What Is Hospitality? A Conversation with Dr. Tremper Longman III

What does it mean to be hospitable? This week on the podcast, Dan talks with friend and fellow professor Dr. Tremper Longman III on the topic of hospitality. As a scholar of biblical studies who specializes in ancient Near Eastern studies, Tremper brings a unique perspective on Old Testament practices of hospitality, the inequality of hospitality, and much more. Hospitality over this past year for many meant logging onto a Zoom call, however, as we step into a ‘new normal’ there is greater opportunity to not only embody hospitality but to expand our understanding of what it means to truly ‘welcome the stranger.’

Note: The audio quality in this episode is not to our normal standards; you can also refer to the transcript below.


Episode Transcript

D: Well, it is a great pleasure to step into a topic that I think is crucial as we return into something of the realm of normalcy, but I don’t think it’s normal. Let’s just call it a new normal. That is, for many of us we’ve really not had the opportunity to exercise or be a participant in hospitable worlds, in the COVID isolation. The hospitality has been joining somebody else in a zoom call, but our worlds are opening at least a little bit, and in that context we’ve got the opportunity to participate a little bit more in the flesh, in the experience of being hospitable. And to begin this conversation with my very best friend, Dr. Tremper Longman the third, it’s just always so fun to be with you Tremper and particularly when I get to partake of your remarkable expertise. So welcome.

T: Thank you, Dan. And as you know, it’s always great to be with you too, except as you just reminded me earlier today that whenever we get together in a hospitable fashion, you trounced me in ping pong. I’m not sure that’s —

D: Well, we’ve just finished scheduling a course that we will offer At The Seattle School for March of 2022. And I’ve asked, I think you noted in my email that, that we would pay for you to meet with Lucy, the faux psychiatrist who charges five cents per session, to then deal with both your grief and shame for losing so often to me.

T: That’s true. I suggested that money be spent on lessons and then, uh, I guess you haven’t seen, but Kristin well, she responded by sending a link to some– it was sort of ping pong therapy session in Seattle somewhere I believe. And I said, I said, I said that might be better for Dan because he’s much older than I am.

D: I am much older

T: Like three weeks, three weeks.

D: I mean those three weeks were pretty germinal than creating, right? Whatever. Anyway, as we deal with this topic of hospitality. I just want to start by saying your wife, Alice and I believe my wife Becky are two of the most hospitable human beings I’ve known on the earth. And I would say of the two of us, I wouldn’t say that we’re obdurate or that we are recalcitrant to be hospitable. I’ll just say that we’re not as hospitable. As our wives. I’ve learned so much from your wife. I’ve learned so much from Becky. But I just before we begin, I want you to just put a few words to what you’ve learned about hospitality through your wife.

T: Well, I’ve learned that being hospitable requires being sensitive to inviting people into our lives and into our home. And you’re exactly right. I would describe Alice as very proactive and hospitality and I am in certain contacts. You know, I don’t know whether we’ll talk about this either. I think one thing some people like me struggle with is accepting hospitality, and Alice is also much better at that than I am, but, but that’s, that’s part of the question as well. Right?

D: Yeah, absolutely it is. You know, too often I do think we speak about hospitality as something you offer, but I think it is much harder. Some of the most important life changing experiences of hospitality have been where I’ve been invited in and in settings where the gift that I’ve been given through the other, is not compensable to what I’m able to return. And that sense of the inequality of hospitality can create that dissidence, that when you receive what you cannot give, can you just receive? And it really comes back, we’ll eventually come back to the notion that grace is the beginning point for any understanding of what it means to offer others a place of safety and provision to to be able to grow, and to become who they’re meant to be. But one of the reasons that I have invited a PhD Yale graduate in Semitic studies to this particular podcast, other than I just love being with you, is to begin to open up the reality that hospitality fundamentally is not entertaining. It is not primarily you’re entertaining friends, you’re entertaining family. That of course is a form of hospitality that I don’t want to minimize. But it– hospitality has a setting for those of us who are followers of Jesus, and that is we’ve got a Hebrew bible to instruct us. So the first thing I want you to kind of talk with us about is what was hospitality like in the ancient days? Why was it the way that it was?

