Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?

From the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review

Alinari/Art Resource, NY
Moses, pictured here in a painting by 17th-century Baroque artist Guido Reni, is one of the most iconic figures in the Hebrew Bible. Despite Moses’ obvious Semitic heritage, the name “Moses” is actually Egyptian, like that of other Biblical figures (Phinehas, Hophni, Hur, Merari). All of them are referred to in the Bible’s Levite sources (E, P and D of the Documentary Hypothesis). Levites like Moses fled Egypt to form a new nation of Israelites who were to “love your neighbor.”

It’s one of the most famous lines in the Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Impressive. Fascinating. Inspiring. Capable of a thousand interpretations and raising 10,000 questions. A remarkable proposition coming out of ancient Judah, which was embedded in the Near Eastern world of wars, slavery, class and ethnic divisions and discriminations of all kinds.

One interpretation of this verse that has been making the rounds for years turns this grand idea on its head: The claim is that the verse means to love only one’s fellow Israelites as oneself. Instead of being inclusive, it’s actually exclusive. Is there anything to this claim?

We have to start by going all the way back to the Exodus, which the combination of archaeology and text has led me to argue was historical; it actually happened. Ninety percent of the arguments against its historicity are not about the event itself but about the size of the event: All of Israel! Two million people (as suggested by Exodus 12:37–38)! Impossible!

But the evidence of a real but smaller exodus is a different matter. The earliest Biblical sources—the very early Song of Miriam (Exodus 15) and the text known in critical Biblical scholarship as J—don’t mention any numbers.

Moreover, there is good evidence that only the Levites were in Egypt; it was they who left and then merged with the rest of Israel. Note that only Levites have numerous Egyptian names (e.g., Phinehas, Hophni, Hur, Merari, Moses). The Levites alone reflect Egyptian material culture: Their Tabernacle has parallels with the battle tent of Pharaoh Rameses II.1 Their ark has parallels with Egyptian sacred barks.2 The Levite sources alone require circumcision, which was practiced in Egypt. There is much more. For the whole picture, see my presentation at a recent conference titled Out of Egypt held last year at the University of California, San Diego, which BAR has put online at www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/exodus/video-the-exodus-based-on-the-sources-themselves.
 


 
Watch full-length lectures from the Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination conference, which addressed some of the most challenging issues in Exodus scholarship. The international conference was hosted by Calit2’s Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego in San Diego, CA.
 

 
One more mark of the Levite sources is crucial and will bring us back now to the interpretation of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Is neighbor exclusive or inclusive?

Of the four sources of the Torah or Pentateuch that critical scholars refer to as J, E, P and D,a three—E, P (the Priestly source) and D (the Deuteronomistic source)—are Levite sources. In these Levite sources, the command to treat aliens fairly comes up 52 times! (How many times does this come up in the non-Levite source, J? Answer: None.)

The first occurrence of the word torah in the Torah is: “There shall be one torah for the citizen and for the alien who resides among you” (Exodus 12:49, from the Levite source P).

Why this frequent concern for aliens? We might reasonably guess that it was a matter of geography. Israel lay at the point where Africa, Asia and Europe meet. People of all backgrounds regularly passed through. So we can imagine a nation at that fulcrum of ancient trade routes having a policy of welcome to all those valuable aliens. Still, not all countries that have desired the benefits of trade have emphasized this principle. Again and again, all three Levite sources of the text (E, P and D) rather give this reason:

And you shall not persecute an alien, and you shall not oppress him, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 22:20


And you shall not oppress an alien — since you know the alien’s soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Exodus 23:9


You shall not persecute him. The alien who resides with you shall be to you like a citizen of yours, and you shall love him as yourself, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Leviticus 19:33–34


So you shall love the alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:19


You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land.
Deuteronomy 23:8


You shall not bend judgment of an alien … You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and YHWH, your God, redeemed you from there. On account of this I command you to do this thing.
Deuteronomy 24:17–18

Why should we be good to aliens? Because we know how it feels. We know the alien’s soul. So we won’t persecute foreigners; we won’t abhor them; we won’t oppress them; we won’t judge them unfairly; we’ll treat them the same as we treat ourselves; we’ll love them.

