:19 ; Isa 58:6-10 ).
God as Guest. Another theme possibly provided an incentive for hospitality: God might be the guest. God or the angel of the Lord at times unexpectedly appeared in the person of the stranger ( Genesis 18:1 Genesis 18:10 ; 19:1 ; Judges 6:11-24 ; 13:2-23 ).
The New Testament. Jesus as Guest. Symbolically Jesus came as an alien figure to "tabernacle" in a world that did not recognize or receive him ( John 1:10-14 ). He continues after his resurrection to offer himself as guest ( Rev 3:20 ). On a literal level, Jesus' itinerant ministry placed him in dependence on the hospitality of others ( Luke 9:58 ; 10:38 ). In his capacity as guest, Jesus bound himself to the lost, sharing table fellowship with tax collector, "sinner, " and Pharisee alike ( Mark 2:15 ; Luke 14:1 ; 19:1-10 ). Jesus equates himself with the needy alienated person ( Matt 25:31-46 ).
Jesus as Host. Jesus, the guest, also becomes the host who receives an alienated world. The Old Testament allusions in the feeding of the 5, 000 ( Mark 6:30-44 ) reveal the identity of Jesus. Taking the role of host to the multitude, Jesus is portrayed as one like Yahweh, who fed the people in the wilderness (Exod. 16); as one like the prophets of Yahweh, who fed his disciples and had food left over ( 2 Kings 4:42-44 ); as one like the coming Davidic shepherd, who would care for his flock in the wilderness ( Eze 34:11-31 ). In the institution of the Lord's Supper, Jesus not only serves as host, washing the disciples' feet ( John 13:3-5 ) and directing the meal, but becomes the spiritually sustaining "meal" itself ( Mark 14:12-26 ; see also John 6:30-40 ; 1 Cor 10:16-17 ). Identifying himself with the symbolic elements of the Passover meal, Jesus associated his body with the bread of affliction that was offered to all who were hungry and needy, and he associated his blood with the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption. Moreover, by halting the meal before the traditional fourth cup, Jesus anticipates his role as eschatological host, when he will drink again at the messianic banquet celebrating the consummation of the kingdom of God ( Isa 25:6 ; Matt 8:11 ; Luke 14:15 ; Rev 19:9 ). In postresurrection appearances the disciples perceive the identity of Jesus when he takes the role of host ( Luke 24:13-35 ; John 21:1-14 ).
Christians as Guests. As persons originally alienated from God, Christians are invited to respond to Jesus as host in the celebration of the Eucharist and in anticipation of the eschatological messianic feast. Those who confess Jesus as Christ become aliens and strangers in the world ( John 15:18-19 ; 1 Peter 1:1 ; 2:11 ). The audience of 1 Peter apparently suffered social ostracism because of their Christian confession ( 4:12-16 ), but in turn they received divine hospitality as members of the "household of God" ( 4:17 ; 2:9-10 ; Eph 2:19 ; Php 3:20 ). Itinerant Christian ministers and refugees often found themselves in need of sympathetic hosts ( Romans 16:1-2 Romans 16:23 ; 1 Cor 16:10-11 ; Titus 3:13-14 ; Phm 22 ; 3 John 5-8 ).
Christians as Hosts. As in the Old Testament, righteous behavior in the New Testament includes the practice of hospitality. One finds the commands to act hospitably in the context of other expressions of love ( Rom 12:9-21, ; esp. vv. 13,20; Heb 13:1-3 ; 1 Peter 4:8-11 ; 3 John 5-8 ). In a general sense, Christians now serve as co-hosts with Christ to a world consisting of those who are "excluded from the citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise" ( Eph 2:12 ). Certainly, held up before the Christian is the model of Jesus, who serves as host to an alienated world, who commended hospitality in his teaching, and who himself is encountered as one receives the alienated person ( Matt 10:40 ; 25:31-46 ).
Rodney K. Duke
See also Ethics
Bibliography. G. Downey, ATR 47 (1965): 3-15; R. K. Duke, "Toward an Understanding of Hospitality in the Old Testament"; J. H. Elliot, A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy; K. L. Gibble, Brethren Life and Thought 26 (1981): 184-88; R. B. Herron, Word and World 6 (1986): 76-84; R. Jewett, Letter to Pilgrims: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews; D. Kellermann, TDOT, 2:439-49; J. Koenig, New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission; A. J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity; B. J. Malina, Social-Scientific Criticism of the New Testament and Its Social World, pp. 171-94; J. B. Mathews, "Hospitality and the New Testament Church: An Historical and Exegetical Study"; P. Parker, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America's Public Life; F. A. Spina, The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Sixtieth Birthday, pp. 321-25; G. Staehlin, TDNT, 5:1-36; R. A. Wright, "Establishing Hospitality in the Old Testament: Testing the Tool of Linguistic Pragmatics."
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Hospitality'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".