The story of Abraham and Sarah’s generous hospitality to three visitors who came to them by the oaks of Mamre is told in Genesis 18. Seminomadic life in the country would often bring people from different families into contact with one another, and the character of Canaan as a natural land bridge between Asia and Africa made it a popular trade route. In the absence of a formal industry of hospitality, people living in cities and encampments had a social obligation to welcome strangers. From Old Testament descriptions and other ancient Near Eastern texts, Matthews derived seven codes of conduct defining what counts for good hospitality that maintains the honor of persons, their households, and communities by receiving and offering protection to strangers. Around a settlement was a zone in which the individuals and the town were obliged to show hospitality.
1. In this zone, the villagers were responsible to offer hospitality to strangers.
2. The stranger must be transformed from being a potential threat to becoming an ally by the offer of hospitality.
3. Only the male head of household or a male citizen of a town or village may offer the invitation of hospitality.
4. The invitation may include a time span statement for the period of hospitality, but this can then be extended, if agreeable to both parties, on the renewed invitation of the host.
5. The stranger has the right of refusal, but this could be considered an affront to the honor of the host and could be a cause for immediate hostilities or conflict.
6. Once the invitation is accepted, the roles of the host and the guest are set by the rules of custom. The guest must not ask for anything. The host provides the best he has available, despite what may be modestly offered in the initial offer of hospitality. The guest is expected to reciprocate immediately with news, predictions of good fortune, or expressions of gratitude for what he has been given, and praise of the host’s generosity and honor. The host must not ask personal questions of the guest. These matters can only be volunteered by the guest.
7. The guest remains under the protection of the host until the guest has left the zone of obligation of the host.
This episode provides the background for the New Testament command, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).
Hospitality and generosity are often underappreciated in Christian circles. Yet the Bible pictures the kingdom of heaven as a generous, even extravagant, banquet (Isa. 25:6-9; Matt. 22:2-4). Hospitality fosters good relationships, and Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality provides an early biblical insight to the way relationships and sharing a meal go hand in hand. These strangers reaped a deeper understanding of each other by sharing a meal and an extended encounter. This remains true today. When people break bread together, or enjoy recreation or entertainment, they often grow to understand and appreciate each other better. Better working relationships and more effective communication are often fruits of hospitality.
In Abraham and Sarah’s time, hospitality was almost always offered in the host’s home. Today, this is not always possible, or even desirable, and the hospitality industry has come into being to facilitate and offer hospitality in a wide variety of ways. If you want to offer hospitality and your home is too small or your cooking skills too limited, you might take someone to a restaurant or hotel and enjoy camaraderie and deepening relationships there. Hospitality workers would assist you in offering hospitality. Moreover, hospitality workers have in their own right the opportunity to refresh people, create good relationships, provide shelter, and serve others much as Jesus did when he made wine (John 2:1-11) and washed feet (John 13:3-11). The hospitality industry accounts for 9 percent of the world gross domestic product and employs 98 million people, including many of the less-skilled and immigrant workers who represent a rapidly growing portion of the Christian church. Even more engage in unpaid hospitality, offering it to others as an act of love, friendship, compassion, and social engagement. The example of Abraham and Sarah shows that this work can be profoundly important as a service to God and humanity. How could we do more to encourage each other to be generous in hospitality, no matter what our professions are?
Abstracted from Victor H. Matthews, “Hospitality and Hostility in Judges 4,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 21, no. 1 (1991): 13-15.
World Travel and Tourism Council, Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2012, World (London: 2012), 1.
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