Indeed, one possible meaning of the word Levi in Hebrew is “alien.”3

It is certainly true that there are also some harsh passages toward foreigners in the Bible: Dispossess the Canaanites, destroy Jericho, etc. But the evidence in the ground, discussed and debated many times in BAR’s pages, indicates that most of that (the so-called Conquest of the land) never happened.b Moreover in far more laws and instances, the principle of treatment of aliens is positive.

For example: Don’t rape a captured woman in war (Deuteronomy 21:10ff).

Don’t abhor an Edomite (Deuteronomy 23:8).

If you happen upon your enemy’s ox or donkey straying, bring it back to him.

If you see the donkey of someone who hates you sagging under its burden, and you would hold back from helping him: You shall help him (Exodus 23:4–5).

The Bible permits a violent response to those who threaten Israel’s existence, but it still forbids a massacre if they surrender.

The very fact that the Bible’s sources start off with the creation of the earth and all of humankind instead of starting with Israel itself is relevant here. If any of us were asked to write a history of the United States, would we start by saying, “Well, first there was the Big Bang, and then …”? The Biblical authors saw Israel’s destiny as being to bring good to all those foreign nations and peoples—to the earth. It is not a minor point. It appears in God’s first words to Abraham, in God’s first words to Isaac, and in God’s first words to Jacob: Your descendants’ purpose is to be that “all the nations/families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3; 26:2–4; 28:10–14).

Which brings me back to the opening question: Is “Love your neighbor as yourself” meant exclusively or inclusively? Does this admonition refer only to your Israelite neighbor or to all humankind?

When the text already directs every Israelite to love aliens as oneself, what would be the point of saying to love only Israelites—in the very same chapter! Now my friend Jack Milgrom, of blessed memory, wrote that it is precisely because the love of the alien is specifically mentioned there that love of “neighbor” must mean only a fellow Israelite.4

I see his point, but his position would have been more likely if the verse about love of aliens had come first in the text and the love of neighbor had came later. But the instruction to love aliens comes after we’ve already had the instruction to love your neighbor as oneself. That is, if you tell people first to love their aliens and then give a second instruction to love their neighbors, that second instruction really does sound like an addition because the first group, aliens, obviously doesn’t include the second group, neighbors. But if you tell people first to love their neighbors, then a second instruction to love aliens a few verses later can make sense as a specification for anyone who would have thought that love of neighbor didn’t include loving others as well.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

Did the Biblical authors think that the specifications referring to aliens were necessary? We know that they did because they said it 52 times in the Torah! And, in any case, Milgrom and I would both recognize that the bottom line is that one is supposed to love both, alien and neighbor, whether they overlap or not.

So from where did the idea come, that the Hebrew word for neighbor in this verse, re‘a, means only a member of one’s own group? We can get a better idea of what the Hebrew word for neighbor, re‘a, means by looking at other places in the Bible where this word is used.

The first occurrence of re‘a is in the story of the tower of Babel (Babylon). It is the Bible’s story of the origin of different nations and languages. It involves every person on earth: “And they said each to his re‘a …” (Genesis 11:3). That is, the term refers to every human, without any distinctions by group.

Now, one might say, though, that the word might still refer only to members of one’s own group because, at this point in the story, all humans are in fact still members of a single group. So let’s go to the next occurrence of the word. In the story of Judah and Tamar, Judah has a re‘a named Hirah the Adullamite (Genesis 38:12, 20). Hirah is a Canaanite! He comes from the (then) Canaanite city of Adullam. He cannot be a member of Judah’s clan because, at this point in the story, that clan, namely the Israelites, consists only of Jacob and his children and any grandchildren.

In Exodus 11:2 the word appears in both the masculine and feminine in the account of how the Israelites are instructed to ask their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold items before their exodus from Egypt. The word there refers quite precisely to non-Israelites. In Exodus 2:13, on the other hand, in the story of Moses’ intervention between two “Hebrews” who are fighting, he says to the one at fault, “Why do you strike your re‘a?” So in that episode it refers to an Israelite.

