Hospitality – a Middle East custom

By Sue Smith

“Wait – what? It can’t be!” The exclamation was in Hebrew, since I was in a class on comparative religious literature in Israel. We were reading Genesis 18. The very first verse is mindblowing in the original language, especially for Jewish people who have been assured over the years that it is impossible for God to appear in human form. Yet there it is, plain as day:

“And the LORD (Yahweh – יְהוָה) appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.”

God had come to visit

Abraham was almost as shocked as my fellow student there. 

“He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” (Genesis 18:2-5)

It’s interesting to note how many words in that chapter indicate how speedily Abraham attended to his guests. It all gives the feeling of his great eagerness to host these visitors. It was a great honour. Hosting was considered an honour in Abraham’s Middle East – but all the more when you’re hosting God himself.

Way of expressing acceptance

Abraham wasn’t the only one to host the Lord – Samson’s parents also hastily arranged refreshments for their surprise visitor, the Angel of the Lord, who speaks of himself as the Lord in first person. They were so shocked, Samson’s dad fully expected to perish shortly after the encounter, having effectively seen God.

God loves to come and visit. In Revelation 3:20, he says:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Visiting someone and eating with them is a way of expressing acceptance of them, like Jesus did with the wayward enemy-of-the-people Zaccheus. The dreaded tax-collector. “I’m coming to eat at your house today!” He announced. And it led to a radically transformed life. 

It builds relationship

Entering a house, eating together, sharing food and conversation in a living environment is a great way of bonding and expressing love to one another. It builds relationship like nothing on earth. God wants relationship with us, so invites himself round for dinner. But he also expects us to host others, and to show love by doing so: 

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” (1 Peter 4:8-10)

“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Who will you host?

Hospitality is hard work – practically, emotionally, and can be costly financially, but it was something that our father Abraham eagerly rushed to do for those three strangers who showed up at his door. And he got much more than he bargained for.

It’s impossible to calculate the impact opening your home could have on your guests, or even on you! But in many ways those calculations are God’s business. We just need to be obedient and quick to open the door to others. Who knows who you might end up hosting?

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