Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Translated by: Avinoam Ben dor & Adi Hirsch
The concept of "Hospitality”
Is the value of “hospitality”- Philoxenia / φῐλοξενῐ́ᾱ - in Greek, identical to the idea of
loving the stranger?
The Good Samaritan parable is not the earliest text that seeks to teach us that compassion should not be relative and is totally unconditional.
It is preceded by the Biblical story of Abraham the Patriarch, who welcomed three strangers who had just approached him. This story is the epitome of hospitality, which is identified with friendship / acceptance / love of strangers.
Later on we will return to Abraham the Patriarch.
Philoxenia - Etymology
First, let us examine the components making up the Greek word for hospitality Philoxenia (making it a favorite name for hotels in Greece, as a quick google search will show).
"Philo" (φῐλο) in Greek means "friend," as in the terms philosopher (friend of wisdom), philologist (a lover and a researcher of words), and can can be appended as a suffix to denote someone who is "crazy" about something.
Bibliophiles are crazy about literature, whereas I call myself say a "Grekophile", i.e. an enthusiastic lover of everything Greek.
Philo also serves as part of given names, as a prefix:
The masculine 'Philomenus' and the feminine 'Philomena' . History aficionados will probably remember the first-century Jewish scholar 'Philo of Alexandria’, known in Hebrew as 'Yedidia of Alexandria'.
Xenia (ξενῐ́ᾱ) is the Greek word for foreign / foreignness.
The word is used as part of both positive and negative terms. Thus'xenophobia' means fear of foreigners, whereas the Aramaic, and Hebrew term 'Achsania' is a hotel used for accommodating strangers, in a sense of a place that accepts everyone.
I know quite a few women called "Xenia", especially nuns who have chosen the name due to its meaning of “stranger”, since the monastic ideal is to be dissociated from the world. In other words, to be a foreigner in this world and hence belong to the sublime worlds of the Creator.
Philoxenia as a supreme value
Philoxenia / hospitality as a value exists from the earliest days of Greek culture, and is already manifest in the chief Greek deity, Zeus, as Zeus Xenios.
Ovid recounts how Zeus and Hermes came down to Earth, disguised as passers-by (reminiscent of the Acts 14:11 description: "The Gods descended upon us in the image of people" ), and sought who among the inhabitants of the land would be willing to invite them in.
They were turned away by all, except for a poor couple named Baucis and Philemon who asked them into their home, fed them generously and refilled their wine cups. When the couple saw that the wine cup, which was filled repeatedly, does not empty, they realized they were in the presence of Gods, and wished to slaughter their only goose to feed their guests.Touched by their generosity, the Gods rewarded them by turning their humble abode into a palace. Zeus also granted them their wish to be guardians of his temple forever (and indeed, when they died they turned into a pair of trees at the entrance to the temple, and thus became eternal guards).
Jacob Van Ost (17th century), Hermes and Zeus hosted by Baucis and Philemon.
The conclusion of the mythological story is suspiciously similar to Biblical stories:
The inhabitants of that land were all annihilated, except the generous couple, who upon looking back saw the ruins of their house, and a palace built in its stead.
Reminiscent of the flood? Or perhaps the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra? Absolutely.
Hospitality in the Scriptures:
Indeed, the Scriptures glorify Philoxenia and encourage people to practice it. But not all examples are favorites of mine. Thus, I am not overly fond of my Biblical brother (in the Bible Yisca is Lot's sister), because of various episodes in which he appears. One of these is the rather shocking story of Lot's hospitality, in Genesis 19:1-3
“And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground;”
“And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night.”
“And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.”
The next verses demonstrate the wickedness of the Sodomites, who demand that Lot turn out his guests and hand them over to be abused. Lot, anxious to fulfill the hospitality commandment, is ready to sacrifice his own daughters, whom he offers to the barbaric crowd instead of his guests:
“Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.” (Genesis 19:8)
I hurry to escape this horrific affair, and avoid even the various exegeses that try to offer some excuse to this miserable scene.
Let’s move on, happily, to the ultimate exemplification of hospitality in Abrahamic religions:
The hospitality episode of Abraham our Patriarch in Alone, Genesis 18:1-8
1 And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;
2 And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground,
3 And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant:
4 Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree:
5 And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.
6 And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.
7 And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it.
8 “And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.”
* I am grateful to Yossi Rubenko who took the photographs of the frescoes in this article.
What hasn’t been written about this story? It seems that readers of the Bible love this story even more than Abraham had loved his guests... they discussed, interpreted and painted it - endlessly.
This hospitality is echoed in the instructions for the believer's conduct in the New Testament's Epistles:
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” . Hebrews 13:2
In Romans 12:10,13 Paul writes:
“Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another;” “Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.”
Who are the guests who had the privilege of Abraham’s hospitality?
Rabbinic literature discusses the identity of the guests: Were they people? Angels? God?
