David Firth was one of my favourite lecturers whilst I was doing my Masters at St John’s in Nottingham, and it has been a priviliege working on some of his books whilst I’ve been working for his publisher, IVP. His latest book, a contribution to the long-running NSBT (New Studies in Biblical Theology) series, is particularly pertinent to our contemporary world. Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets is a robust, surprisingly humourous, and incisive examination of this fascinating theme in a key part of the Old Testament.
From the outset Firth notes that he is not focusing on the more obvious legal codes that the Old Testament offers in explanation of the treatment of strangers. Instead, he considers the place of foreigners in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. These four texts (Samuel and Kings being pairs) map to four chapters in which Firth carefully examines the place of foreigners, and what that tells us about Israel, and Yahweh. A striking theme, in contrast to many popular percpetions of the Old Testament as being a very ethnic and xenophobic collection of texts, Firth writes:
“the Former Prophets are concerned with the formation of Israel as a faith community. The starting point for this is certainly the ethnic group that can be called ‘Israel’, but they are ultimately not defined on the basis of ethnicity. The Israel that matters is the one that is continually reminded that their existence is for others, for foreigners, who can be welcomed into the nation or even share Israel’s faith while remaining where they are. An Israel that forgets this reality places itself under Yahweh’s discipline and can lose its status, and that discipline can involve other nations since they too are under Yahweh’s sovereignty.”
With particular reference to Ruth, Esther and the period of exile, the subsequent chapter deals with the broad echoes of the former prophets throughout the rest of the Bible. The thought picked up above continues in the New Testament, with Firth noting that: “it is a Canaanite woman who saw what the disciples could not, repeating the pattern seen in Samuel where foreigners, especially those of Canaanite descent, see more clearly than many Israelites what God is doing. Within Matthew and the rest of the New Testament this pattern ultimately looks beyond ethnicity to form a new people that knows and serves God in Christ.” The book closes with a few suggestions of what an ethic of welcome and inclusion for strangers could look like for churches and Christians that take the Former Prophets seriously.
This is an excellent, and timely book. I would warmly recommend this to pastors and leaders working in ethnically mixed congregations, or to those aspiring to diversify their communities. It is also likely to be an excellent aid to preaching through the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and would be worth having on a desk for sermons on these books. I’ll give the last word to David, as he sums up the key thread that he has traced through the Former Prophets:
“In a world that builds walls between communities, or makes the environment hostile for foreigners, this was an example of what the people of God can be: a community that does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, because we serve a God who does not do so. This is an ethic that is easily talked down in political discourse, but therefore one that is more important than ever for the church, as the people of God, to live out and show a different way of life.“
Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets is available now from IVP, your local Christian bookshop, or online outlets.