Friday, November 15, 2019

The Stranger as Threat

The Threat of the Outsider

For our purpose of understanding "the stranger" in biblical terms, it is important to acknowledge the likely connection between the general sociological term "habiru" and the odd, nameless hovering mass of unnamed humanity  mentioned often in the texts of the "insiders" as being at various times an inconvenience, a worry, and a serious threat.

The habiru are the large mass of people who can find no right "place" in the system, perhaps because they do not sufficiently conform, and perhaps because the community needs some outsiders for the menial functions of society. In the texts, the habiru are marginal people who in good times did menial work, in war times might have been hired cannon fodder, and in bad times lived by raids and terrorism, because they did not have any approved modes of access to land, power, or even food.

While at times useful to the established social system of the empire, the habiru were generally a threat. The empires used great energy to contain, administer, resist, and when possible nullify and eliminate them. It is in the character of the empire to want to include everyone on its own terms, everyone who will accept the dominant norms, who will perform according to approved expectations, and who will accept a system of benefits which may be unequal but is nonetheless less normative.

While wanting to include everyone, however, it is also the case that the empire exists for and by the uneven distribution of goods. The necessary and inevitable social stratification dictates that some will have more, some much less, and perhaps some will have nothing.'

That disproportion is what a socio-economic political monopoly is all about. The monopoly is not an accidental by-product, but the point of such power. Those who do not benefit from that disproportion are inherently a threat, because sooner or later, they notice the disproportion and want it adjusted. As they become a threat, the outsiders must be kept at a distance. One way of maintaining such social distance is by labeling as "stranger" the ones who do not conform enough to be included "in."

For our purpose of understanding "the stranger" in biblical terms, it is important to acknowledge the likely connection between the general sociological term "habiru"and the biblical term "Hebrew," which most scholars believe is simply an alternative rendering.

"Hebrew" apparently comes from the verb 'abar, to "cross over." Thus the Hebrew is one who crosses over boundaries, who has no respect for imperial boundaries, is not confined by such boundaries, and crosses them in desperate quest of the necessities of life. The Hebrew is driven by the urgent issue of survival. Note that the term "Hebrew" is not, in this reading, an ethnic term but a sociological category referring to those who are not contained in or sustained by the social system but who must live outside the system and its resources and benefits. Thus we can conclude that the people who finally become the "people of God" in the Old Testament are some among those whom the empire had declared "strangers," "outsiders," "threat."

While the position of the outsider is often rooted in political and economic matters, there is a different distinction between insider and outsider in Gen. 43:32. In the midst of the Joseph narrative, it is written of Joseph:

They served him by himself, and them by themselves, because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.

The distinction between Joseph and the Egyptians is not ethnic but sociological. The Egyptians in the narrative are an embodiment of the Egyptian empire, the classic insiders. Joseph is a Hebrew, an outsider who does not qualify to eat with the imperial insiders. This verse provides important clues for our understanding of the stranger:

1. The text contrasts Egyptians and habiru, those in the empire who control the monopoly and those who are disqualified outsiders.

2. The contrast concerns access to food and, therefore, to life, worth, security, and dignity. "Food" refers to the means of life. But it also concerns the most intimate of social transactions, where social distinctions are likely to be most rigorously observed.

3. The contrast concerns the issue of social power, but the matter of power is articulated as a religious-moral matter. The word "abomination" (to'eveh) suggests that the Hebrews are morally inferior socially dangerous, and ritually impure. It is remarkable how sociological distinctions become reflected in ritual categories.

4. The biblical narrative notices the oddity of this arrangement of eating and therefore of social power. The narrator makes no explicit comment, but the fact that the eating arrangement is mentioned at all means that full notice is taken by the narrator of the discrimination.

The biblical narrative is restless with this social arrangement of discrimination that the empire had come to regard as routine. Creating outsiders is initially done to have a means of monopoly from which some are excluded. This monopoly of power is readily translated into a monopoly of sanctity and virtue, of holiness and righteousness.

In the Old Testament, this ritualizing of social distinction is carefully articulated in terms of laws of purity that concern food, the priesthood, and sexuality. In Leviticus and Ezekiel especially, we find an intense sorting out of what is acceptable and unacceptable, the unacceptable being categories treated as morally inferior, socially dangerous, and ritually impure. But these "religious" categories are never far removed from the realities of social power and access to social goods. In the New Testament, this way of identifying, categorizing, processing, and administering strangers shows up in Jesus' legal disputes with the advocates of the laws of holiness and righteousness (cf. Mark 7).

The practice of defilement and uncleanness turns out to be a labeling process with enormous social implications.

Landless and Not Belonging

I suggest now a third dimension of generating strangers that is intimately tied to the first two and may in fact be more foundational: strangers are those who do not have land, who are not judged as entitled to it, and who have no chance of acquiring any of the land." Thus the "Hebrews" are those who "cross over" (abar), trespass, pass, do not respect the property or property rights of others because they are so desperate or resentful that they will not finally acknowledge edge present social settlements.

It is not accidental that strangers in our society are often experienced as dis-placed persons, that is, people without a place. They have no place (or have lost it) because the social system, with its capacity for inclusion and exclusion, has in fact assigned their place to another and so denied them any safe place of their own.'

Strangers are often those who are cut out of the history of the land, denied the fruit of the land, and therefore denied social power, social security, or social worth. Every society, including eventually the Israelite community itself,  has clear rules about who may own land, how to acquire land, and how to retain it. But the rules governing possession are made by those who have and know how to get land, so whenever those rules are made, some end up without land. When some are excluded from the land, they do not belong, do not have voice or vote, do not know how to penetrate the closed systems of legislation and the courts) Finally, they drop from view and no longer exist.  

Very often those denied land will settle for such a fate decreed by the landed. They become passive, docile, and hopeless; even then, however, they continue to be an unsettling presence, worrisome, and embarrassing. On occasion, those consigned to "nonexistence" refuse to accept their fate. They want in; they push, insist, and become a threat. Either way, in docile despair or hope-filled insistence,  the outsider is always a threat to those who own, control, and administer land, goods, power, sanctity, and virtue.

Walter Brueggemann. Interpretation and Obedience

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