A person of non-Israelite extraction, a Gentile; in Hebrew, nokh·riʹ or ben-ne·kharʹ, literally, “son of a foreign (country).” (De 14:21; Ex 12:43, ftn) The foreigners among the Hebrews consisted of hired laborers, merchants, captives taken in war, Canaanites not executed or expelled from the Promised Land, and various kinds of transients.
Although foreigners’ rights were limited by the Law covenant, they were to be treated with justice and fairness and were to receive hospitality as long as they did not flagrantly disobey the laws of the land. The foreigner, by virtue of his having no real ties with Israel, was distinct from the circumcised proselyte who had come into membership in the congregation of Israel by completely accepting Law covenant responsibilities. Similarly, the foreigner was different from the settler who had taken up semipermanent residence in the Promised Land and who, therefore, not only came under certain legal restrictions but also enjoyed certain rights and privileges.
During the time that the Israelites were alien residents in Canaan and in Egypt, many non-Israelites composed part of the households of the sons of Jacob and their descendants. This came about through the hiring of servants who lived with the family and through the purchasing of slaves, who, by the terms of the covenant with Abraham, had to be circumcised. (Ge 17:9-14) Some involved in mixed marriages, along with their offspring, were included in the vast mixed company that accompanied the Israelites in the Exodus.
After Israel settled in the Promised Land, foreigners, such as the Canaanites who were not driven out, had to be dealt with. (Jg 2:2, 3) Merchants and craftsmen also began to travel into the land of Israel. (Eze 27:3, 17; 2Sa 5:11; 1Ki 5:6-18) Likely hired laborers accumulated as the Israelites grew more prosperous in developing the Promised Land. (Compare De 8:11-13; Le 22:10.) Foreigners began to be attached to the Israelite armies, and in doing so, they developed an esteem for their Hebrew leaders and a respect for the Israelite religion, as in the cases of the Gittites, the Cherethites, and the Pelethites.
Provisions of the Law Covenant. In the Law covenant Jehovah provided basic legislation to regulate dealings with foreigners and to protect the Israelite commonwealth and the integrity of its citizens and dependents economically as well as religiously and politically. The Israelites were not to have any fellowship, especially religiously, with the foreigners (Ex 23:23-25; De 7:16-26; Jos 23:6, 7), and they were not to conclude any covenants with them or their gods. (Ex 34:12-15; 23:32; De 7:2) Time and again Jehovah stressed the absolute need not to bow down to the gods of the foreigners (Ex 20:3-7; 23:31-33; 34:14), nor were they even to inquire into, or interest themselves in, their religious practices.
Marriage alliances with foreigners were prohibited, primarily because of the danger of corruption of pure worship. (Ex 34:16; De 7:3, 24; Jos 23:12, 13) All inhabitants of cities of the seven Canaanite nations were to be destroyed. (De 7:1; De 20:15-18) But in the capture of a city not of the seven proscribed Canaanite nations, an Israelite soldier could take a virgin from the city as a wife after she had undergone a period of purification. In such cases no actual alliance would be formed with a foreign tribe or family, her parents having been slain when her city was taken.
An additional restriction was that no uncircumcised foreigner could eat of the Passover. (Ex 12:43) It appears, however, that foreigners could offer sacrifices through the priestly arrangement, provided the offering itself conformed to divine standards. (Le 22:25) Of course, such persons could never come into the sanctuary (Eze 44:9), but they could come to Jerusalem and ‘pray toward God’s house,’ and they would likely not do so empty-handed, that is, without an accompanying sacrificial offering.
In governmental matters, the foreigner had no political status and could never become a king. (De 17:15) Though the Israelite, the alien resident, and settler in the land could take advantage of the sanctuary provided for the unintentional manslayer in the cities of refuge, there is no mention of such provision for the foreigner.
