Foreigners in the Former Prophets

Foreigners could indeed be a threat to Israel, but foreigners were often the somewhat surprising figures through whom Yahweh wrought deliverance for the nation.

See Also: Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets (IVP Academic, 2019).

By David G. Firth
Trinity College Bristol
University of the Free State

January 2020

Many recent studies have looked at foreigners within Israel. Most have examined the many terms for foreigners found in the Torah. Allowing for the complications that arise from the dating of the various elements in the Pentateuch, such studies have helped us understand some of the ways Israel understood its relationship to foreigners. From this, how Christian readers of the Old Testament might draw on this material in addressing contemporary ethical issues is also explored (e.g., Carroll 2013). Although the legal materials are essential in the process of exploring its moral stance on a variety of matters, it remains the case that the laws represent an ethical minimum. That is, legislation establishes a base point below which Israel is not meant to fall (even if they often did), but it does not develop any awareness of what we might regard as the ethical virtues its readers are meant to attain. In light of that, there is value in exploring the narrative presentation of foreigners since these texts attempt to instill values in their readers through the accounts they report (see Wenham 2000: 1-4). We, therefore, need to explore how foreigners are presented in Israel’s narrative texts since only then can we determine if they provide any ethical surplus. To keep this manageable, we will consider only the Former Prophets, even though this remains a sizable corpus. The goal is descriptive – that is, to describe the approach to foreigners in the Former Prophets – in the hope that others will develop this material in broader ethical reflections (see further, Firth 2019).

How do we know when these texts discuss foreigners? The reality is that there is no one method because the category of “foreigner” is fluid. Where I currently live in England, someone from nearby Wales may or may not be considered foreign depending on whether the discussion focuses on being “British” as opposed to “English” and “Welsh.” Sometimes, the Welsh are “us” and not “foreign,” but other times, they are “them” and definitely “foreign.” (Sporting events are a particularly useful marker for this!) A speaker’s viewpoint of who is foreign can change depending on the circumstances. So we need to look for the use of “in” and “out” language, mechanisms that identify certain characters as foreign even when the words directly associated with “foreigners” are not used. Most often, someone is given a label that identifies them as foreign (e.g., “the Hittite”), or they are placed in a context where they are clearly not Israelite. Allowing for some flexibility in their identification, it is worth noting that each book of the Former Prophets goes about this in slightly different ways. However, there is also a trajectory running through them: Israel not only becomes hospitable to foreigners within its borders but also extends its hospitality to foreigners beyond their borders.


Given that it reports Israel’s entry to the land and is usually read in terms of the destruction of the Canaanites, Joshua might seem an odd text to consider. Nevertheless, it fits the arc noted. Perhaps the most important point to take into account is the pivotal place given to Rahab in Joshua 2. Joshua 1 has prepared readers for the entry to the land, mainly by alluding to passages in Deuteronomy about the removal of the indigenous population and clear statements about being ready for battle. Readers thus anticipate a story about the destruction of the Canaanites. Before any battles are recounted, we meet Rahab. A Canaanite and a prostitute, she seems precisely the sort of person to be destroyed. Instead, she works with the Israelite scouts and utters an assertion of belief in Yahweh that exceeds that of any Israelite in the book. At the end of Joshua 2, we know the scouts have sworn an oath to protect her and her family; we do not know if this was valid. When Jericho is captured in Joshua 6, we see Rahab included in Israel. She might be foreign, but she is no longer a threat.

An immediate contrast is drawn in Joshua 7 as Achan is introduced in the context of Israel’s sin. He is an Israelite with an impeccable Israelite genealogy, who is placed under the ban[1] because he stole from the devoted objects at Jericho. The threat to Israel comes from an Israelite, not a foreigner. A foreigner who expresses faith is no threat, but an Israelite who rebels is. After this, we encounter the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, a group who resorts to trickery to make a covenant with Israel. Again, our initial reading may well be that these people should have been destroyed, although it is notable that God is never said to have done anything in the chapter. By Joshua 11:19 – 20, we discover that their survival was Yahweh’s decision.

