Including the Stranger
Our Tutor in Old Testament Dr David Firth’s new book, Including the Stranger, delves into what the books of the Former Prophets are really teaching us about foreigners and immigrants. In this Q&A he discusses the scope of the book and why he wanted to write it.
Q: How have you yourself experienced being an immigrant and foreigner?
A: Much of my adult life has been lived as a ‘foreigner’. Though originally from Australia, my wife and I have worked and lived in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. It would be true to say that our experience of each of these countries has been rather different. In Zimbabwe and South Africa we had to be sure we did not become part of the older colonial structures that still shape the life of those countries. As a result, although we were warmly welcomed in the churches and colleges where we worked, there was also a sense within the wider community that we might be more closely aligned with the colonial past. That meant consciously choosing to identify and live in areas where we were clearly part of an ethnic minority.
That is less of an issue in the United Kingdom since here we are part of this nation’s colonial past. But in all these countries there are movements resistant to foreigners being present, and there are various ways—some subtle, some overt—where this is made clear to us. But in our experience, committing ourselves to love and work with the local community changes this.
Q: Did these experiences affect your approach to this topic at all?
A: I think it is impossible to appreciate the ways in which our experiences shape the sorts of issues we research. I do have a strong commitment to doing biblical research that contributes to Christian mission (e.g. my doctoral thesis arose from a question put to me about prayer by a pastor in Soweto). All of which suggests that my own experience as an immigrant in multiple locations will have impacted my interest in this topic, even when I have not been conscious of it.
At the same time, I have been working on these books for about twenty years now as a principal area of my own research, and I was seeing things in them that were either not being addressed by the literature or which were being distorted by popular discussion of them. I do think that research also arises from our immersion in the field we examine (especially the primary source, which for me is the Old Testament), because it is as we do this that we observe things that need to be addressed. My suspicion is that my interest in this topic is a combination of these factors!
Q: What is the scope of the book?
A: I wanted the study to explore a part of the Bible in some depth, but also that the book should not become a massive survey of texts that might overwhelm people. That meant that I would not look at the whole of the Old Testament because such a study would be massive, and in any case Markus Zehnder’s excellent Umgang mit Fremden does that. Rather than providing breadth, I wanted to provide some depth while also keeping the book to a manageable length.
Including the Stranger contains a chapter each on the book of Joshua, the book of Judges, the books of Samuel, and the books of Kings. These books of the Bible include a significant number of references to foreigners and have not been explored in a detailed and significant way, toward an ethical and theological reading of these passages.
I also wanted to focus on texts where I had particular expertise (rather than more generally as an OT lecturer), and the Former Prophets fit that profile in that I have written two commentaries on Joshua (the larger one hopefully appearing later this year) along with one on Samuel, and have also published other material on them. I was therefore able to draw on a much wider and more established body of my research to enable this.
Q: Do you think these books of the Bible have been misunderstood or mischaracterised at times regarding foreigners?
A: I do think these books have been widely misunderstood, both inside and outside the church. Although I had begun identifying this theme as an important one before I really considered the ways in which these books have often been treated as rather xenophobic, the more I studied them the more I became convinced that they were being misread in ways which were harmful to our witness. Far too often, they are read as if we are dealing with modern concepts of ethnicity, something that can really only be seen as a post-enlightenment construct. That does not mean that the problem of xenophobia is not present in the text, but my contention is that these books are taking on this view within Israel and showing its flaws. Because we do not always appreciate how and why they integrate story, history, and theology it is easy now to miss this.
Q: What was a key theme that emerged from your study?
A: The most important theme for me was that these books want to challenge an anti-foreigner construct that existed within Israel and to show that the real Israel was always those who committed themselves to serving Yahweh. Israel was not defined by ethnicity in any classical sense, even if that provided an initial starting point. Perhaps one of the most important ways it does this is by showing the positive contribution of people we might now think of as immigrants, such as Caleb or Elijah.
Q: Are there ways in which these stories of Yahweh, the Israelites, and foreigners could be applied to how we think of the ‘immigrant/foreigner’ today?
A: I have tried to be cautious on this point, because there are so many differences between the ways in which nations are formed today and it is not an area where I have particular expertise. And, of course, no modern nation stands in the same relationship to God today as Israel did in the Old Testament. So, the starting point for thinking about this should begin with the church as the gathering of a people who are defined only on the basis of a faith relationship to God in Jesus Christ. But once we do that, we see that the church must be open to people from a range of backgrounds and the contributions that they bring. Where this becomes important I think is that we realise that we are called to be a counter-cultural community that welcomes the stranger, something that stands against many dominant political models today. I think this is what the Former Prophets are asking from Israel, so this provides an important point of continuity.
Q: You have dedicated this book to former Trinity Tutor in Old Testament Dr Gordon Wenham?
A: The book is dedicated to Gordon Wenham to honour the ways in which he has over nearly twenty years mentored and encouraged me as a scholar dedicated to the witness of the gospel. He has modelled hospitality to me in many ways, and since including strangers is itself an expression of hospitality, it seemed only right to do so.
Revd Dr David Firth is Tutor in Old Testament and Academic Dean at Trinity College Bristol. David and his wife, Lynne, spent seven years in Africa working with the Australian Baptist Missionary Society, training local believers to take on the work there. David completed his PhD (on responses to violence in the Psalms) through the University of Pretoria while the Firths worked in Zimbabwe and South Africa. God led them next to pastoral work in Sydney and then to the UK, where David has taught the Old Testament at Cliff College, St John’s Nottingham, and now Trinity.