“And he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” Exodus 2:22
Gershom’s name comes from the 3-letter verbal root in Hebrew (g-r-sh) which actually has quite a violent meaning; it means to be driven out or expelled.
In Gen 3:24 Adam and Eve were g-r-sh from Eden, and in 21:10 Hagar was g-r-sh from Abraham’s household. Just a couple of verses ago, some shepherd-bullies had g-r-sh Jethro’s daughters away from the well. It is quite a key word throughout Exodus (11 times), for example in 12:39 after the plague on the firstborn, the Israelites were “thrust out” of Egypt. In Leviticus, g-r-sh is used for divorce (21:7, 14, 22:13).
In all of these meanings, g-r-sh carries a sense of forceful rejection, punitive displacement, or shameful dislocation. Hardly the most positive name for your first-born son!
When I was 15, I was expelled from school. That came with shame and an enforced re-directing of my life (including moving country). I experienced g-r-sh.
Moses called him Gershom, saying “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” This noun translated sojourner is from a related root: g-r, another hugely widespread word in your Bible, translated stranger, foreigner, exile. It carries a sense of outsiderness or marginalisation, the way some might spit the word “immigrant” with distaste and mistrust. Along with widows and orphans, the g-r made up the triad of the most vulnerable members of the community in Israel, those with no legal recourse, no protection, no extended family network on which to rely.
Israel, having once been g-r in Egypt, would later be called especially to look out for these three vulnerable categories, for example,
Deut 24:17-18 “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”
This word, with its “otherising” power, is preserved throughout the languages of the Middle East today. In Arabic, gharayb is a stranger, and gharib is used to mean weird, or odd, or eccentric. This carries into Turkish, where gariban can mean wretched or forlorn like a tramp, and garip is odd, peculiar. Homesick Turkish exiles have often sung the phrase garibanim which essentially means “I’m far from home. I don’t fit in here.”
Ceylan’s beloved song Garibanim is a perfect example, you can listen here Ceylan – Garibanım [© Şah Plak] – YouTube
Why would Moses give this name to his son?
Levi’s Son Gershom
In fact, this was not the first use of this name in Moses’ family. Levi, one of the twelve sons of Israel, had three sons who were counted among the sixty-six who went down to Egypt; Gershom, Kohath and Merari (Gen 46:11). Of these, Gershom means, as we have seen, “exile” and Merari means “bitter”. It’s possible that Levi named these sons looking back to his own rejection by his father (to summarise Genesis: Jacob’s firstborn Reuben loses favour after sleeping with his father’s concubine, then Simeon and Levi are disqualified for the vengeance on Shechem, and the promise of leadership and Messiahship moves to the fourth-born, Judah). Equally, it’s possible that Levi gave these names prophetically – looking forward – as his sons would go into exile in Egypt.
It becomes clear, as with many of the patriarchal families, that Gershom is divinely gazumped for primacy by his younger brother Kohath. All the famous Levites come from Kohath’s line, including Aaron and Moses, Eleazar, Phineas, Samuel, Zadok. Even John the Baptist! The Kohathite priests would have the most sacred responsibilities in the nation.
Levi’s son Gershom knew about exile, rejection, and being overlooked in favour of his younger brother.
All of this meditation on the name Gershom – what does it mean for us?
- A lot of people in the world know the bitterness of not belonging.
If you are living cross-culturally, there will be times when you identify with Gershom, when you feel gariban. Homesickness, culture shock, getting charged higher prices, being looked at strangely, experiencing daily humiliations, not having access to resources, or lack of legal recourse. This vulnerability, this outsiderness, is common to all who, whether by choice or forcibly, find themselves living in a country not their own.
If you know people in this situation, be considerate. Be hospitable. Move towards them. Speak on their behalf.
- Christians are called “strangers and aliens”
1Pe 2:11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
OK, Peter is writing in Greek, but his words paroikos and parepidimos carry the same weight of meaning. We are living in temporary exile in the Kingdom of the world, but our citizenship is in heaven. We don’t fit in. We don’t belong. We are homesick. And one day, we will be home.
There is a sense in which we are all Gershom. We are gariban. Homesick. Odd. Vulnerable.
- In fact, we are all g-r since the g-r-sh from Eden.
We lost our home – we were forcibly driven out in Genesis 3. All of mankind are refugees. We are wanderers and exiles on earth. We all live with a sense of nostalgia, of homesickness. We all carry the shame of not belonging. That’s why Turks can sing Ceylan’s song Garibanım and feel it so deeply.
And that’s why, when we come to Jesus, we feel like we are coming home. What we lost in a place we regain in a person. Where Eden means “delight,” now Jesus is our delight. We lost the tree of life, we gain life through his Tree. We lost the river of life, we gain life in his Spirit.
All of our dislocation, our humiliation, our exile, our abandonment, it is all resolved in the person of Jesus Christ.