Book Review: Including the Stranger Foreigners in the Former Prophets – David G. Firth (2019)

The question of immigration, refugees, and borders is a key topic of discussion within contemporary British political discourse. Earlier this year Boris Johnson’s Government unveiled its plans for a new immigration system, the manifestation of over a decade of debate about the role of ‘foreigners’ within Britain.

Primarily these policy matters concern questions surrounding identity, belonging, and communities. Where do those we consider ‘foreigner’s belong? Who do we consider to be ‘foreigners’? What practical measures derive from one’s definition of ‘foreigners’?

Christians in the political arena need then to have thought through how one is to address these questions with some Biblical coherence. ‘Including the Stranger’ then proves helpful here for, although it’s intended purpose is a theology of the identity of God’s people in the Former Prophets, its analysis provides some insight into how Christians can begin to think about this most controversial of topics.

Firth’s account of foreigners in the time of the prophets traces the role of foreigners in Israel’s history from the early days of Joshua through to the Kings. Although Firth doesn’t seek to primarily draw from this an ethic which Christians in the 21st Century West can apply to their politics there are two key lessons from his Biblical analysis of the foreigner.

The first is that being a foreigner in God’s eyes is never about ethnicity; ‘ethnicity is never the issue’ Firth states. [1] Rather Israel’s history shows that ‘[f]aithfulness to Yahweh is the key marker for Israel’s identity.[2]

Hierarchies based on race and ethnicity as categories of inclusion or salvation are therefore defunct in God’s eyes. If worship of God is the only necessary requirement for inclusion into God’s people then Christians are to be an inclusive people a principle that should be embodied within the Church; ‘the church is called to be a people of faith that models God’s ultimate purposes in which all peoples are gathered within the kingdom.[3]

The attitude of the Church is then a crucial indicator of our understanding of what it means to be God’s people. Firth goes on to say ‘[h]ow the local church deals with foreigners within it becomes a context in which to live out this ethic, while also pointing to the greater goal of inclusion that the church as a whole should demonstrate.[4]

The Church then is to be a place where foreigners are to be welcomed. Salvation is not an identity issue but a matter of worship. In other words, a foreigner is not defined as such by their ethnicity, ancestry, class, colour nor any other identity issue, but rather about the God one serves.

Whilst the traditional definition of a ‘foreigner’ then is a defunct term for defining the people of God, Firth makes clear foreigners do exist, for foreigners are those that deny God’s Lordship. False worship will separate oneself from the people of God ‘because it is ultimately faithful worship that identifies God’s people.’ [5]

Israel’s role as the ‘people of God’ was to display God to the nations, to be his witness. [6] The problems then arise when they fail to do this for they fail to be truly God’s people. Ethnicity is not the issue but worship is, so if God’s people become indistinguishable from those around them who worship other gods they are no longer the people of God. [7]

Moving outside of the Church then is when this becomes more complicated and this is surely what we must do as Christians seeking to participate in public debate. As a people who no longer embody a nation state the principle of inclusion within Church is one we must adopt better than we currently do.

Politically though, the implications are twofold. The first being when considering ‘foreigners’ do we make binary assumptions based on identity rather than other factors that are clearly at work in the Biblical narrative? Operating in the British context then are we looking at shared ideas of identity and authority – the elusive British values so often spoken about, rather than country of origin? Are we viewing ‘foreigners’ with dignity and value or simply looking at their economic value at either end of the labour market?

The second implication I believe applies to us within Christian political circles. Are we willing to work across political divides with other Christians due to our shared worship of God, those that we might normally consider our political foreigner, be they Lib Dem, Green, Conservative, or Labour? Our shared worship is of stronger worth than our political ties and should pull us towards shared principles to honour God.

The flip side being how are we maintaining our distinctiveness from the nations? By this I mean, are we reaching across the divide to appeal to people who are ‘foreigners’ in terms of worship? Are we becoming like the political world around us saying nothing controversial, overlooking God’s ways in our political efforts? If we do this we become indistinguishable from everyone else and undermine our witness. A clear failure of God’s people demonstrated time and time again throughout Israel’s history.

Whilst we do not want to overapply the teaching on foreigners found in the Prophets I think Firth helpfully draws out some of the implications for the Church internally but also within the political arena. Much further thought is necessary for a complete and accurate ethic on this yet Firth’s book provides some help through its positioning as a Biblical commentary.

The second, and perhaps more concrete, teaching Firth’s work produces within the political arena concerns the Lordship of Yahweh. Firth notes ‘all nations are ultimately under Yahweh’s rule, even if there is no clarity as to what this may mean.’ [8]

God’s use of the ‘foreigner’ demonstrates faith as the means of inclusion but also judgement on his people points to his sovereign rule over every and all states. [9] For those engaged in the political arena the implications are that ‘foreigners’ have much to teach ‘God’s people’ in terms of faithfulness but may also act as an instrument of judgement on a nation who rejects God.

Again, without wanting to push this too far, God’s rule over all nations of the earth is a helpful reminder of one’s own weakness and insignificance. A point that Christians must cling to if they are to avoid the dangers of power and the despair that comes from seeking to implement God’s New Creation here and now. 

Primarily a commentary rather than a practical ethic for dealing with questions of identity, community, and borders, Firth’s work is helpful for considering the position of Christians seeking to operate politically. It calls on them to examine their own hearts and behaviour and provides some useful implications for beginning to form a practical outworking of these internal beliefs.

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[1] David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), p.38. See also p.183 for the following comment: ‘within these texts ethnicity itself is never a problem’.

[2] David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), p.43.

[3] David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), p.185.

[4] David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), p.185.

[5] David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), p. 46.

[6] David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), p. 107.

[7] David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), p. 48.

[8] David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), p.172.

[9] Whilst a prevalent trend throughout the entire book see particularly Firth’s chapter on the books of Kings - David G. Firth, ‘Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets’ (2019), pp.135-172.

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