Snark/Art Resource, NY
TEACHING THE LAW. In this ninth-century illustration from the Bible of Charles the Bald, Moses explains the law to the Israelites. Fifty-two occurrences in the Bible’s Levite texts (E, P and D) refer to the importance of treating foreigners fairly—no distinction between an Israelite and a non-Israelite. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is also from a Levite text. Considering this pervasive Levite stress on the fair treatment of the alien, why would a Levite text then say you only need to love an Israelite “neighbor”? Our author believes it doesn’t—“neighbor” includes all humankind.

In short, the word re‘a is used to refer to an Israelite, a Canaanite, an Egyptian, or to everyone on earth.

And still some people say that “Love your re‘a as yourself” means just your fellow Israelite. When the Ten Commandments include one that says: “You shall not bear false witness against your re‘a” (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:17), do they think that this meant that it was okay to lie in a trial if the defendant was a foreigner (even though elsewhere, as we saw, the law forbids Israel to “bend the judgment of an alien”)? When another of the Ten Commandments says not to covet your re‘a’s wife (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:18), do they think that this meant that it was okay to covet a Hittite’s wife (even though elsewhere the Bible condemns King David for doing just that)?

Those who contend that “neighbor” refers only to one’s neighbors of your own people frequently cite its context. They quote the sentence that precedes the sentence about loving one’s neighbor. Looking at the two together, it reads like this:

You shall not take revenge, and you shall not keep on at the children of your people.
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Since the two sentences were put together into a single verse when verse numbers were added to the Bible, some interpreters have assumed that the “love your neighbor as yourself” line must also be just about “the children of your people.” Why? No reason at all. Read Leviticus 19, carefully. Coming near the very center of the Torah, it is a remarkable mixture of laws of all kinds. It goes back and forth between ethical laws and ritual laws: sacrifice, heresy, injustice, mixing seeds, wearing mixed fabrics (shaatnez), consulting the dead, gossip, robbing, molten idols, caring for the poor. It has everything! I tell my students that if you’re on a desert island and can have only one chapter of the Bible with you, make it Leviticus 19. And its laws all come mixed in between each other. No line can be judged by what comes before it or after it. And, remember, there are no verse numbers or periods or commas in the original.

The much respected Bible scholar Harry Orlinsky made the context argument in 1974.5 Because of his scholarly standing, he was followed by others. Robert Wright cited him in The Evolution of God.6 Wright had consulted with me on the matter of loving the alien, but unfortunately we didn’t discuss the “neighbor” verse; if we had, I would have cautioned him. Hector Avalos also followed Orlinsky, saying “as Orlinsky has deftly noted …”7 The “deftly noted” remark has been used (and often quoted) over and over again in connection with the interpretation of this verse. It was not deft at all.

The same “context” mistake was made by John Hartung, an evolutionary anthropologist8 who was cited and followed by Richard Dawkins in his bestselling The God Delusion, saying, “‘Love thy neighbor’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew.’”9 Hartung emphasized the importance of context, but he then used only the one verse (quoted above), seemingly unaware that the joining of its two statements was done by those who created numbered verses centuries after the Bible was written.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” remains: Famous. Impressive. Fascinating. Inspiring. You can accept or challenge it. And you can decide whether you will follow it in your own life. But don’t change what it means.
 


 
“Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone?” by Richard Elliott Friedman appears in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 

 
richard-friedmanRichard Elliott Friedman is the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the classic Who Wrote the Bible? (1987). He was a visiting fellow at Cambridge and Oxford, a senior fellow of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, a visiting professor at the University of Haifa and participated in the City of David Project archaeological excavations of Jerusalem.
 

 

Notes:

1. Michael Homan, To Your Tents O Israel (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp. 111–115.

2. Scott Noegel demonstrated this in an impressive paper at the Out of Egypt conference: “The Ark of the Covenant and Egyptian Sacred Barks: A Comparative Study” (conference, San Diego, May 31–June 9, 2013).

3. William Propp, Exodus 1–18, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 128.

4. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17–22, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 1654; and see bibliography there.