We can, therefore, think of Rahab as the paradigm character for the first half of Joshua, the foreigner who subverts expectations by living for Yahweh. It is entirely possible Caleb functions in the same way for the book’s second half. He claims his allotment in a way that Israel is meant to follow (Josh 14:6 – 15). However, he is twice called “the Kenizzite” (verses 6, 14), a term used elsewhere for him only once (Num 32:12). The most likely interpretation of this is that he is a descendant of Kenaz, whom Genesis 36:11 indicates was a descendant of Edom. He is clearly integrated into Israel, but this label indicates his foreign heritage was noted, not problematic.

Joshua, therefore, carefully undercuts the notion that foreigners are intrinsically a threat to Israel. Both foreigners and Israelites can be a threat, but the question is whether or not they will work with Yahweh – or, in the case of the Gibeonites, not oppose them. The book carefully raises questions about the nature of Israel, and that nature is one open to foreigners, including Canaanites.


Where Joshua reshapes the nature of Israel so that it is not defined solely based on ethnicity, Judges goes further to show how foreigners can take on key leadership roles.

The obvious example of this is found in the account of Othniel (Jdgs 3:7 – 11). As many have noted, this is easily the most colorless of all the stories of the judges. One reason for this is that Judges uses Othniel as a paradigm figure, the one against whom all other judges are assessed. Othniel is Caleb’s kinsman. The exact nature of this relationship is ambiguous, but this does not affect the point here. Crucially, that he is called “son of Kenaz” probably highlights the family’s Edomite ancestry and is broadly equivalent to the gentilic “Kenizzite” for Caleb. Even if the name is that of Othniel’s father, it echoes the earlier name from Genesis 36:11. Like Caleb, Othniel was someone who, though clearly integrated into Israel, was of known foreign descent.

Othniel can be considered the first of the “major judges,” although his narrative is deliberately brief. Interestingly, the first of the minor judges, Shamgar (Jdgs 3:31), is also foreign. One clue is his name, which does not follow any Hebrew patterns. But more importantly, he is called “son of Anath.” Although “son of” commonly refers to biological descent, it can also indicate an association with someone – for example, “the sons of the prophets.” In this case, the name Anath points to a Canaanite goddess. Shamgar was not only foreign, but he also was probably not even a worshipper of Yahweh. Judges observes that “he too saved Israel.”

After Shamgar, we have the Deborah story (Jdgs 4 – 5). Here, too, foreigners are essential. Nowhere is this more evident than in the involvement of Jael in the death of Sisera. Jael is the wife of Heber the Kenite (Jdgs 4:17). Although Kenites this far north is unusual, this is but one oddity among many in this story. Nevertheless, it is Jael, a Kenite, through whom the victory over Sisera is won. What is perhaps more striking is that in the “Song of Deborah,” we see that Shamgar and Jael are linked (Jdgs 5:6). Within the Song, their mention harkens back to a time when travel within Israel was unsafe. However, since the final focus of the Song is on how Yahweh granted victory, this is simply preparation for the announcement that Jael was the “most blessed of women” (Jdgs 5:24) because of her actions.

None of this means we can ignore the fact that foreign powers are routinely presented in Judges as a threat to Israel and indeed throughout the accounts of the judges themselves; every one of them must deal with an oppressing foreign power. Moreover, when we enter the final chapters of the book (Jdgs. 17 – 21), the Israelites become indistinguishable from foreigners who lead Israel away from the worship of Yahweh. Foreigners could indeed be a threat to Israel, but foreigners were often the somewhat surprising figures through whom Yahweh wrought deliverance for the nation.


Where Joshua reshaped the nature of Israel and Judges indicated how Yahweh worked through foreigners, Samuel develops this in a new direction. The Israel presented here is one which includes many who are still known by labels that indicate their foreign background. They may well have been more or less integrated into Israel, but this integration still leaves their background highlighted. Samuel uses these figures to provide a critical lens to evaluate the key Israelite figures, especially David. In Samuel, the foreigners within Israel demonstrate more accurately Yahweh’s values. Rather than consider all such figures, we will here simply note a couple of examples: Uriah the Hittite and Hushai the Archite – both presented as descendants of the Canaanite groups who continued in the land in Joshua.