Although Israelites were forbidden to eat an animal that had died without the blood being drained, it could legally be sold to a foreigner. (De 14:21) During Sabbath years the Israelite could not be pressed for payment of debts, but the foreigner was not under this arrangement and could be pressed for payment. (De 15:1-3) Although a fellow Israelite was not to be charged interest, the foreigner could be so charged.
Source of Difficulty. During Joshua’s time and the period of the Judges that followed, many foreigners were in the land and were a source of constant difficulty. (Jos 23:12, 13) The Canaanite foreigners who remained after the Israelite conquest became subject to slavish forced labor (Jos 16:10; 17:13; Jg 1:21, 27-35), but because the Israelites did not drive them from the land and eradicate their worship as Jehovah had commanded (Jg 2:1, 2), the Canaanites in general continued to practice their idolatrous and degraded religions. As a result the Israelites were continually being led into false worship (Ps 106:34-39), particularly the worship of the Baals and the Ashtoreth images. (Jg 2:11-13) These Canaanitish foreigners continued to be found in Israel down through David’s time to the reign of Solomon, when they were still being put to forced labor on the temple and Solomon’s other building projects.
Contrary to divine command, Solomon took many foreign wives, who gradually turned his heart away from the pure worship of Jehovah to that of foreign gods. (1Ki 11:1-8) Intrusion of false religion at the highest governmental level had fatal repercussions. It resulted in the splitting of the nation and eventual exile in Babylon as successive kings, both of Judah and of Israel, led the people into false worship. This culminated in the fulfillment on the nation of the maledictions that were foretold as inescapable sanctions for violations of the Law.
Following restoration of a faithful remnant of Israelites from the exile in Babylon, many Israelites took foreign wives for themselves. (Ezr 9:1, 2; Ne 13:23-25) This wrong course necessitated vigorous purges of foreign wives and their sons under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah. (Ezr 10:2-4, 10-19, 44; Ne 13:1-3, 27-30) Action was also taken against other foreigners guilty of improprieties.
The conquering Babylonians had dealt very harshly with the Jews at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. (La 2:5-12, 19-22) After the liberation, the Jews were in constant conflict with the foreigners around them in the Promised Land, especially being harassed by the Greek rulers of Syria. In the Jews’ efforts to maintain their restored worship, they had to resist the fierce persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes as he attempted to Hellenize the Jews. Throughout the postexilic centuries the Israelites were in a constant struggle for independence, which created a zeal for Judaism and, on the part of some, an intensely nationalistic spirit. These factors, coupled with the fear of mongrelizing their race through intermarriage with foreigners, likely contributed to the departure from the liberal spirit clearly evident in the Hebrew Scriptures respecting foreigners.
During the First Century C.E. Particularly through the influence of their religious leaders, there developed the aloofness and rigid exclusiveness that existed among the Jews in the first century C.E. Evidence of this attitude is seen in the disdain they showed for the Samaritans, a people of mixed descent from Israelites and foreigners. As a rule the Jews ‘had no dealings with the Samaritans,’ not even wanting to ask for so much as a drink of water from them. (Joh 4:9) Jesus, however, made clear the wrongness of such an extreme view.
The establishment of the new covenant on the basis of Christ’s ransom sacrifice brought to an end the legal separation between Jew and Gentile. (Eph 2:11-16) Yet, even after Pentecost of 33 C.E., the early disciples were slow to grasp this fact. The common or standard Jewish view was expressed by Peter to the Gentile Cornelius: “You well know how unlawful it is for a Jew to join himself to or approach a man of another race.” (Ac 10:28) John 18:28 shows that entry into a Gentile home was viewed by the Jews as an act that brought ceremonial defilement. While the Law given through Moses made no specific injunction against such minor association, this view was common among the Jews and particularly among their religious leaders. It took some time for the early Jewish Christians to free themselves of the restrictions imposed by prevailing attitudes and recognize the fact emphasized by the apostle Paul that, for those having the ‘new Christian personality,’ there is “neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, foreigner, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all things and in all.”
The Greek word for “foreigner” is barʹba·ros, basically referring to one who did not speak Greek.