By: William Jackson
Gers is a Hebrew word that means foreigner, alien or sojourner. Quite simply, a Ger is a non-Jewish people that lived amongst the Israelites. Some people feel that these Gers, spoken about in Torah, were converts or those in the process of being converted. Others believe that these Gers were just followers of YHVH. Although, to some, this issue seems insignificant, it is actually critical. If the second concept is correct and the Ger was just a believer in HaShem, it means that the laws and commandments YHVH gave at Mount Sinai were not just exclusively for the Jew.
Let’s start in the Jewish Encyclopedia. Here it states that “there is doubt in the original meaning of the Hebrew word Ger” (1). We do know that the Torah doesn’t appear to address proselytizing (converting). In fact, if you do a search on “Jewish proselytizing” you will find it‘s not something perused in the Jewish community. After the Torah, we did see hints of converting during the Babylonian captivity (about 5 BCE). Here, we started to see the usage of the word “Ger” which could imply a convert to the Jewish religion (1). But we need to acknowledge that this is almost 1,000 years after the Torah was written. Although the Torah doesn’t talk about converting the Tanakh might.
The first written conversion of a Ger:
We do see the idea of conversion talked about in Ruth, which is about 300 years after the Torah was written (1140 BCE, 2). Ruth tells her mother in-law, who is a Jew, “…Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16). So, then Ruth went to conversion classes and became a Jew. Just joking, the truth is, Ruth just believed in YHVH and continued on as a Ger. This is confirmed in Ruth 2:2 where she is still considered a Moabite. It’s not until Ruth marries a Jewish man, Boaz, that she is considered a Jew (Ruth 4). Had Ruth not married Boaz, she would have remained a Ger. Boaz confirms her status as a blessed Ger before their marriage in Ruth 2:12. Ruth may have remained a Ger protected by Adonai but her marriage to Boaz made her a Jew.
First time converting Gers is addressed:
We possibly see conversion in the Tanakh in about 739 BCE (2). This is in the book of Isaiah, (Isaiah 2:2-4, 14:1, 44:5, 56:3-6). When we study these passages we see Gers aligning themselves with Israel. That does not necessarily mean conversion. Also, we need to remember that Isaiah was written over 700 years after the laws were given at Mount Sinai. Conceivably, the Gers in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were just people who followed HaShem. Whereas, Isaiah was written during the Jewish excel. Many of the motives for proselytizing, (or Gers supporting Israel) might have been motivated by the events during the Babylonian captivity (3).
Does circumcision mean conversion:
As we read Exodus 12:48 we see only the Gers that are circumcised are allowed to eat the Passover meal. Some say they must be talking about converts. If that is true, this verse would be redundant. The point being, if a Ger that is circumcised is a Jew, why not just say the only people allowed to eat the Passover meal is the Jew?
Circumcision is a sign of commitment in accepting the Abrahamic Covenant Genesis 17:10-27. As we know, this would be a standard that was accepted by the Israelite community two generations later. But, we need to remember this was not just an action exclusive to the Jewish people. For example, Abraham’s son Ishmael was circumcised (Genesis 17:26). Also, Abraham had six other sons after Sarah, Genesis 25:1-2. Remember HaShem said that Abraham would be the father of not just one, but many nations (Genesis 17:4-5). Many of us when we hear “nations” we usually envision the idea of countries. But, the Hebrew word “goyim” (4) is used which stands for “a people”, i.e. groups. Circumcision may have been proof that someone was submitting to HaShem’s covenant but it does not mean they were actually converts. Looking into the ancient history of circumcision it proves (5), just because someone was circumcised does not mean they were Jewish.
In Judaism “Brit milah” is the “covenant of circumcision” (6). Even though the Torah impresses the need for a Jew to be circumcised, Genesis 17:14 (7), some Jewish sects do appear to think it is not necessary (8). Rabbi Mark Barshefsky goes as far as to say “circumcision does not create Jewish identity” (9). Although he does impress that it is important in infants he feels your birthright makes you Jew not circumcision. There certainly are many people who were circumcised at birth that did not live a Torah centered life. Circumcision, by itself, could not equal conversion.
In Deuteronomy 29 we see Moses give a beautiful speech confirming Adonai’s oath and covenant. In verse 9 he targets this promise towards the Israelites. And, in verse 10 he targets this promise to the Gers. We see throughout the Torah a separation of these two groups (Israelites and Gers), with HaShem making the same promise to both nations (Exodus 12:19; 48-49; 20:10, 23:12, Leviticus 16:29, 17:8, 10, 12-13, 15, 18:26, 20:2, 22:18, 24:16, 24:22, Numbers 9:14, 15:14-16; 26, 29-30, 19:10, 35:15, Deuteronomy 1:16, 5:14, 16:11, 16:14, 29:11, 31:12). Granted there are those foreigners that pursue pagan gods or no god but these are not the foreigners HaShem is speaking to. These people are called “Nekhar” (10). The foreigners we are speaking of are called Ger. The Ger was not Jewish but followed HaShem and received His blessings (Deuteronomy 16:11-14, 28:43, Joshua 8:33-35, Isaiah 56:1-7).