The Gift of the Stranger1
Creation, culture, and our search for community
Our arrival in Peru the previous night had been uneventful.
Jet-lagged and tired, we had moved our suitcases into the tiny house that was to be our home.
The house was clean—and empty (except for a bed). When I entered the bathroom, I had to look twice. The toilet did not have a seat and a cover. Awkward, strange, but we were missionaries and would learn how to live with a toilet sans seat and cover.
A week later we ate Sabbath lunch at the home of the university’s academic vice-rector. We enjoyed a great meal and warm fellowship, and were delighted to speak English.
Besides enjoying good food, I was excited to see something else. Before our meal I had used the bathroom to wash my hands. My wife must have thought that something was seriously wrong when I rushed out of the bathroom with a loud shout. “They have a toilet seat,” I exclaimed to the amused looks of our congenial hosts. It turned out that the maintenance crew had forgotten to install the toilet seat in our home. All would be well (Peru had toilet seats), and tomorrow one of the maintenance workers would come and fix the problem.
I was delighted, but in for a profound lesson in cultural values. Mañana (“tomorrow”) became the first Spanish word I truly understood. In my German culture “tomorrow” meant 24 hours from now, at the latest. In Peru it meant something different. Time was not of the essence; relationships were.
Culture is unique to specific people groups and geographic locations. Culture marks distinct values and behaviors and is closely related to worldview and religion. People all around the world do things differently and look at life in diverse ways. In our interconnected global village we have become more acutely aware of other cultures. Some love Ethiopian food; others delight in Southeast Asian cuisine; I like Italian fare.
Our multicultural world could be a great place to live in if it were not for the problem of culture clashes. A refugee from Syria, living in a small village somewhere in Germany, will not only feel different. He will know that he is the foreigner, and as a foreigner he is vulnerable to suspicion. He dresses differently, eats and cooks differently, often has a different rhythm of life, and prays differently.
We can read about culture clashes in newspapers and watch it on TV. PEGIDA 2 marches have mobilized tens of thousands of Germans. Still, we wonder: Is there a word from the Lord about the bigger issue of culture and culture clashes? Does Scripture say anything about this crucial topic? Is culture value free, or are different cultures a product of our sin-sick world? Is there a culture that is better or closer to God’s ideal of culture?
In the Beginning
The famous words of Genesis 1:1 conjure up many images. In the verses following “In the beginning” 3 we meet a Creator who relishes different colors, shapes, smells, and creatures. How else can we understand the diversity of species, from the smallest insects to the largest mammals? They all were created by the word of a powerful Creator who spoke—and it was. In fact, following the creation of Adam and Eve on the sixth day, the biblical text states that “it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Creation was united in praising the Creator (Ps. 19:1; 66:4; 92:1-5; Neh. 9:6)—and Sabbath was the perfect space in time to do so.
Creation’s goodness, however, fell victim to humanity’s bad choices. The Fall introduced suspicion, distrust, doubt, and sin into a perfect world (Gen. 3). This affected the way humans lived (namely, outside the garden, verse 24) and how they interacted. In fact, the next part of humanity’s journey takes us to an open grave. A brother has killed a brother. Relationships between people became violent and broken (Gen. 4:1-15; 6:5).
Following the Flood and a new beginning, Genesis 11 introduces the story of a city whose name becomes equivalent to rebellion against God in Scripture. Babylon’s anonymous builders, united by “one language and one speech” and thus one cultural identity (Gen. 11:1), represent humanity’s age-old desire of trying to reach heaven on our terms. “Let us make a name for ourselves” (verse 4) is a cipher for a future without God. Independence is the name of the game. We want to control our own destiny, and we want to do it our way.
God’s swift and personal response results in the dispersion of humanity, and more distinct languages mean more distinct cultures. We often wonder about this one language and one culture. What did it look like when everyone understood everyone? Was that the “ideal” culture designed for humanity? Scripture’s take on Babylon’s one-language/one-culture scenario is very clear. Indeed, it is this uniformity that draws the strong divine response. This is uniformity at its worst, standing in direct opposition to God’s purpose and plan.
God’s Special Care
The biblical narrative moves from Mesopotamia to Canaan, then on to Egypt. A small family clan turns into a large multitude. Its suffering at the hands of their Egyptian masters does not go unnoticed. God hears their groaning and cries (Ex. 2:23-25) and delivers them out of Egypt. His loving care for a liberated people becomes obvious along the way to the Promised Land. They are saved; they are fed; they are surrounded by tokens of God’s presence. The tabernacle reminds them that their God is not a distant, humanlike deity. He is the one who brought them out of Egypt, the land of slavery, by His mighty hand and His outstretched arm (Deut. 5:15; 7:19; 26:8), so that He could dwell among His people (Ex. 25:9) and shape their lives and culture.
