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SBL e-journal

Shira Golani





Why Is the Sojourner Listed After the Livestock?





APA e-journal

Shira Golani





Why Is the Sojourner Listed After the Livestock?








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Why Is the Sojourner Listed After the Livestock?

In the list of people who must not work on the Sabbath, the גֵּר “sojourner” or “(resident) alien” appears last, even after the Israelite’s work animals. Is the sojourner’s standing in the Bible lower than livestock?


Why Is the Sojourner Listed After the Livestock?

Native of Palestine working with an ox and a donkey, Holy Land. Date 1890 -1900. Library of Congress

No One May Work on the Sabbath

The Shabbat commandment details all those who must refrain from working on the Sabbath.[1] The general rule “you shall not do any work” (לא תעשה כל מלאכה) is enhanced by a breakdown specifying who is forbidden to work:

…אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ
…you, or your son, or your daughter, your male-slave, or your female-slave, or your livestock, or your sojourner who is within your gates (Exodus 20:10).[2]

This long register emphasizes that on the Sabbath, each Israelite is required to maintain a work-free zone: no one may perform any work.

An Obligation not a Right

Although the observance of this commandment leads to rest for all fulfilling it and thus, at first glance, might be construed as a “right to a day off work,” it is worded as an obligation: The Israelite may not choose to work on the Sabbath. Moreover, as things are presented – “you” differentiated from “your son, your daughter, your male-slave, your female-slave, your livestock, or your sojourner who is within your gates” – may be also understood that it is the (adult) Israelite’s, (“your”) responsibility, to make sure nobody else within his[3] domain may work either, rather than theirs.

Where to Place the Ger?

The inclusion of the גֵּר (“sojourner” or “resident alien”) among those required to refrain from working on the Sabbath tells us something about the social reality and ideals of biblical Israel regarding the status of resident foreigners.[4] However, the position in the list where the geris mentioned is surprising.

Up until the mention of the ger, the logic of the order is clear. First comes the Israelite, followed by the son, daughter, then slaves, and then, having covered people, the law moves on to livestock, following which,[5] the list surprisingly goes back and finishes off with a person: the ger. The Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy 5:14 makes the unexpected placement of the ger even starker, as it includes an expanded list of animals: [6]

Exodus 20:10

אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ
עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ
וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ
You, or your son, or your daughter,
your male-slave, or your female-slave,
or your livestock,
or your sojourner who is within your gates.

Deuteronomy 5:14

אַתָּה וּבִנְךָֽ וּבִתֶּךָ
וְעַבְדְּךָֽ וַאֲמָתֶךָ
וְשׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹֽרְךָ וְכָל בְּהֶמְתֶּךָ
וְגֵֽרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ
You, your son or your daughter,
your male or female slave,
your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock,
or your sojourner who is within your gates.

This perplexing order has been explained in a number of ways:

Suggestion 1

The Ger Was a Late Addition to the Verse

A number of scholars have suggested a redaction-critical approach, namely, that the ger is last on the list because it was added at the end of an earlier list. Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto, and later also Nahum Sarna, suggested the delightful explanation that it might have been added in order to reach seven items in a list referring to the Seventh Day.[7]

This explanation is problematic for several reasons: first, the “seven Shabbat observers marking the Seventh Day” theory only fits the version of the law in Exodus, but not the longer one in Deuteronomy. Although Deuteronomy 5:14 may be an adaptation of the law as it is found in Exodus 20:10,[8] it shows that when material is added to a list, it is not necessarily placed at its end: the suspected additions of Deuteronomy 5:14 – the ox and the donkey – precede, rather than follow the livestock (as well as the ger), that occurs in both lists, and is to be assumed to have been there from the start.

Moreover, the very suggestion that the ger is a late-comer to the Shabbat party should be questioned. Exodus 23:12, in another phrasing of the Shabbat law, reads:

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ וְיִנָּפֵשׁ בֶּן אֲמָתְךָ וְהַגֵּר.
Six days you shall do your work, but on the Seventh Day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your female-slave, and the sojourner, may be refreshed.[9]

Here too the law details those other than the Israelite who are required to refrain from work on the Sabbath. They are grouped in two pairs: ox and donkey, and slave and sojourner. For the purpose of my argument, the ger is shown to be an integral part of the group of Shabbat observers (specifically, the human observers).[10]

Suggestion 2

The Order Reflects the Ger’s Social Status

Some scholars have suggested that the ger is mentioned last due to his weak status within Israelite society.[11] The ger holds a liminal status in Israelite society, living with the People of Israel, within “your gates,” but without fully belonging to them, sharing only some of their rights and obligations, and frequently grouped with the widows and the orphans and the poor. Thus, it should come as no surprise that he should be listed further down the line from those who are socially higher.

