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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
For more on the Book of Leviticus, read “What Does the Bible Say About Tattoos?” and “Book of Leviticus Verses Recovered from Burnt Hebrew Bible Scroll.”
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 was originally published in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. It was first republished in Bible History Daily on August 19, 2014.
Richard 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.
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.
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.