For I am a sojourner with thee…

“For I am a stranger, and a sojourner with thee.”

The phrase comes from Psalm 39. It is not, perhaps my favorite; it records the tortured confession (with graphic and painful details) of a man enduring the consequences not only of sin, but of sin denied and hidden.

What struck me today as I read it, however, was the sojourner. What does that mean? I know the images it conjured up for me, not the least of which being Sojourner Truth (whose works I taught in my Transatlantic Romanticism  class this year). A little research reveals that the word has origins in Old French, and the definition is basically “a temporary resident.” But of course, the original Judaic texts would not have used French, and I am a stickler for detail, so I resorted to my Hebrew-Greek Bible.

The word, it seems, is towshab or toshab. Its a masculine Hebrew noun, which originates even earlier with yashab (to inhabit, to sit). Towshab, however, means something more than that–it distinguishes between a temporary visitor and a foreign emigrant or alien who could not possess land. To be a sojourner, in this sense, means that you are permanent in terms of your residency, but you are not naturalized. No longer a drifter, you were nonetheless not absorbed into the community, either: out of the periphery, from somewhere else, unable to possess what you had–a squatter. [NOTE: I have Spiros Zodhiates to thank for this information–Executive Editor of the KeyWord NAS Hebrew-Greek Bible.]

This has a number of interesting possibilities in terms of understanding. First, it explains St. Paul’s idea of being “naturalized” as sons by Christ. That is, he was taking this concept of the sojourner from Hebrew tradition and suggesting that the Way (as Christianity was called originally–remember, it was a Jewish sect at first) would, through the blood of Christ, make you a member of the family, in “possession,” and no longer an alien. Second, it perhaps gives additional insight into Sojourner Truth. I don’t know whether she would be familiar with the Jewish concept of towshab–I suspect not–but it is interesting that the slaves themselves were forced inhabitants, aliens, permanent but unable to possess even themselves. The naturalization into the “kingdom” was, for them, a long, long journey as well, and still ongoing in many respects.

So finally, I am left with the second part of the line. I am not just a sojourner, but a stranger and a sojourner with thee. Different translations put the words in different orders, so I am not (without reading Hebrew myself) sure how to parse it.  (Some read it: I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner like my fathers). But regardless, how interesting the word with. One might expect, from the context, to be a stranger to thee…a stranger from thee. But with thee? With is a powerful word, connoting that we are not alone. Sojourner, yes. Solo, no.

And we are all sojourners together, are we not?

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