This argument, however, may explain why the ger follows the Israelite family members and the slaves (as in, for example, Exodus 23:12), but still raises the question: is the ger’s social standing presented as lower than that of livestock?

Suggestion 3

The Ger is Farthest Removed from the Israelite’s Home

Another explanation is that the ger is the furthest away socially from the Israelite: the children and livestock “belong” and are linked to the Israelite, but not the ger.[12] Therefore, the Israelite could—and thus, should—exercise better control on those in his/her household, than on the ger, who is “merely” within his/her gates.

Nevertheless, while this social scenario might be correct, it does not explain the internal order of the list. Like all others before him, the ger is also referred to as “your ger (within yourgates),” in the same formula as the others, from “your son” to “your livestock.” The ger is presented just as connected to the Israelite as the others.

Suggestion 4

The Ger’s List Item Is Longer

My own, more prosaic, explanation comes from the realm of scribal techniques (which may go back to oral methods of organizing information in lists, perhaps as a memory aid; we only have written evidence at our disposal). Unlike all other items in this list that consist of one word, the ger is part of a three-word phrase. As said above, גֵרְךָ (“your ger”) follows the list formula, and is equivalent to בנך… בהמתך (“your son… your livestock”). However, uniquely in this list, the ger comes with an added attribute: he is not only “your ger,” but also אשר בשעריך, “that is within your gates,” that is, within the walls of the Israelites’ compound.

And your son
And your daughter
Your male-slave
And your female-slave
And your livestock
וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ
And your sojourner who is within your gates

This Biblical law reflects the principle known as the “Law of increasing members”: a stylistic practice found in the Bible, the Mishnah, as well as in texts from other ancient cultures, to arrange two or more elements that come together in a list or a single phrase according to their length, beginning with the shortest. As observed by Shamma Friedman, this stylistic “law” likely reflects a sub-conscious tendency, which may explain both its prevalence in ancient texts, and the cases that do not follow it, when contents and internal logic require a different order.[13]

Other Biblical Examples

In Biblical lists of multiple items, several other cases may be found, in which a list item that is longer and more elaborate than its peers, is placed in a distinctive position, occasionally at the end.[14] Another example from the Torah where the order is determined by length may be found is in placing משפטים with its three syllables at the end of these listing with its two-syllable synonyms: הַמִּצְוָה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים or הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים (Deuteronomy 6:1, 20).

2 Samuel 8:12, in the list of tributes David took from beaten enemies, illustrates this principle as well. The first five enemies are listed in one or two words, with the sixth and final element comprising of six words, separating Hadadezer, king of (Aram) Zova, from his fellow Arameans listed first (see 2 Samuel 10:16-19):

From Aram
And from Moab
וּמִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן
And from the Amonites
And from the Philistines
And from Amalek
וּמִשְּׁלַל הֲדַדְעֶזֶר בֶּן-רְחֹב מֶלֶךְ צוֹבָה
And from the booty of Hadadezer son of Rehob king of Zoba

Multiple Reasons?

The above explanations are not mutually exclusive. This (scribal) technique brought the gerall the way to the final position, after the livestock, but this does not mean that the ger constituted a (social) category lower than livestock. Yet it is likely that the ger’s lower social status and relative distance from the Israelite – further from him/her, than his/her children and servants – already placed him as the last of the humans to be listed. Even so, the Shabbat commandment explicitly includes even the ger, the quasi-foreigner, situated in the periphery of Israelite society, bringing him into the Israelite domain together with the Israelites family, slaves and livestock. Together with all that belong to the Israelite household, the ger shares in the obligation to partake in resting on the Seventh Day.


February 14, 2017


Last Updated

June 7, 2022


View Footnotes

Dr. Shira Golani teaches at the Department of Biblical Studies at Gordon Academic College (Haifa) and is a visiting researcher at the Hebrew University Bible Project (Jerusalem). Her Ph.D. is from the Hebrew University. Among her articles are “Three Oppressors and Four Saviors – The Three-Four Pattern and the List of Saviors in I Sam 12,9-11,” ZAW 127 (2015), 294-303, and “Swords that are Ploughshares: Another Case of (Bilingual) Wordplay in Biblical Prophecy?,” Biblica 98.3 (2017), 425-434.