The biblical text is ambiguous, suggesting that one of the "people" was known to Abraham, who calls him - "my Lord":
“And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground,
and said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant” (Genesis 18:2,3)
Is the term my Lord used in its general sense, as a courtesy, or in the sense of - God?
If indeed it was God Himself, it fits in with the verse in which Abraham speaks to the Lord as the other two go to Sodom:
“And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD.” (Genesis 18:22)
The two left and the third, namely God ... remained and engaged in conversation with Abraham.
Later on the biblical text replaces the term "people" with "angels":
“And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground;”
This was the basis for the understanding that these are Abraham’s three visitors who included a deity as well as angels.
The angels version is found in the writings of Josephus Flavius, the Midrashim and in the writings of the Sages:
"And saw the Shekinah (God) and saw the angels ...
Rish Lakish said even the names of the angels Michael and Gabriel and Raphael”
(Genesis Raba 38)
The identification of the men as angels was incorporated into Christian scriptures as well as the Qur’an. In Surah Hud (Surah 11) verses 74-69 in, the Qur'an presents Abraham's guests as angels, precisely because they refrained from eating:
“Our messengers brought the gospel to Abraham. They said, Salam! He said, Salam! And he rushed to bring a plump calf. They were strangers in his eyes, and he feared them when he saw that their hands would not touch it.”
The Qur’an is typically laconic, but enough elements clearly indicate the presence of the Biblical story in the background. (My thanks to Prof. Meir Bar Asher).
Christian interpretation of the three guests
The Christian Church has interpreted the event exhaustively, and the writings of the Church Fathers contain numerous debates, discussions and proposals regarding this matter..
The earliest Christian interpretation for the identity of the three guests is offered by the Martyr Justin (2nd Cent. CE) as described in his book - "Dialogue with Tryphon the Jew":
(Justinian-) I asked Tryphon: Do you think God was revealed to Abraham under the Oak of Mamre, as the Logos says?
And he (Tryphon) replied - absolutely yes.
(Justinian-) And he was, I said, one of those three, which the prophetic Holy Spirit seemed to Abraham as human beings?
And he (Tryphon replied) no, but God was revealed to him before the revelation of the three.
Then these three, whom the Logos calls people, two of whom were sent to the extinction of Sodom, while one, who informed Sarah of the good news that shewas to embrace a child ... was gone.
In conclusion, Tryphon says:
"You proved to us that we didn't understand correctly (when we thought) that the three who attended Abraham's tent were all angels."
(The Martyr Justinian,
Dialogue with Tryphon).
From the dialogue we can infer:
That a Jew believes that God was revealed to Abraham, but does not identify him specifically with one of the guests.
Justinian on his part (as indicated by the entire discussion), identifies Jesus in the figure of the third man, called my Lord.
Justinian is followed by other commentators , yet the first commentary describing the three visitors as a revelation of the Holy Trinity: Jesus accompanied by Father and the Holy Spirit is only written in the 5th-7th centuries.
The Christian debate has evolved over the centuries and is an illuminating example of the intensity and counter influences of the Jewish-Christian debate over the interpretation of the Bible.
Procopius of Gaza, who lived in the 6th century CE, summarizes as follows:
"Some refer to the three people as three angels and the 'Judaizers' (ιουδαϊζοντες) among them claim that one of them is God and the other two - angels.
And there are others, who claim that they (the people) are called "Lord" in the singular anticipate (τυπον) the Holy Trinity".
Of the research literature comparing Jewish and Christian commentary on the identity of Abraham's guests, I recommend reading the article –
Abraham’s Angels: Jewish and Christian Exegesis of Genesis 18-19,The Exegetical Encounter between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity 2009, Bril Publishers 2009
And the debate goes on ...
A book called: "Who Had Lunch With Abraham?” Published in Hebrew a few years ago (Asher Interter, 2015), seeking to explain the faith of Messianic Jews, clearly states that it was Jesus who Abraham dined with. In summary, the chapter addressing the nature of Abraham's guests reads (p. 17):
"You and I are invited to the same bond of covenant Abraham had with the same God-man he knew."
Hosting God in Christian art
Abraham's hospitality was a popular subject among painters. The most famous example is probably the handiwork of 15th century artist Andrei Rublev, which served as inspiration for generations of painters:
The three angels are united in their wings around a table that looks like an altar, bearing the wine cup of the sacrificial feast (Mass).
This painting has been copied thousands of times. In most Orthodox churches you will find a version of this model, because it embodies
interpretation of the scene:
The guests are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in a single essence.
Above the heads of the angels the icon often bears the inscription: "Holy Trinity"
Christianity regarded this story as the first opportunity in the history of mankind to see the divinity through the human virtue of hospitality.
If you are not a person of values, compassion and giving - you will not have the privilege of be hosting God.
And in the Christian version - you will not be allowed to host the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the monastic world, a monk was encouraged to choose to act like Abraham.
The monastery, much like Abraham's tent, offered passers-by food and rest.
Philoxenia has become synonymous with welcoming guests in all monasteries.