T: Yeah, I think talking in general terms, because you know, to be honest, I imagine when we talk about the time period of the old testament, we’re talking about creation down to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, which is well, if you’re like me, not a young earth creationist, we’re talking about billions of years, but human have only been on the world for a small fraction of that. But bottom line is in the ancient world there weren’t say hotels and or many inns, there were inns, but not a lot and there weren’t restaurants and there weren’t things and if you traveled, you were kind of dependent on others, even strangers uh, to care for you. And there are lots and lots of biblical accounts of people coming into a city. Some of them go well, some of them go poorly, but it’s not only providing provision, but also protection. It’s also—another aspect of this is: Hospitality engenders deeper relationship. Even if you start from zero, as you extend hospitality, you are inviting somebody into deeper relationship. And if you know somebody well, even when you extend your hospitality to me, when we’re teaching together and After 50 plus years, our relationship deepens as I stay there. And you need to be a little bit more intentional, no intentional about visiting us and on the East Coast now, but we did have covid to deal with.

D: And also we won’t go into much detail, but the burning down of your home. All right, it creates a little bit of a complication for being able, you’re not in your own home truly to be able to offer the hospitality that you would wish, but we can do another podcast on your calamity. Uh, but as you think about the whole notion of a code of hospitality, there was a way of being where to not accept a stranger would have been a form of deep dishonor. You know, literally it was a dangerous world. And there were not places to stay. And so a stranger in a largely migrant Bedouin type world, If you don’t have a place to stay, you are susceptible not only to death but to forms of violence. And in that, it’s a very different culture obviously. I mean, it seems so obvious, but to underscore, you know, when you would invite a stranger into your house, was there a process, did all strangers just knock on the door? And people like, oh, come on in? How, how was it conducted? As best as we know?

T: Yeah, as best as we know is an important concept here, because we get, you know, it’s not interested in giving, you know, our ancient sources aren’t saying here’s the code of hospitality. Well, we are getting our glimpses into hospitality and narrative texts say, you know, there are lots of them, say Abraham and the three visitors in Genesis 18 and following or lot when those three visitors come into Sodom, and some of these, by the way, go well and some don’t go so well, but, but you’re exactly right that if a stranger comes into town that hospitality is expected to be extended. But on the other hand, that’s not to say that there wasn’t some screening, you know, that there wasn’t some– and and we get stories when screening didn’t happen and bad things happen. So I’m thinking, it’s in Jeremiah 40- 45 when after the destruction of Jerusalem. And the Babylonian set up a Jewish governor named Gedaliah, who’s an ally of Jeremiah. But there is a descendant of David who is kind of out of control who’s living in a cave. But then, in false pretenses, comes down to try to broker– with the, with the pretense of brokering peace, Gedaliahaccepts him and then he violates that hospitality by murdering and assassinating Gedaliah. And so, so yeah, so on the other hand, we want, I think what we learned from this is we want to be welcoming, but not naive.

D: Indeed. And yeah, we’ll get to some degree of trying to make a transition into our culture. But just again, come back that the notion of the code of honor was even if I take in somebody who might have a kind of conflict with a larger world, I’m called to protect that person. I’m called to make sure that they have provision, meaning in some sense, the best of what I have to offer, but also a commitment to make sure no harm comes to you while you’re under my roof. Is that right? And again, they’re just sections of scripture that are difficult to read as one offers literally the prospect of doing harm to his own daughters in order to avoid the guest being assaulted. A very difficult, complex passage. But that notion of when you’re under my roof, there’s a certain stance I take towards you.

T: Yeah, but I would argue. And you’re referring of course to when the men of sodom come and try to get the visitors from lot, or I think it’s judges 90 was a very similar story, where you know the person who extended hospitality to this unnamed person, and they throw out his concubine rather than having them violate the guests, are perversions of that code. I don’t think we’re to think of that as this is ancient near eastern hospitality or at least a violation of local expectations of that code.

D: Yes. But it does– absolutely important to be understood. It is not what God has called for, right? Yeah. It is abuse, It is perverted. It is atrocious. However, it is a perversion of something that is essential to underscore– and that is under my roof. You’ve got protection. And not the protection that is indeed in those settings offered, but nonetheless that sense that you will know safety.