Uriah’s story is well known, even if the account in 2 Samuel 11 is better known as “David and Bathsheba.” Bathsheba plays only a relatively small role in this chapter, much more of which is concerned with how Uriah deals with David. Much remains ambiguous because we are not informed of anyone’s motivations (though this has not stopped readers from filling in these gaps!). In the case of Uriah, before he is a dynamic character in the story, we already know that he was Bathsheba’s husband since this information was included by the person who identified Bathsheba to David (2 Sam 11:3). Only after Bathsheba reported her pregnancy to David do we discover that he is a soldier serving in the campaign against Rabbah in Ammon since David had to ask Joab (his army chief) to send him back to Jerusalem. David’s initial encounter with Uriah is presented as an awkward one because he asked about Joab and the war’s progress without indicating why he needed Uriah to report on this. In this, we hear nothing from Uriah; the narrator refrains from reporting any speech from him until his next encounter with David. However, at the end of it, Uriah was told by David to go home and “wash his feet.” This may be a euphemism, encouraging him to have sex with his wife, though remaining vague enough to provide plausible deniability for David. Washing one’s feet after a journey would also be perfectly normal. Uriah does nothing of the sort; he spends the night sleeping in front of the palace with David’s servants (2 Sam 11:7 – 9).

Uriah’s decision would not remain secret, and David unsurprisingly found out. So we are then brought into a second encounter between them (2 Sam 11:11 – 13). David challenges Uriah about why he had not gone to his house, and this leads to Uriah’s only speech. In it, he immediately raises key questions that indicate he has indeed understood David’s initial suggestion sexually. He begins by noting that the ark was with Joab – meaning this was a war with particular requirements, including that the soldiers stay holy through sexual abstinence (see Firth, 2009:418-19). Mention of the ark makes it clear that Uriah, though descended from those Hittites who were among the Canaanite population, was a thoroughgoing Yahwist. Indeed, even when David decided that getting him drunk was the best option, he continued to refrain from sexual activity with his wife. David apparently remains sober throughout, but a drunk Uriah is more upright than David. In the end, Uriah carries the letter back to Joab, ordering his own murder. However, Joab was astute enough to know he needed to tweak David’s orders to make it less evident that a murder was committed, even if others died in the process (2 Sam 11:14 – 25). Only later do we learn that Uriah also belonged to David’s elite troops (2 Sam 23:39). Uriah would have been well known to David. Although David is Yahweh’s anointed, it is a descendant of the Canaanites who more truly embodies the life of faith Israel was meant to demonstrate.

Something similar can be seen in the story of Hushai the Archite. The “Archites” were a Canaanite group permitted to remain in the land (Josh 16:2), but like Uriah, Hushai demonstrates a commitment to Yahweh. We first meet him as he encounters David fleeing from Absalom (2 Sam 15:32 – 37). Here, he is also called David’s “friend,” a term which probably regards him as a counselor, even if some companionship cannot be ruled out. Hushai was prepared to journey with David but instead agreed to be sent back to Jerusalem and act as David’s agent with Absalom. This was a risky role, but Hushai was apparently well suited to it. Indeed, in his initial encounter with Absalom (2 Sam 16:15 – 19), he appears as the master of linguistic subtlety. His words to Absalom are carefully phrased, so Absalom might think he was joining him, when in fact, he was voicing his support for David. Again, plausible deniability was crucial, and it was this that enabled him to take on a significant role within Absalom’s court, even if Ahithophel were the more important advisor (2 Sam 16:23).

Careful phrasing can only do so much. Hushai’s position is immediately challenged when Ahithophel lays out a strategy by which Absalom can defeat David and gain control of the land (2 Sam 17:1 – 4). The strategy was simple, though it perhaps failed to attend to Absalom’s vanity in that Ahithophel offered to lead a raid against David himself rather than leave this to Absalom. Even so, the initial response of all was that this was sound advice. Absalom then asked for Hushai to offer advice also (2 Sam 17:5). No reason for this is given, but it required quick thinking from Hushai as he was presented with Ahithophel’s plan and then had to respond (2 Sam 17:6 – 13). His speech here is so full that we almost have the sense of someone thinking on their feet and working out what should be done. From the outset, he declares that Ahithophel’s advice is not good. He then goes through a wordy speech in which he counsels delay in order to bring a huge force to bear; it is this that will allow David to complete his escape, running counter to the need for speed Ahithophel had stressed. By the end, we might feel his speech was long on rhetoric and short on strategy. Yet Absalom and those with him declared that his advice was better. This would undoubtedly have confused ancient readers who would see the flaws in Hushai’s proposal, which is why the narrator immediately announces that it was Yahweh who had decided to frustrate Ahithophel’s good counsel in order to defeat Absalom (2 Sam 17:14). After sending word to David, Hushai drops out of the story, but it is clear that it was through the faithfulness and courage of a descendant of the Canaanites that Yahweh brought deliverance for David.