5. Harry Orlinsky, Essays in Biblical Culture and Bible Translation (New York: Ktav, 1974), p. 83.

6. Wright cited him in The Evolution of God (New York: Little, 2009), pp. 235–236.

7. Hector Avalos, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), p. 140.

8. John Hartung, “Love Thy Neighbor: The Evolution of In-Group Morality,” Struggles for Existence (blog), (http://strugglesforexistence.com/?p=article_p&id=13).

9. Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 253.

a. Richard Elliott Friedman, “Taking the Biblical Text Apart,” Bible Review, Fall 2005.

b. Aharon Kempinski, “Israelite Conquest or Settlement? New Light from Tell Masos,” BAR, September 1976; Yigael Yadin, “Israel Comes to Canaan: Is the Biblical Account of the Israelite Conquest of Canaan Historically Reliable?” BAR, March/April 1982; Ziony Zevit, “The Problem of Ai,” BAR, March/April 1985; David Ussishkin, “Lachish—Key to the Israelite Conquest of Canaan?” BAR, January/February 1987; Bryant G. Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” BAR, March/April 1990; Hershel Shanks, “When Did Ancient Israel Begin?” BAR, January/February 2012; Amnon Ben-Tor, “Who Destroyed Canaanite Hazor?” BAR, July/August 2013.
 


 

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  1. PSGott says

    Jesus identified this as the 2nd greatest command. When asked “who really is my neighbor” he responded with the parable of “the good Samaritan.” His reasoning was that everyone is our neighbor and deserving of love.

  2. Paul says

    It’s an amazing concept that really raises the bar on religious thought, something that is brought out in the article in the current issue of BAR, p.50, if I may quote:
    “Israel lay at the point where Africa, Asia and Europe meet. People of all backgrounds regularly passed through. So we can imagine a nation at that fulcrum of ancient trade routes having a policy of welcome to all these valuable aliens” (“Love Your Neighbor” by Richard Elliot Friedman).
    also interesting in this article is the similarity of Levitical cult objects such as the Tabernacle with Egyptian parallels like the battle tent of Pharaoh Rameses II.The temples he built at Abu Simbel were an attempt to show a friendly face toward Egypt’s Cushite neighbor, though the gigantic figures of the Pharaoh are imposing (as one would expect from an egomaniac like Rameses II). In front of the temple there is an inscripotion comemorating this Pharaoh’s marriage to the daughter of the Hittite king as part of a peace treaty. Inside the temple there is an inscription comemorating this Pharaoh’s single-handed victory over the Hittite forces at the battle of Kadesh. According to the official state propaganda, all of Pharaoh’s forces retreated, leaving Rameses alone to grow into a giant and defeat the enemy. This kind of reminds me of that time in August 2000 when everyone in the State Department had their security clearances pulled because of a missing lap top and even the ambassador to Israel was out of the loop. So it was up to President Clinton to try get get a Mid-East peace deal and he used the Millenium Summit as a platform, so that we didn’t know all that much about the Millenium Summit because somebody had just sucked the oxygen out of the room (press coverage).
    The beautiful part about Rameses’ temple at Abu Simbel is that the first rays of the sun iluminate the baboon sculptures above the rest of the facade.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Abu_Simbel_-_baboons_detail.jpg
    I believe this site is refered to in Isaiah 19:18 as the “City of the Sun” or in Hebrew, “Ir Heres,” or “City of Horus.” One of the Pharaoh’s five-fold titles was “Horus of Gold,” an allusion, perhaps, to the gold obtained from Nubia, the source of the Pharaoh’s wealth. “But where can wisdom befound; Where is the source of understanding?” (Job:28:12).
    Inside the temple there is a passageway that is flanked by rows of statues of Osiris, god of the underword and afterlife (which also bear a resemblance to Rameses) and there was a curious ritual performed during the funerary embalming process at the point when the wrapping of the fingers with linen has begun by reciting, “O Osiris, thou receivest thy nails of gold, thy fingers of gold … thou hast transformed thyself into a hawk of gold by means of the amulets (or talismans) of the City of Gold” (“Egyptian Magic” by E. A. Wallis Budge, p.188).
    The popular image of the baboons raising their hands in adoration before the rising sun is similar to a concept found in Jewish mysticism pertaining to meditating on the attributes of God of which there were ten in number and were represented by divine names found in the Old Testament:
    “As to those attributes of God which occur in the Pentateuch, or in the books of the Prophets, we must assume that they are exclusively employed, as has been stated by us, to convey to us some notion of the perfections of the Creatoir, or to express qualities of actions emanating from Him” (“The Guide for the Perplexed” by Moses Maimonides, chapter 60).
    In the 5th century B.C.E a Jewish community thrived at Elephantine that coincided with the return of the Babylonian exiles to Judah and it would seem to me that the priests possibly based their concept of humans being made in the image of God in Genesis 1:26 on the earlier account in Genesis 2:7 with humanity molded out of clay which was in turn, likely borrowed from the Egyptian god Knum who also molded humanity out of clay. Knum was thought to be the source of the Nile river in the African interior where humanity originally was formed, not unlike the baboons (though certainly more distant from humans than chimpanzees).

