Opinion: Guest or Enemy? A Reflection on a Difficult Biblical Verse

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A toddler on the U.S. side visits with a relative in Mexico at the border fence. Photo by Chris Stone

By Joe Nalven

There is a knock at the door. Do we open it?

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Some would say, “Could be the bearer of good tidings.” Others might worry about being robbed. Or worse.

When thinking of the stranger at the door, would the better course of action be to follow the biblical advice found in Exodus 22:20, “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Even if we were raised in the school of hard knocks, were totally secular, we might hope that our better self would be to reach out to others — to the strangers at our borders, on our streets and perhaps on our doorsteps.

Our daily reality is framed by the news of the day. It is much the same reality framed by biblical texts. Humans have a penchant for both kindness to strangers as well as the desire to vanquish the foe.

During this time of year in the Jewish calender, we stumble across a bible verse that should bother us. Deuteronomy 31:3 says, “The Lord your God will cross over before you; and God will wipe out those nations from your path and dispossess them.”

Many of us will think, “That is not us.” So, who are we?

There is a tension between kindness to strangers and a dread of the Other. This tension can be found in the texts from many cultures. The Jewish Torah, which also constitutes the first five books of the Christian Old Testament, is among the most notable.

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How do we go about explaining this opposition between kindness and dread towards the Other? The Stranger?

One explanation is known as the boo/hooray doctrine. According to this philosophy, we were conditioned to prefer one set of heroes or values to others. Boo to our enemies, hooray for our allies. Boo to vanquishing the Other, hooray for welcoming the Stranger. Nothing more than raw emotions driving our morality.

Another explanation comes from the field of evolutionary psychology. Here, if there are but a few strangers, we are more likely to welcome them. Given a large number, a horde of others, we are more likely to fear them and act accordingly.

Yet another explanation would be justification from the divine. “It’s God’s will.” Similarly, in a more secular age, “It’s the will of the people.”

If we could jump into the future, just as we have done with Flash Gordon and other sci-fi movies, the tension between welcome and dread of the Stranger endures. The only change is our evolving technology that permits a more dramatic response. Not a better moral response, just a more dramatic one.

What is to be done?

I do not see any sharply drawn answers. Not in a sermon, not in a politician’s homily, and definitely not in this reflection. I suspect that the best we can do is an existential prediction in every encounter — guest or enemy?

That’s small comfort and a reason for prayer.


Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University and has published scholarly articles on both undocumented immigration and environmental problem-solving in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

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