After reading about Uriah and Hushai, we might come to a somewhat different reading of Israel’s life. David may well have been Yahweh’s chosen king, but it is through two men descended from the Canaanites that faithfulness to Yahweh is more clearly demonstrated. In these chapters, we see David at his lowest point, but through men descended from the Canaanites, we are shown what he (and Israel) could be.


The Book of Kings has less about foreigners than the earlier books of the Former Prophets. It has, however, an important new element: being particularly concerned with foreigners beyond Israel’s borders without forgetting some who remain active within them. Nowhere is this concern more evident than in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, providing foreigners a place toward which they can direct their prayers because they have heard of Yahweh’s greatness (1 Kgs 8:41 – 43). The temple, of course, remained Israel’s. The temple is presented as a mechanism for inviting foreigners to participate in Israel’s worship, even if they were not resident in the land.

This motif is mainly developed in the story of Naaman (2 Kgs 5). As commander of the Aramean army, he is clearly an oppressor of Israel, though it is on the advice of an Israelite girl who the Arameans had captured that his king sent him to Israel looking for a cure of his skin disease. Bearing a substantial amount of money and clothing, he apparently expected to pay for his treatment. He eventually comes to Elisha. Understanding Elisha’s initial actions as rather derisive, he initially sets out to return to Aram but is ultimately convinced by his attendants to follow Elisha’s advice and washes himself seven times in the Jordan. After being healed, he returns to Elisha, wanting to make payment. Elisha declines it (though Elisha’s attendant Gehazi later tries to claim it with unfortunate results). The key is in Naaman’s declaration to Elisha that he now knows there is no God in all the earth, but rather in Israel (2 Kgs 5:16). He has become precisely the sort of foreigner for whom Solomon prayed. After confessing this to Elisha, Naaman is left with a practical problem: as a senior official in Aram, he is expected to attend worship events in the temple of Rimmon. How can he manage this while remaining faithful to Yahweh? As a result, he asks for forgiveness, and of course, that was the central theme of Solomon’s prayer. Indeed, although a striking feature of Solomon’s prayer is its focus on forgiveness, Naaman is the only person within Kings said to have received this.


More could be said for each book of the Former Prophets; what we have outlined is only a broad sketch of some key figures and themes. Nevertheless, an intriguing pattern emerges as we trace this theme through this literary block. In Joshua, we begin by focusing on Canaanites and indeed create contexts in which some may survive and flourish within Israel. That is, the concern is with foreigners living among Israel. This focus continues in Judges and Samuel, except here we gradually see that foreigners can be the ones through whom Yahweh works, and indeed that in doing so, they can be more authentic examples of following Yahweh than even Israel’s most celebrated figures. By the end of Kings, we have begun to see possibilities for foreigners outside of Israel, reminding Israel that their faith was not theirs alone but rather a testimony to Yahweh. Indeed, we can place these pictures of foreigners against what is, in effect, a theme statement about Israel’s life being for all the world (Josh 4:24, 1 Sam 17:46 – 47, 1 Kgs 8:60, 2 Kgs 19:19). Taken as a whole, the Former Prophets thus challenge Israel to live in an exemplary way: to represent their life as a witness to others while also revealing that they have much to learn about Yahweh from foreigners.


Carroll, R. 2013. Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Brazos.

Firth, D. G. 2009. 1 & 2 Samuel. Nottingham: Apollos.

– – –. 2019. Including the Stranger: Foreigners in the Former Prophets. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Wenham, G. J. 2000. Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker.


[1] Although the Hebrew term is often translated as “destroy utterly” or the like, something more ambiguous is preferable since objects (such as gold from Jericho) are clearly not destroyed. Destruction is a possible outcome but not a necessary one.

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