Following decades and centuries of slavery, a slow process of reeducation and retraining begins. God’s people need to reflect God’s ideals and character. Sinai is the starting place for this process—and it covers everything from food to family, farming to clothing production—and many things in between. When God speaks, Israel needs to listen. Often there is talk of Egypt and the bitter experience of having lived as foreigners in a land that turned from a place of refuge to become a house of slavery.
Intriguingly, divinely-given legislation enshrines this collective memory and turns it into the rationale for the care of strangers and foreigners. “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Impartiality and justice was deeply ingrained in Israelite legislation: “You shall not pervert justice due the stranger or the fatherless, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there” (Deut. 24:17, 18).
The Problem of Cross-cultural Marriages
While God reserved a special place in Israel’s legislation for the foreigner, He also included clear guidance regarding cross-cultural marriages. Pentateuchal legislation did not permit intermarriage with pagan nations (Deut. 7:1-10; Lev. 21:14). The rationale is clear: “For they [foreign marriage partners] will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods. . . . For you are a holy people to the Lord your God” (Deut. 7:4-6). While we have some positive examples of cross-cultural marriages (e.g., Zipporah [Ex. 2:16-22]; Rahab [Matt. 1:5]; and Ruth [Ruth 4:10-14]), more often than not these marriages are severely criticized by the biblical authors (e.g., Esau’s two Hittite wives [Gen. 26:34, 35]; Solomon and Pharaoh’s daughter [1 Kings 3:1; 11]; Ahab and Jezebel [1 Kings 16:30, 31]; etc.).
Nehemiah’s reaction to the reality of cross-cultural marriages in the postexilic period is instructive (cf. Neh. 13:23-27).Apparently some Jewish men had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children could not speak the language of Judah, but only their mothers’ tongues. Nehemiah’s reaction to this reality is surprising: He “contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair” (verse 25). Why would Nehemiah, a man who must have been at least bi- or trilingual, react so strongly to the fact that these children did not speak the language of Judah anymore? Nehemiah realized that in this case a mother tongue not only reflected language skills but also pointed to religious loyalties. These children had not received and could not receive adequate religious education because they could not understand Hebrew. Nehemiah knew that this would lead to further apostasy and divine wrath. So the litmus test of cross-cultural marriages in Scripture is not cultural affinity or linguistic competence, but religious affiliation and commitment.
The New Testament introduces a new and revolutionary concept. Instead of one people based on the same ethnicity and language, the new Israel is a multiethnic community and includes all who want to follow the Lamb. Paul disregards the markers of “Jew” and “Greek” as entry points into the kingdom of God: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him” (Rom. 10:12). He puts it even more radically in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (cf. Col. 3:11).
In other words, neither Judaism nor Hellenism (nor any other culture), neither socioeconomic status nor gender represents God’s “ideal culture”; rather, we need to be “born again” (John 3:3) in order to be citizens of God’s kingdom. “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
This experience of being born again unites us on a profound level and makes us citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world. As we look into each other’s eyes we recognize Christ in one another—the Elder Brother whose sacrifice alone made our entry into this kingdom possible.
We spent six wonderful years in Peru, but it took a long time to understand this new culture fully. A significant first step was our ability to communicate in Spanish. Next came our grasp of cultural values. Beyond mañana we began to understand the culture of our Peruvian family, and also realized the many blind spots of our own culture.
We also learned that there are many admirable parts, as well as many ugly parts, in either culture. However, recognizing differences and similarities was not enough. In order to reach toward God’s “ideal” culture, there needed to be more. We needed to learn to love and accept each other, no matter what.
What truly knit us to our Peruvian brothers and sisters was shared pain and loss, because it is when we experience loss that our true humanity comes to the fore. The pain and loss that God suffered with Jesus on the cross breaks down our barriers of culture and re-creates something new within us. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.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 neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26-29).
- The title of this article has been inspired by the volume of David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), focusing on language learning.
- The acronym PEGIDA stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident. Similar groups have sprung up in other parts of Europe and the United States.
- Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review who has lived in Europe, Africa, South America, Asia, and now North America and considers himself a global citizen.