HOSPITALITY (φιλοξενία, G5810, love to strangers, hospitality). Hospitality in the ancient Near East played a distinctly important role in tribal and domestic life. Existence in the desert made it a necessity, and among the nomads it became a highly esteemed virtue. By it the stranger or weary traveler found rest, food and shelter, and asylum. It was supported by the thought that the host himself might some day be a stranger, and by the possibility that the stranger was divinely sent. Numerous Bible stories reflect its practice.
In OT Times.
While the term “hospitality” does not occur in the OT, many heartwarming stories of Heb. hospitality are contained therein.
a. A definitive account of the custom is given in the story of Abraham’s entertainment of three strangers, who turned out to be angels. He hastened from his tent door to welcome them; washed their feet; provided a sumptuous meal—of veal, milk, curds, and fresh baked bread—in the shade of a tree; and stood attentively by while they ate (
b. Nomadic hospitality was preserved by the settled Israelites in Canaan. David made Saul’s grandson a permanent guest at his royal table (
c. Traditionally, hospitality included asylum for the guest. Customarily, one could remain under his host’s roof for three days in safety, and receive protection for a given time after leaving. In some cases that was “until the salt he has eaten has left his stomach”; in other cases three days, or 100 miles. This custom survived in the cities of refuge provided by Moses and Joshua for involuntary murderers (
In NT Times.
Even though inns existed, as at Bethlehem and Jericho (
R. deVaux, Ancient Israel (1962), 10, 74-76, 160-163; E. W. K. Mould, Bible History (1966), 103-107, 170-173.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
hos-pi-tal’-i-ti, host (philoxenia, "love of strangers," xenos, "guest," "friend"; pandocheus, "innkeeper"):
1. Among Nomads:
When the civilization of a people has advanced so far that some traveling has become necessary, but not yet so far that traveling by individuals is a usual thing, then hospitality is a virtue indispensable to the life of the people. This stage of culture was that represented in ancient Palestine and the stage whose customs are still preserved among the present-day Arabs of the desert. Hospitality is regarded as a right by the traveler, to whom it never occurs to thank his host as if for a favor. And hospitality is granted as a duty by the host, who himself may very soon be dependent on some one else’s hospitality. But none the less, both intimes and today, the granting of that right is surrounded by an etiquette that has made Arabian hospitality so justly celebrated. The traveler is made the literal master of the house during his stay; his host will perform for him the most servile offices, and will not even sit in his presence without express request. To the use of the guest is given over all that his host possesses, stopping not even short of the honor of wife or daughter. " `Be we not all,’ say the poor nomads, `guests of Ullah? Has God given unto them, God’s guest shall partake with them thereof: if they will not for God render his own, it should not go well with them’ " (Doughty, Arabia Deserta, I, 228). The host is in duty bound to defend his guest against all comers and to lay aside any personal hatred--the murderer of father is safe as the guest of the son.
2. In the Old Testament:
An exquisite example of the etiquette of hospitality is found in
3. The Table-Bond:
It is well to understand that to secure the right to hospitality it is not necessary, even in modern times, for the guest to eat with his host, still less to eat salt specifically. Indeed, guests arriving after sunset and departing the next morning do not, as a rule, eat at all in the tent of the host. It is sufficient to enter the tent, to grasp a tent-pin, or even, under certain circumstances, to invoke the name of a man as host. On the other hand, the bond of hospitality is certainly strengthened by eating with one’s host, or the bond may actually be created by eating food belonging to him, even by stealth or in an act of theft. Here a quite different set of motives is at work. The idea here is that of kinship arising from participation in a common sacrificial meal, and the modern Arab still terms the animal killed for his guest the dhabichah or "sacrifice" (compare HDB, II, 428). This concept finds its rather materialistic expression in theory that after the processes of digestion are completed (a time estimated as two nights and the included day), the bond lapses if it is not renewed. There seem to be various references in the Bible to some such idea of a "table-bond" (
4. In the City:
In the city, naturally, the exercise of hospitality was more restricted. Where travel was great, doubtless commercial provision for the travelers was made from a very early day (compare
5. Christ and Hospitality:
Christ’s directions to the apostles to "take nothing for their journey" (
6. First Missionaries:
In the Dispersion, the Jew who was traveling seemed always to be sure of finding entertainment from the Jews resident in whatever city he might happen to be passing through. The importance of this fact for the spread of early Christianity is incalculable. To be sure, some of the first missionaries may have been men who were able to bear their own traveling expenses or who were merchants that taught the new religion when on business tours. In the case of soldiers or slaves their opportunity to carry the gospel into new fields came often through the movements of the army or of their masters. And it was by an "infiltration" of this sort, probably, rather than by any specific missionary effort that the church of Rome, at least, was rounded. See Epistle to the Romans. But the ordinary missionary, whether apostle (in any sense of the word ) or evangelist, would have been helpless if it had not been that he could count so confidently on the hospitality everywhere. From this fact comes one reason why Paul, for instance, could plan tours of such magnitude with such assurance: he knew that he would not have to face any problem of sustenance in a strange city (
7. In the Churches:
As the first Christian churches were founded, the exercise of hospitality took on a new aspect, especially after the breach with the Jews had begun. Not only did the traveling Christian look naturally to his brethren for hospitality, but the individual churches looked to the traveler for fostering the sense of the unity of the church throughout the world. Hospitality became a virtue indispensable to the well-being of the church--one reason for the emphasis laid on it (
An evaluation of the Biblical directions regarding hospitality for modern times is extremely difficult on account of the utterly changed conditions. Be it said at once, especially, that certain well-meant criticism of modern missionary methods, with their boards, organized finance, etc., on the basis of Christ’s directions to the Twelve, is a woeful misapplication of Biblical teaching. The hospitality that an apostle could count on in his own day is something that the modern missionary simply cannot expect and something that it would be arrant folly for him to expect (Weinel, Die urchristliche und die heutige Mission, should be read by everyone desiring to compare modern missions with the apostolic). In general, the basis for hospitality has become so altered that the special virtue has become merged in the larger field of charitable enterprise of various sorts. The modern problem nearest related to the old virtue is the question of providing for the necessities of the indigent traveler, a distinctly minor problem, although a very real one, in the general field of social problems that the modern church has to study. In so far as the New Testament exhortations are based on missionary motives there has been again a merging into general appeals for missions, perhaps specialized occasionally as appeals for traveling expense. The "hospitality" of today, by which is meant the entertainment of friends or relatives, hardly comes within the Biblical use of the term as denoting a special virtue.
For hospitality in the church, Harnack, Mission and Expansion of Christianity, II, chapter iv (10).