Controversy in the Hebrew Word for Stranger

Posted by on Feb 8, 2022

The Almighty is very clear in His Word that He does not show partiality and that there is one law for the Hebrew and for the stranger who has joined Israel. Yet, there is a law in the Torah that has perplexed the strangers, who observe the Torah in obedience to the Eternal.

At first reading of that verse, it seems to the reader that Mosheh our teacher has departed from this fundamental principle in the Torah putting the stranger in an awkward position to eat what otherwise is strictly forbidden in the Torah. The confusion also comes from the fact that very often the word “stranger” is used in the translations to describe different Hebrew words.

We will explain the whole matter in the following vein, but it suffices to say for now that the translators have invented a contradiction where it is not supposed to be.

Can a stranger eat from the Passover lamb?

And when a stranger sojourns with you and shall perform the Pesach to Yehovah, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and perform it, and he shall be as a native of the land. But let no uncircumcised eat of it. There is one Torah for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you. (Exo 12:48-49)

These two verses are understood to mean that the stranger above is a convert in Israel, especially when it is said that there is one law for him and for the native Israelite. But then, how are the following verses to be understood, when YHVH said to Mosheh and Aharon,

This is the law of the Pesach: No son of a stranger is to eat of it, but any servant a man has bought for silver, when you have circumcised him, then let him eat of it. A sojourner and a hired servant do not eat of it. (Exo 12:43-45)

This is the law of the Pesach (the Passover lamb) of YHVH. First, we are told that no stranger is to eat of the lamb unless he is circumcised. But in the same line of words, the law says that a sojourner does not eat of it. Both “stranger” and “sojourner” are employed here in the sense of a non-native.

Then, the law says a stranger who sojourns in Israel will be as a native of the land for there is one Torah for both the native Hebrew and for the stranger. But does the law not forbid a sojourner to participate in the Pesach supper?

Since these verses are obviously contradictory, how can they be reconciled?

Although much has been written upon the subject, still something is left for our comments.

For further knowledge on the matter of Passover, the reader may do well to read what we have written in our commentary on Has the Passover Lamb Died for Everyone? of Time of Reckoning Ministry.

Stranger lost in translation

The verses in Exodus 12 are a classic example of “lost in translation”. Different translations employ different words to describe here and elsewhere the concept of non-native who lives in the Land of Israel. In all translations the words “stranger”, “alien”, “foreigner”, “gentile”, and “sojourner” are used almost interchangeably to describe a non-native. But in Hebrew there is a different word to describe “stranger” with its own meaning.

For example, in verse 43 the word neikar is used; in verse 45 is toshav; in verses 48 and 49 is the word ger: three Hebrew words describing “stranger”, i.e., a non-native.

YHVH is very precise in His words that there is one Torah for the native and for the stranger who sojourns in Israel. It is for this reason that the Hebrew word ger (translated “stranger”) is understood to mean a convert (proselyte) for he is equated with the native on account of Passover. Yet, JPS and KJV alike still call him “stranger”.

This begs for the question: If a convert is considered by law as a native of the land of Israel, why is he still called a stranger, given what “stranger” means: anyone who does not belong in the environment in which he is found?

In the following we will explain each of these Hebrew words.

Stranger as an apostate

The Hebrew word behind “stranger” in Exo 12:43 is נֵכָר neikar. It is derived from the verb נָכַר nakar which means to scrutinize, to disregard, ignore, be strange toward, reject, resign, dissimulate.

Another derivative of nakar is נָכְרִי nokriy, which means “strange” in a variety of degrees and applications: foreign, non-relative, adulterous, different, alien, foreigner, outlandish, stranger. This application of nokriy is best seen in this verse,

And King Shlomoh loved many foreign women in addition to the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; from the nations of whom Yehovah had said to the children of Israel, “You do not go into them, and they do not go into you, for they shall certainly turn away your hearts after their gods”. Shlomoh clung to these in love. (1Ki 11:1-2)

Here, the “foreign women” are called נָכְרִיּות nokriyot (plural of nokriy). It is well known that those one thousand women, King Solomon had, were heathens and they were the ones who made the king worship their idols. What is remarkable in this verse is that the Hebrew word nokriyot couples with another word גֹּויִם goyim (plural of goy), which does not simply mean “stranger” but gentiles, heathens, nations, people, or anyone who is not of true faith, or anyone who is estranged from the commonwealth of Elohim; abstractly neikar is of the heathendom.