T: Yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And I don’t know whether you want to go this direction, that this has implications for the whole question of immigration. Not just our own personal hospitality, but, but as christians, how do we respond to people in trouble who are seeking refuge in our country? Do we try to resist them or do we welcome them all? That all those kind of questions are, I think, connected to the question of hospitality because, uh, there’s an awful lot of the old testament law that is pressing on the Israelites to be welcoming to the gare, you know, the immigrant. And I personally have been distraught with a lot of christian attitude toward the immigration issue, not to say that there shouldn’t be screening, there’s got to be screening, but uh–

D: Oh, I want to go there, but before we go there, I want to see if we can come to again, a way of capturing what we learned, particularly through the Hebrew scriptures? what’s the basis of hospitality? And let me, let me name it from my perspective and then let you run. And that is: you were once strangers. You were once. And I have offered you hospitality. You are now my people, you were once a stranger, but now you are not. And that seems to be something of the very core. You were once immigrants. You were once not part, now you are. And how you then respond has to be out of a deep reservoir of both awareness, but also gratitude. Is that a fair way of putting it?

T: Very fair. I mean Abraham is highlighted as a foreigner within the promised land. You know the whole story of Israel is a story of violation of being a foreigner in a foreign land. And later Israel is reminded that you don’t want to be, you don’t want to treat the foreigners in your midst like you are treated in Egypt.

D: So yeah, so you have both. The contrast. How I have offered you place and space to be well protected and well provided for, but also remember what you experienced within the inhospitality Of 400 years of slavery. So those are the points of contrast and I think what you’re bringing, I want you to put as many words to it as you would wish, but we think of hospitality too often as inviting people to our home, which should be one of the central portions of what hospitality holds. But it is not limited to inviting people to your home for dinner. It’s how you interact with your neighbors over the proverbial fence. It’s how you engage somebody you’ve not met or somebody you know well, in a coffee shop. There is a kind of notion of hospitality which becomes not an activity as much as a stance of how we engage others, including both individual familial church, systemic, but also cultural and national. So take us, uh, I know you’ve written on this, uh, at least in one of your volumes, which are magnificent and a plethora. So yeah, immigration and hospitality.

T: Yeah, I think, well, I guess. So. I did write this book, the Bible and the ballot just to get the name out there. Which is looking at biblical principles, but also how the bible is trying to shape our attitudes and our rhetoric on important public policy issues, and what was disturbing me, and continues to disturb me, is both. Well, the attitude and the rhetoric of some of my fellow christians who, even though I think the principles that the bible gives us both in terms of hospitality in general and also in terms of other factors, is that I don’t think that to put it bluntly. I don’t think the bible leads us to a concept of [unintelligible], but I think it does lead us to [unintelligible] of being as welcoming as we can, to the foreigner, to the stranger. And certainly not in terms of rhetoric to demonize those who come and seek uh, protection or a better life for their families, their children, et cetera. So yeah, I think immigration is very much connected to the topic of hospitality. And as you said earlier, and I wanted to reaffirm the fact that God himself is depicted throughout scripture, you know, as the ultimate host, you know, the ultimate host in terms of just creating us in our world, and inviting us into it and having a relationship with us which we violated, pursuing us. And, you know, just to take one striking look at a well known Psalm 23 of, you know, you have prepared a table for me in the presence of my enemies. God is often depicted as the host who provides for us, who sustains us, who protects us and more.

D: Well, and tell me if I’m wrong. But that passage has at least by some interpreters, that that particular section you’ve created, in some sense, a banquet before those who want to do me harm. As a category of, even if you have committed the possibility of crimes, and you are in one sense in danger for those who are seeking revenge, You are safe within my home. Is that a misinterpretation?

T: I would need to see within the text itself. Those indications, I mean, I’ve always read it as the idea of no. Evil people are out there trying to do me in. But I may have missed something. I’m always open to. But I don’t

D: Yeah, so bluntly said, you need to read a volume you edited. The I always forget the title of …

T: The dictionary of biblical imagery.

