Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets
David G. Firth is Tutor in Old Testament at Trinity College, Bristol, UK, and a research fellow of the University of Free State, South Africa. He has written many volumes and articles in the area of Old Testament history and theology, particularly focused on the Former Prophets, such as three separate commentaries on 1-2 Samuel. Including the Stranger, Firth’s first entry in the long-running New Studies in Biblical Theology series is a readable, theologically rich, and timely work that will illuminate readers of Scripture to the nuanced notion “foreign-ness” in Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings.
The structure of Including the Stranger is six individual chapters: one and six serving as introduction and conclusion, while two through five (the bulk of the book) are detailed examinations of the appearance and theology of foreigners in each book of the Former Prophets. Within these chapters, Firth will typically examine, chronologically, discrete pericopes and discuss the theme of foreigners in the individual book in that particular narrative section.
In the introductory chapter, Firth explicates the text’s purpose, hermeneutic, and goal. He notes that the Former Prophets “contain a significant number of references to foreigners…[that] have not been explored in detail in a systematic way” (4). These biblical narratives “offer a form of paradigmatic ethics” and thus have relevance to any “Christian” reading” of the two Testaments (4-5). These texts are “not statements of abstracted theological and ethical principles but rather an attempt to explore the complexities of faithfulness in the world where this is always a challenge and challenged” (9). Yet, additionally, the biblical narrators go beyond merely explicating exemplary or poor behavior, but further “invite readers to enter the world of the stories they tell and so reflect on the values commended” (9). There is no real discussion of historical and textual-critical issues in this work. Instead, Firth promotes this theological reading of the Former Prophets to apologetically respond to the contemporary critiques of biblical faith (from new atheist and even Christian perspectives) that this corpus has “a highly negative view of foreigners” and that Yahweh is himself an ultimate “ethnocentric” (6). Yet, Including the Stranger is not purely apologetical, but a work that may help more congregations and Christians read these essential portions of the Bible while also adequately repelling the problematic notions that texts like Joshua or 1 Samuel divinely sanctioned genocide. The Former Prophets’ position on foreigners is not simplistic, and the material “have a much more positive contribution to make to understanding foreigners” than other, more popular treatments might suggest (7). Firth argues that, broadly, “many foreigners are mentioned in the Former Prophets, with many of these included among the people of God so that the boundaries of this people are constantly being challenged… Israel are [sic] constantly being reformed in ways that remind them that just as they were foreign people in Egypt, so other foreigners can become part of them” (11). Thus, God’s directions against that which is foreign are regarding illicit worship and behavior rather than ethnic or racial identity.
The remainder of the book features chapters analyzing canonical texts and their attention to foreigners. Chapter two examines Joshua. In this section, Firth introduces a typology that appears throughout his analysis: Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, represents a foreigner who enters into Israel by her faithfulness to Yahweh, while Achan, the disobedient Israelite, becomes foreign for his unfaithfulness. In Joshua, “foreignness itself is not a problem — it becomes problematic only when it leads away from Yahweh” (51). Chapter three details Judges, which depicts foreigners as both “those who through Yahweh disciplined Israel” and “the ones through whom Yahweh wrought [Israel’s] deliverance” (92). Additionally, Judges “raises profound questions about the identity of Israel as the people of God” insofar as it narrates Israel’s regression into a Canaanite social modality through worship of foreign idols (92). Chapter four discusses 1-2 Samuel, where foreigners are shown both as entities that “oppose Yahweh’s purposes” and able to “teach Israel what it means to be faithful” (132). Chapter five comments upon 1-2 Kings. Here the central issues of foreigners “revolves around the worship of Yahweh and how he is known in the nations” (172). In Kings, Yahweh works on behalf of and against Israel as “a key means by which all people will know him” (172). Through such mighty deeds, foreigners, whether in the land or not, can embrace the faith of Yahweh and enter into his people.
The work’s concluding chapter lists the three key themes of the Former Prophets and foreigners— foreigners as enemies of Israel, Israel’s life as a witness to foreigners, and Israel as foreigners. Further, Firth examines echoes of the Former Prophets’ theology of foreigners in the postexilic Old Testament and New Testament writings. The chapter ends by quickly listing the implications of the book’s conclusions for contemporary Christians.
Indeed, Firth succeeds in writing a cogent and informative biblical theology on a perennially relevant social and political topic. He deftly interacts with contemporary academic work in the field— from across the theological and methodological landscape— yet avoids the pitfalls of overly specialized terminology or niche debates. The biblical material is examined succinctly, with portions of the volume seemingly free of over/under-analysis. My primary critique is the lack of engagement with historical commentaries and discussions on the depiction of foreigners in this corpus. Sadly, the Former Prophets have been employed to legitimate various repulsive colonial and ethnocentric ends— particularly by highly represented theologians throughout history. Firth’s historical theological absence prohibits the book from being a means to theologically correct past and contemporaneous traditions and assumptions that adhere to an overly negative view of foreigners via problematic biblical warrant.
While scholars with differing presuppositions and positions on Joshua-Kings (i.e., embracing one of the manifold perspectives on the Deuteronomistic History) might have little use of this text, it is nonetheless one that biblical theologians, pastors, and students should engage with, especially if their research/lectionary pertains to the Former Prophets. For too long, atheists, secularists, and general critiques of Christianity (or the Hebrew Bible specifically) have liberally cited the injunctions against foreigners in Joshua et al. as demonstrable proof of the religion’s ethical untenability. What kind of omnibenevolent God, they ask, demands genocide of seemingly innocent indigenous Canaanites? Yet, Firth— with deep care and appreciation for the theologies of the individual books and collective corpus— upends that pervasive challenge persuasively. The Bible cannot legitimately be a tool for ethnic cleansing or xenophobic fearmongering: throughout biblical history, Canaanites and Arameans have been better Yahwists than the whole of Israel combined! Instead, one should use the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) to share the good news of Yahweh’s cosmic sovereignty and the opportunity of any person— regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or ability— to join his elect people through faith. In a world increasingly filled with protectionist politics, policies, and proposals— in which the demonized foreigner appears as perpetual other— Firth’s volume is an implicit clarion call for readers of all stripes to continually build a proper catholic church: orthodox in belief, yet unimaginably diverse in participation. One does not need a slimmed-down, New Testament— only Bible to come to such a conclusion— it is a foundational element of Israel’s entire history.
Wow, what a book. Our small group wrestled with these old testament teachings, which sheds a lot of light on the issue.
I wonder if the notion of “the stranger” can be extended to that of same-sex marriage or even homosexuality. Maybe homosexuality appears condemned when it is an intrinsic part of a lifestyle wholly unfocused on Yahweh but might be accepted within a life pointed toward Yahweh.
Thanks for this review of a very timely topic. I look forward to the book, especially given your recommendation regarding Firth’s treatment of the Book of Joshua. Do we understand God’s love for foreigners any better than those Israelites did?