The Torah specifically states that offerings are not to come from the hand of a neikar.

And from a son of a neikar‘s hand you do not bring any of these as the bread of your Elohim, for their corruption is in them, and defects are in them, they are not acceptable for you. (Lev 22:25)

This law contains two prohibitions: (1) we are forbidden to bring as an offering that which does not come from our own flocks and herds, (2) also forbidden is sending a neikar to the Altar with our animal to make an offering on our behalf. Our offerings must come at our cost and from our own hands. But first and foremost is the prohibition to an apostate (native or non-native) or anyone of the nations to come near to the Altar.

Hence, the medieval Tanach commentator Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040 – 1105) comments on neikar thus [from Mechilta]: “estranged one” is anyone whose deeds have become estranged from his Father in heaven. Both a gentile and an Israelite apostate are meant.

Stranger as an outsider

A synonym of neikar is זוּר zur. This Hebrew word is also often translated as “stranger” or “foreigner” thus adding even more confusion. Zur can mean one who has turned aside, hence, to be a stranger, as found in Psa 58:3, Eze 14:5, and Isa 1:4, but the proper translation in these cases should be a man turned aside or “fallen man”.

But this word has another meaning, as found in Lev 22:10. Here זָר zur is used in general to mean a non-priest, or any person who was not a part of the household of the priest. However, if a priest buys a servant, then the servant may, as a permanent part of the priest’s household, eat of the meat of the offering.

But the greatest confusion comes when the Hebrew word zur is translated as “stranger” in verses such as,

And when the tabernacle setteth forward, the Levites shall take it down: and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death. (Num 1:51 KJV)

A reader, who takes this translation without questioning it, will assume that a convert who left Egypt with Israel is meant here. But this is not the case. When read in the entire context of the Torah, what this law prohibits is that anyone, who is not from the tribe of Levi, to approach the Tabernacle. The reason for this prohibition?

The Tabernacle and the set-apart objects in it, and particularly the Ark of the Covenant, require different level of access. The ordinary Israelites are not allowed in the court of the Tabernacle or the Temple on account of separation (holiness). The Levites are allowed in the court but not in the Tabernacle. The priests can enter the Tabernacle but not the inner chamber where the Ark is. And only the Hight Priest is allowed once a year (on Yom Kippur) to enter the Most Set-apart Place and see the Ark. Thus, this verse can be retranslated as follows,

When the Tabernacle is set to travel, the Levites shall dismantle it. And when the Tabernacle camps, the Levites shall erect it. Any outsider [non-Levite] who approaches shall be put to death. (Num 1:51)

In other words, anyone (whether native or non-native) who has no business around the Tabernacle is considered an outsider (who is not of the seed of Aharon) is banned from approaching it. This translation is supported by other laws, such as in Num 3:10 and Num 16:40.

Stranger as a dweller

In Exo 12:45 is another Hebrew word for stranger or foreigner תּוֹשָׁב toshav and it is to be understood as such is seen in Gen 23:4. It couples with another Hebrew word גֵּר ger rendered “stranger”; i.e., toshav is anyone who resides in a foreign land, a resident or a dweller. Avraham spoke of himself,

I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight. (Gen 23:4 JPS)

Avraham indeed travelled in the land from place to place, dwelled in it, but had never in fact taken possession of it. He considered himself ger and toshav, i.e., Avraham was ger toshav, a resident stranger in the land YHVH promised him.

Since Avraham called himself as ger toshav, its meaning therefore is a stranger who is a sojourner and who lives under the sovereignty of the local people. Hence, Rashi translates toshav as a sojourner or a resident alien.

Stranger as a sojourner

In Exo 12:48-49 is the Hebrew word גֵּר ger (plural, gerim) which properly means a guest, but by implication a stranger since a guest can be unknown. It is derived from the verb גּוּר gur which means to turn aside from the road for a lodging or any other purpose, that is, to sojourn as a guest, hence ger can also be rendered “visitor”.