D: Yes! it’s one of the finest volumes. It’s one of those volumes that I think should be in everyone’s library. Because in the section on hospitality, there is a section whoever wrote that, who implied that even if there had been, you know, the claims that you have done harm to my people to my tribe. If under my roof, you still have a safety. I will not let those who have claims against you take you and have access to do you harm. Now, we also underscores it’s not an unlimited period of time, that often times at least there is some basis to say you’ve got basically about two days of protection and provision. There wasn’t the notion that you’re going to move in and you’re gonna stay forever. And I can’t get rid of you because of this this code of honor. So there’s a realism to our notions of hospitality, but also again back to the primary category, generosity in provision. and a ferocity in protection. And in that that that question of well, you know, not that this is the primary reason, but also another motive for hospitality is You don’t know who you’re actually entertaining. You know, you’ve got the hebrews 13:2 passage that some of you have actually invited in what seems to imply by the text Angels. You know, so you’ve got something of a larger ancient world perspective that sometimes Zeus and others sort of show up in the form of a human being and you don’t know when you’re entertaining. So that that’s part of a greek and other cultural worlds, seems to actually also be part at least in the Hebrews context of who who you’re inviting. You don’t really know.

T: Yeah. Well, and I’m an old testament professor, not a new testament one, but I read the New Testament once in a while. The passage to about where Jesus is upset because, you know, you haven’t taken care of me by not having taken care of those who are in need.

D: Let me just bluntly say that’s hilarious. You don’t know where it is. It’s Matthew 25.

T: Thank you. But, uh, I knew it was in some gospel somewhere. But yeah, it really is. Even if Psalm 23 doesn’t actually teach what you were saying earlier, I think that’s true biblical principle. That, uh, and again, I go back to the question of immigration and the idea of, say, sanctuary cities or our church has a, has a legal service of, to people who are, are undocumented. And it gives them the space to make their case, before– So they came here with not with no documents, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t fleeing some horrible situation or something. And so I think in that case our church is extending the proper type of hospitality. It’s not like, you know what you have done in the past or who you are, why you want to be here. But it’s also not a: well you came here illegally. Therefore you just have to go back.

D: Yeah. There’s a– I love the way you put it earlier. We don’t have to be naive. There is assessment, but the primary motive is not protection of ourselves. Mm, but a commitment to care for and to protect the other. the commitment is to make sure that there is provision of protection and now how we offer that will be offering people the very best of what we have to offer, given what we’ve received so much like forgiveness. It’s derivative. We forgive as we’ve been forgiven in the same way hospitality is we offer as it has been offered. Uh, and that that gift is so mutual Because the stranger brings to us a world a viewpoint and experience literally their suffering and their beauty in a way that we need in order to grow to become who we’re meant to be. So, it is not just a kind of patronizing. I give you what what you don’t have. It is we are receiving in your presence, a world, a new world, a new way of looking, thinking, speaking and engaging that we need to continue to be able to grow. So as we come to an end, I’ll come back to that central question of: so how has this process formed in you even just one or two ways that you have seen your world, offering and receiving hospitality?

T: And again you’re right, it’s in one sense been so long since we’ve been able to extend or receive some forms of hospitality, but I go back to the fact that both extending it and receiving, it has deepened many important relationships for me just got together. Even for lunch, a local pastor invited a friend whom you know, Pete Boehner and I out to lunch. We sat down for like three hours and enjoyed a meal together. And I was shaped by it, not just intellectually, but also emotionally and spiritually by that experience. And yeah, it’s not to say too that extending hospitality doesn’t involve some measure of sacrifice, but that’s also just how we should be as christians, right?

D: Well and as we end, let’s just, I want to see if we can get a statement of affirmation on your part. when you are able to move back into your old home, which will become something of a new home once all the effects of the fire are alleviated. You have a guest room that you have designated. And will there be a plaque that will be outside of the guest room?

T: Yes, there will be a plaque. It will be a plaque and it will say for Dan and Becky. The Allender guest room.

D: The Allender guest room. That other people are more than welcome to join, but they will be coming into the Allender guest room. Yes. You know that there is a high prospect, especially as I move toward whatever version of retirement I create, that we will be spending way more than two days in your domicile. It could be months upon months. Yeah. Good to be with you, my friend.

T: Yeah. Great to be with you, too, Dan.