  3. Jürgen says

    Jesus did not speak on any neighbors, but the next.
    And the “next” was the own body, the own soul. – Loving the neighbors? Well see Mt 10.34…. and this shows all.
    Jesus brought the sword into the world and his religion is religion of hate…hating all non-jews.
    It s really funny how people talk so much and cannot even understand the true words.

  4. Gerald says

    Jesus was repeatedly asked about how to gain eternal life. He either responded by referring to the two great commandments God gave Moses to give to the Israelite people in Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and Deuteronomy 6:5 Therefore, you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” and other places in the Torah, including the Decalogue.

    In Matthew 19:19 Jesus said “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not kill’; ‘you shall not commit adultery’; ‘You shall not steal’; ‘You shall not bear false witness’; ‘Honor your father and mother’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said, “I have kept all these; what do I need to do further?” Jesus told him, “If you seek perfection, go sell your possessions, and give to the poor. You will then have treasure in heaven. Afterward, come back and follow me.” Hearing these words, the young man went away sad, for his possessions were many. In Matthew 22:39 “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole strength, with your whole mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments the whole law is based, and the prophets as well.” And in Mark 12:29 “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the second, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There are no other commandments greater than these.”

    In Luke 10:25-37 a lawyer [of the Mosaic Law] stood up to test Jesus, “Teacher what must I do to inherit everlasting life?” Jesus uses a long honored Jewish technique, he answered a question with a question. “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you shall live. The lawyer naturally seeks a loophole and ask, “Who is my neighbor?” This is the heart of this article. Jesus with another Jewish technique, he tells a parable -the Parable of the Good Samaritan [who was NOT Jewish], the ask the lawyer another question, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” The lawyer answered, “The one who treated him with mercy [a Samaritan].”

    In Christian Scripture there are many other mentions of the two great commandments: Romans 13:9 “ . . . any other commandments there may be are summed up in this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love never wrongs the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law. In Galatians 5:14 “The whole law has found fulfillment in one saying: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you go on biting and tearing one another to pieces, take care! You shall end up in mutual destruction!” In James 2:2 My brothers, your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not allow of favoritism. Suppose there would come into your assembly a man fashionably dressed, with gold rings on his fingers, and at the same time a poor man in shabby clothes. Suppose further that you were to take notice of the well-dressed man and say, “Sit right here, please,” whereas you say to the poor man, “You can stand!” or “Sit over there by my footrest.” Have you not in a case like this discriminated in your hearts . . . Scripture has it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

    But Jesus increased and expanded the Commandments. In Matthew 5:44-48 Jesus makes it clear: “My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are children o your heavenly father, for his sun rises on the bad and the good. He rains on the just and unjust. If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? Do not tax collectors do as much? And if you greet your brothers only, what is so praiseworthy about that? Do not pagans do as much? You must be made perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Then, in Luke 6:27-36 “But to you who hear I say, lover your enemies, do good to those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours, do not demand it back. Do to others what you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners and get back the same amount. But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be called children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful just as you’re your Father is merciful.”

    Then, Jesus extends the Commandment even further in John 14:34-35 “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.”

    I have no doubt that God’s Commandment to Moses to “love you neighbor as yourself” included all mankind, in fact, all of his creation. But Jesus clears up all doubt. Neighbor includeS EVERYONE.


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