Rashi comments on ger: “We might think that everyone who converts must make a Passover sacrifice immediately. Therefore, Scripture states: “and he will be like the native of the land,” indicating that just as the native makes the sacrifice on the fourteenth [of Nissan], so must a proselyte make it on the fourteenth [of Nissan].” — [from Mechilta]. And he continues on verse 49: “This verse comes to liken a proselyte to a native also regarding other commandments in the Torah.” — [from Mechilta].

A number of verses describe ger as a foreigner living among other people. For example, Mosheh named his son Gershom, because “I was a ger in a strange land” [גֵּר “foreigner” and שם “there”] (Exo 2:22).

YHVH warned Avraham that, “your descendants will be gerim in a land that is not theirs” (Gen 15:13), and Mosheh likewise warned Israelites not to treat Egyptians with contempt because, “you were gerim in their land” (Deut 23:8).

Therefore, when Avraham wished to buy a plot of land to bury Sarah (Gen 23:4), he said: “I am a ger and a toshav among you. Sell me a burial site”.

Here ger is coupled with toshav, meaning “dweller”.

These examples refer to Avraham, Mosheh, and Israelites living as foreigners among other nations, but the Torah also uses the same term when referring to foreigners living among the Israelites.

Sojourner as a non-possessor

And if a Levite come from any of thy gates out of all Israel, where he sojourneth, and come with all the desire of his soul unto the place which the LORD shall choose; (Deu 18:6 JPS)

This verse requires more in-depth analysis. The verb גּוּר gur, to sojourn, here does not presuppose that the Levites were houseless and travelled from place to place. But what this verse means is that they had no hereditary possession in the land as the other tribes had, and merely lived like sojourners among the Israelites in the towns given to them by the other tribes (see Deu 12:12).

Therefore, in this case the Hebrew word ger does not mean a foreigner or stranger but one who does not have a possession in the land.

A convert is still a foreigner?

According to Rashi, the Torah prohibits the estranged one (neikar), whose deeds have become estranged from the Father in heaven, both a foreigner and an Israelite apostate, to participate in Pesach but allows the convert (ger), who has the same status as the native.

Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3 Chapter 46, comments on why the uncircumcised is banned from the Passover supper: “The reason of the prohibition that the uncircumcised should not eat of it (Exo 12:48) is explained by our Sages as follows: The Israelites neglected circumcision during their long stay in Egypt, in order to make themselves appear like the Egyptians”.

With that said, we can retranslate the law of the Passover thus,

No son of an estranged one is to eat of it, but any servant a man has bought for silver, when you have circumcised him, then let him eat of it. A dweller and a hired servant do not eat of it. … And when a convert sojourns with you and shall perform the Passover to Yehovah, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and perform it, and he shall be as a native of the land. But let no uncircumcised eat of it. There is one Torah for the native and for the convert who sojourns among you. (Exo 12:43-49)

Therefore, if a convert (ger) living among the Israelites wished to keep the Passover, he was first to be circumcised (Exo 12:48), and then he was allowed to come near (to YHVH) and perform it as a native.

Yet, despite this translation, Avraham, Mosheh, and Israelites were called strangers (gerim), because they lived as foreigners among the other nations.

Please, read what we have written in Has the Passover Lamb Died for Everyone?           

Has indeed Mosheh changed the law?

The Torah is very explicit in numerous instances defines what is food and what is not. An entire chapter in Leviticus is dedicated to this subject. But more specifically, the Torah prohibits eating of meat with blood and whatever dies of itself.

However, when we come to Deu 14:24, we find that Mosheh has seemingly changed the law allowing a convert to eat what otherwise is prohibited. We read,

Do not eat whatever dies of itself. Give it to the stranger who is within your gates, to eat it, or sell it to a foreigner. For you are a set-apart people to Yehovah your Elohim. (Deu 14:21)

Our verse is phrased in a similar manner in JPS and KJV, where the Hebrew word גֵּר ger is translated as “stranger” and נָכְרִי nokriy (from neikar) as “foreigner”.

When we reflect on what we have written above, we will find this verse contradictory. Can we rethink this? For let this not be a cause of wonder to us, for it is written that the stranger shall be as a native of the land and that there is one Torah for the native and for him.

And such being the case, it is not proper to say that Mosheh our teacher had contradicted the Torah.

First, we need to clarify that the Torah does not command the stranger to eat carcass but allows, if he so desires according to his custom, to eat it for free. As for the foreigner, he is to pay to eat it. Second, no derogative intention is meant here. The Torah simply regulates the relationship between the Israelites and the strangers in regard to food.

