The practice of receiving and extending friendship to strangers. Hebrew has no specific word for the practice, but the activity is especially evident in the patriarchal traditions of Genesis and narratives in Judges. The activities and roles of both host and guest probably reflect nomadic traditions where travelers needed protection and nourishment. In the NT Gk. philoxenɩ́a (lit., “love of strangers”) is usually translated “hospitality.”
Travelers would frequently go to an open place and wait for an invitation (Gen. 19:1–3; Judg. 19:15–21) The strangers would first be tested because of their potential to pose a threat to the host or community (Gen. 19:5; Josh. 2:2). Because people’s feet would get dirty from traveling in sandals, the host would provide water to wash the feet (Gen. 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; Judg. 19:21). This custom provided the point of transformation of the traveler from stranger to guest. Thus Simon the Pharisee failed in his duty as host when he did not offer to wash Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:44).
Both host and guests had expected roles to play. The guests would partake of what was offered and would not insult the host. Likewise, the host was expected to honor the guests. Care and nourishment would be offered not only to the guests but to their animals as well. Abraham was viewed as an exemplary host because of the extravagance of his generosity in offering hospitality to his three heavenly visitors (Gen. 18:1–15). Not only did he prepare a meal in great haste, but a plentiful meal that included meat. As host, Abraham did not eat the meal but stood and served his guests (Gen. 18:6–8). The host was also expected to provide protection for the guests. This obligation explains why Lot offered his virgin daughters to the men of Sodom in place of the two angels (Gen. 19:4–8). A similar offer was made in the story of the rape-murder of the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19:22–26). In both stories, the abuse of hospitality by the Sodomites and Benjaminites resulted in judgment and destruction.
Israel’s own experience and identity as a wandering people provided a practical and theological undergirding for its sense of obligation to provide hospitality. They too had been aliens in a strange land without legal protection and in danger of exploitation (Exod. 22:21 [MT 20]; Deut. 10:17–19). Even after Israel receives the promised land, their perspective is that they remain aliens and tenants on the land with God as their host (Lev. 25:23). The prophets use the imagery of food and feasting with God as host of the banquet when envisioning the eschatological day of salvation (cf. Isa. 25:6–10).
Jesus employed the theme of a messianic banquet in his teaching about the kingdom (Matt. 8:11; 22:1–14; Luke 14:16–24). He served both as host, in the feeding miracles (Mark 6:30–44) or by washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1–11), and as guest, dependent upon the hospitality of others (Matt. 8:20). When he welcomed and ate with tax collectors and sinners, he proclaimed God’s kingdom (Mark 2:15; Luke 7:34–50; 15:1–2; 19:1–10). By limiting his followers’ possessions when he sent them out on mission, Jesus forced them to accept hospitality from others (Luke 10:4–12). Their actions were to follow the role of a good guest; they should stay in one house (Luke 10:7) and eat the food offered them (v. 8). The residential supporters on whom these itinerant followers were dependent had a reciprocal role of providing sustenance (Matt. 10:40–42), especially to those without the ability to pay (Luke 14:12–14).
The exhortation for the Church to practice hospitality is found in several NT writings (e.g., Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9). The rationale for extending hospitality is multi-faceted: the recognition that Christians share the same status of resident aliens and exiles (1 Pet. 1:1; 2:4–10) or that in hosting strangers one may unwittingly be entertaining heavenly visitors (Heb. 13:2; clearly Gen. 18:1–15 is in mind). Most importantly, perhaps, is the recognition that in offering hospitality to another, one is offering it to Jesus (John 13:20; cf. the parable of the last judgment [Matt. 25:31–46], where acts of kindness performed for others are seen as acts for Jesus).
An interesting glimpse of practices of hospitality p 612 in the early Church is found in the Didache (11–12). The Church is advised not to offer hospitality to visiting itinerant preachers for more than two days. After two days, they should be sent on their way with bread. If they ask for money, they are clearly false prophets.
Bibliography. J. Koenig, New Testament Hospitality. OBT 17 (Philadelphia, 1985); J. J. Pilch and B. J. Malina, eds., Handbook of Biblical Social Values (Peabody, 1998).
David B. Howell
Howell, D. B. (2000). Hospitality. In D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck (Eds.), Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (pp. 611–612). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.