The Christian is instructed to be 'given hospitality'[1] a task which is all the more daunting when one considers the meaning of hospitality from an Eastern perspective. Within most Western churches we tend to assume we have satiated the hospitality command by visiting a restaurant with a few of our friend after church. The more adventurous of us may perhaps 'open our homes' for a one hour Bible study and even go so far as to provide coffee and cookies afterwards. From the Eastern perspective hospitality may mean providing food and lodging for an unspecified length of time to a complete stranger with zero notice. The purpose of this paper is to detail this rather more committed form of hospitality.

Whilst there is much detail to be covered in such a study, for me the single most important point drawn out by Wight is that in Biblical times, hospitality was both a sacred and eagerly anticipated duty. He narrates that some will go to a high-spot and call for others to join a meal with them rather than eat alone. In a tent setting he suggests that the custom of sitting in the tent doorway is to allow for the owner to see a potential guest; he notes that when Abraham saw the three angels he ran to meet them. Wight attributes this attitude principally to a religious belief that all guests are sent to the host by God.

ISBE agrees at a detail level with Wight but offers a more anthropological explanation. It notes that the duty of hospitality is most strongly revered in cultures which are advanced enough to allow travel but not sufficiently advanced for travel to be common enough for a traveler to be self sufficient. It thus suggests that the desire to serve a traveler is motivated primarily by the knowledge that one's own survival may shortly depend upon similar hospitality being shown by someone else. Nonetheless ISBE is in full agreement that hospitality is a binding concept. A guest in an Eastern house is considered the master of the house and the host is considered the servant; it is extreme but not unrealistic that someone would forego the honor of wife or daughter in order to be hospitable.

Given the incredible privilege afforded to a guest it is perhaps reasonable to ask whom a guest might be. Wight identifies a number of categories:

  1. The friend as a guest. It was fairly natural to allows ones friends to be guests and on occasion two people would exchange tokens with their names upon them which acted as a permanent invitation between two people. Wight believes this is the origin of the 'white stone' of Rev 2:17.
  2. Strangers as guests. The Bible is replete with examples of hospitality being shown to previously unknown individuals: Abraham and the three visitors (Gen 18:1-8), Manaoh (Jdg 13:15) and Jethro (Ex 2:20) to name but three. Wight notes that the literal translation of 'given to hospitality' is 'love to strangers'
  3. Enemies as guests. Wight and ISBE both assert that the role of a guest would even be extended to an enemy. Given the nature of such a relationship it became important to specify the exact point at which someone became a guest; it was defined as someone having dismounted and touching a tent-peg. Such a 'guest' was to then be honored and not mistreated.

It should perhaps be noted that whilst anyone could become a guest it was expected that having been a guest would render the guest as positively inclined toward the host. Thus to harm ones host is considered Biblically to be an horrific sin. Thus Obad 7, Psa 41:9 and John 13:18 all narrate with horror the treachery of one that had been a guest and then had harmed his host.

Given the important and enduring effect of giving or accepting hospitality it is perhaps reasonable to ask: 'what could a guest actually expect'? We know that a guest would be treated 'well' but what does 'well' practically mean? First and foremost a guest was provided lodging. In a tent that would amount to a sleeping place in the front of the tent. In a one room house it would be a bed in a raised and honored position. In a house with a room on the roof it would often be that room. In a house set in a court-room arrangement it would often be the room furthest from the entrance. In cities it was common to have a room in the city especially designated for travelers.

In terms of sustenance the giving of a drink of water was considered very much the first thing that should be done. In deed Wight suggests that the giving of a drink of water outside of a house was often the invitation to becoming a guest. Thus when Eliezer asked for a drink of water (Gen 24:17) he was implicitly requesting to be a guest. He further suggests that this is the significance of Mark 9:41 in which Jesus places great emphasis upon those that give the disciples water for His sake. The giving of food in general and bread and salt in particular is sometimes delayed as it is considered to be the sealing of a contract. For this reason Wight notes that some ambassadors will refuse to eat until a discussion has been had. ISBE states that sometimes individuals will even steal food and eat it as this places the one stolen from under contractual agreement.

In addition to these practical considerations there were also a number of formulaic or ritualistic courtesies that a good host would perform. The initial greeting would often be with a bow the depth of which marked the degree of respect shown. For this reason it was not uncommon for a good host to go upon his knees and bow to the ground; this was really an act of obeisance rather than worship. Additionally it is common to kiss upon both cheeks; even for men greeting men. Heading towards the slightly more practical a guest would usually remove their shoes and wash their feet. A servant or zealous host would often assist with this foot washing. An extra act of kindness that could be bestowed was to anoint the head of the guest with fragrant oil. The one thing the guest would not get is privacy. For many the conditions were too cramped for it to be practical anyway; but even when a guest had been afforded their own room it was considered good etiquette to send ones sons to sleep in the room with the guest to provide companionship!

In conclusion I should probably note that ISBE makes quite clear that many of the provisions for a guest were highly tailored to the nomadic lifestyle. We even see in the Bible that as tents gave way to cities guests were treated in a more 'arms-length' fashion. That said, Smith argues that the New Testament enjoins hospitality even more than the Old; perhaps because the prevailing trend was counter to Divine Preference. Notwithstanding, we have seen that Biblically, hospitality really amounts to providing food and shelter to anyone that requires it. We have seen that it is a duty and a privilege that should be exercised at a moment's notice even if it inconveniences us considerably.


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