Irinarchus and Philoxenia in Capernaum
Not many churches can boast pink domes, set against the blue waters of the Sea of Galilee. Here, the one and only is the Orthodox Church of Capernaum, dedicated to the Apostles. It is featured in almost every album of the landscapes of the country, but its beauty is not merely external ...
* I am grateful to Yossi Rubanenko, who took the landscape and church photographs.
The 30-dunam (3 ha) tract of land was purchased by the Orthodox Church just a few years after the Franciscan fathers purchased their plot of land, which includes the ruins of St. Peter's house and Capernaum's ancient synagogue.
* I am grateful to Moshe Hananel for his help in collecting the archival photos dating to 1900.
The Franciscan monks excavated and then built a monastery, while the Orthodox Church erected a monastery and then began digging ...
To paraphrase the proverb "Envy among Writers will multiply wisdom",- "Envy among Denominations will multiply Churches" ...
In the end of the day, everybody wins:
Capernaum offers visitors two churches , two impressive gardens, archaeological findings that shed light on centuries of history, and two glorious traditions of the Christian world.
This time we I will focus on Orthodox Capernaum, and for good reason, albeit the circumstances, as you will read below, are quite extreme.
1. Damianus I, the Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1897 to 1931, established on the grounds a church and a winter mansion.
2. After 1948, the compound, located in no-man's land near the border, was neglected.
Its restoration in the 1970s also offered an archaeological opportunity:
3. In 1978, the northern area of Capernaum was excavated by a Greek archaeologist named Dr. Vasilius Tsafiris. (Tsafiris himself was a member of the Greek Orthodox Seminary in Jerusalem, who first elected to join the clergy and lead a monastic life, but later left to get married, and became a prominent archaeologist.) The excavations in this part of Capernaum proved that the ancient settlement continued to exist during the Arab period, and was only abandoned in the 11th century.
4. In December 1991, a monk from Greek Macedonia arrived at the place and chose to join his life with the fraternity of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem as well as the Sea of Galilee. His name is Irinarchos, and he is the one who made Orthodox Capernaum what it is today.
Hebrew speakers, for some reason, have difficulty with his name, which means - "Ruler of Peace ". 'Irini' (ειρηνη) in Greek = peace, and 'Archos' (αρχος) = ruler. And indeed, Irinarchos is not only a man of peace, but also very humble. : throughout his years as a member of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, he never sought to be a priest or to ascend the ladder of church hierarchy. You will find his name printed somewhere at the bottom of the list of fraternity members.
Time stops for no man, and in December 2021 he will celebrate 30 years of being service as the 'Hegumenus' (head of a monastery). And he does indeed deserve a celebration: with his own two hands he built a paradise. One person planting and building a paradise for God, rather than the other way around.
The sight is a feast for the eyes: ornamental and fruit trees, vine arbors and seating areas.
And in the center –church which, from its foundations to the frafters, is a celebration of Byzantine iconography.
The Monk Irinarchus, smiling, welcoming and pleasant, has been welcoming visitors since 1991He charges no entrance fee and does not favor or reject members of other religions. Like Abraham, he receives foreigners from all over the world, and welcomes them all without fail.
And indeed, the Philoxenia of Irinarchus is known to many:
Crowds visit the garden, enter the church, and wander along the enchanting shore. What other space next to the Sea of Galilee, well kept and enchanted, opens its gates free of charge? I think every visitor to the place knows they have been allowed to enjoy a paradise they have not toiled for..
And here is an opportunity to repay all this goodness, these thirty years of generous hospitality
At the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Irinarchos went on his annual visit to the Monastery of Transfiguration on Mount Tabot, to help his friend the abbot. The 4 meters high he was standing on collapsed, and Irinarchos was flung downwards, his skull hitting the hard stone floor. He was rushed to a nearby hospital in Nazareth, but due to the severity of his injury was taken to the Rambam hospital in Haifa.
He remained there for three weeks, but when his doctors wanted to send him to rehabilitation in a specialized hospital, he asked to be taken home, to his monastery in Capernaum, where his aged father would look after him.
And as though the critical injury was no enough, he found out that in his absence thieves broke into the monastery through a window and stole its precious contents, even the Artophotion (artophorion – the lavish receptacle where the Holy Communion bread is kept, a sacred object that is an absolute must on the altar of every functional Orthodox church).
I met Iirinarchos after his unjury – he is walking slowly, and bears patiently all the consequences of such a horrific accident.
In three weeks time, on the 12.7 the church in Capernaum will celebrate the Feast of the Apostles. I would like to take this opportunity to repay Irinarchos for thirty years of selfless Filoxenia / hospitality in the spirit of Abraham the Patriarch.
In honor of the feast day of his church, I propose that we, tour guides and visitors who appreciate his life and work, and all visitors who enjoy the site, donate funds as a personal token of thanks. I have opened a fund raising campaign titled Irinarchos – Capernaum, through which you can donate as much as you like. Irinarchos can decide whether he wants to use our donations to purchase a new Artophorion, or perhaps hire a laborer to help him tend his paradise on earth.