In fact, the sages in Bava Kamma 41a:22 comment on this verse that it is permitted to give as a gift an animal carcass to a ger toshav, i.e., one who resides in Israel and observes the seven Noachide laws or sell it to any gentile.

Of course, the flesh meant in Deu 14:21 is that of Kosher animals, and therefore allowable as food, but which became unclean either because they have died a natural death or have been torn by wild beasts. According to Exo 22:30, such flesh is to be thrown to the dogs, but in Deu 14:21 permission is given either to give it to the settler in Israel or sell it to a foreigner.

As we explained previously, the Hebrew word נָכְרִי nokriy is a stranger of another nation, standing in no inward relation to Israel, i.e., a gentile and is to be distinguished from גֵּר ger the sojourner who lives among the Israelites. Moreover, the phrase “the stranger (ger) who is within your gates” is synonymous with ger toshav, a resident sojourner, and it will be improper to interpret ger here as a stranger, since he lives “within your gates”.

Thus, the resident, who circumcised himself to eat of the Passover lamb, had gained full status in Israel, had the right and responsibility to observe all the commandments that were incumbent on the Israelites, unlike the foreigner who had to go through a particular ritual just to eat from the sacrifice (if he so desired).

Now, if ger is a convert, as commonly understood, and there is one Torah for the native and non-native, which prohibits eating carcass, why then this verse allows a convert to eat the flesh of “whatever dies of itself”?

For example, Lev 11:39 says: “If an animal that you may eat has died, anyone who touches its carcass shall be unclean until evening”. To see that the Torah is unbiased, refer to Lev 17:15, Lev 17:10-12, Lev 17:15, Lev 24:22, Num 15:14-16, Num 15:29-30, Deu 31:11-12.

We should admit that this verse causes controversy, or perhaps there is something we do not understand very well. How should we solve this controversy?

In fact, on account of eating carcass, the rabbis use Deu 14:21 as a distinguishing mark of the ger that he is not a real convert. And as we will see below, indeed this is the case.

So, who is the stranger in our verse? The answer is that Deu 14:21 speaks of a resident stranger (ger) who dwells in the Land of Israel, “the stranger who sojourns among you” (Lev 16:29).

This resident sojourner ger toshav is called such for a reason: “sojourner” for he has no land but has to travel from place to place (as we explained previously) and “resident” for he lives “within your gates” (he could be a servant or hireling).

In order to reside in the Land of YHVH, the resident sojourner has undertaken not to worship idols and comply with the fundamentals of the Torah but has not converted completely. The person to whom the carcass can be sold, however, may either be a foreigner who does not dwell in the land but travels through, or an apostate.

In conclusion, the Hebrew language applies (1) neikar to any apostate, foreigner or domestic alike, (2) to zur an outsider (without referring to righteousness) who has no business in the Temple services, (3) to ger anyone who sojourns temporarily in the midst of the Israelites, (4) and to toshav a dweller, settler, who has settled permanently among the Israelites with rights and responsibilities, but without the legal status of a convert.

The simplest way to explain the differences between the Hebrew words we learned is the following example. Today in an immigration country, i.e., the U.S.A., a foreigner may visit it as tourist, that is, neikar.

Neikar decides to stay and in order to work in the country, he/she has to obtain a work visa to change his/her legal status, that is, ger.

If ger desires to upgrade his/her legal status, ger may apply for a “green card” and thus becomes a permanent resident in the country with all rights and responsibilities as the native, but to elect and being elected, that is ger toshav.

After a required period has passed, and if he/she desires to do so, ger toshav may apply for a full citizenship and be equal to the natives with regard to the law of the land, that is, the convert. And unlike the other languages, there is no Hebrew word for “convert”, since he/she has become a full member of the commonwealth of Israel, and neither does YHVH see any difference, nor does the language.

Anyone who turns to YHVH and receives His Torah in the heart is “born again” and becomes like a new creation. The Talmud says “…a proselyte is like a newborn infant.” (b.Yevamot 62a; b.Yevamot 48b).

We will have no more to say upon this point presently but to suggest the next article: Born Again or Born From Above of Time of Reckoning Ministry.

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May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days!