Love Your Neighbor as Yourself (Lev 19:18) by Marc Zvi Brettler

What does “love your neighbor as yourself” really mean? The New Testament makes it a central command, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), as does rabbinic literature: “What is hateful to you do not do unto others” (b. Shabbat 31a). Yet who must be loved? And how should that love be expressed?

What does the phrase “love your neighbor” mean?

The injunction You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is part of a mini-collection of commandments in Lev 19:15-18: 15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. 17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Each verse contains at least one word referring to the fellow Israelite—“neighbor,” “people,” “kin,”—ending with “as yourself.” The usual understanding of Lev 19:18, that “as yourself” modifies “love” and demands that you must love your neighbor the same way that you love yourself, is likely incorrect. The surrounding verses imply that “as yourself” modifies “your neighbor,” and the verse means that you must love your neighbor who is like you—namely, your fellow Israelite, your kinsman or countryman.

But that is not the whole story. Lev 19:34 reads: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” This closely parallels Lev 19:18 and is part of a small subunit that focuses on aliens, namely, non-Israelites who are living in the midst of the Israelite community. They too must be “loved.”

But what is involved in such “love”? The Hebrew word ’ahav usually translated “to love” has a wide range of meanings. In the Song of Songs, it refers to erotic love; in some narratives it refers to love between a parent and a child; elsewhere it may mean “lust.” Exod 21:5 describes a slave who says, “I love [’ahav] my master, my wife, and my children: I will not go out a free person”—here the verb means something closer to “like” or “prefer to tolerate.”

Another use of ’ahav may clarify its meaning in Lev 19. Various biblical texts, especially in Deuteronomy, command the Israelites to “love” (’ahav) God. The most famous of these is Deut 6:5, the second verse of the Shema prayer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Context suggests that this verse is commanding (primarily) not a mental or emotional attitude but obedience to God, acting in a way that reflects love for the divine. It is likely that the same is true for Lev 19:18 and Lev 19:34—they insist that the Israelite and foreigner be treated properly.

Does Leviticus contain legal codes?

Although some biblical laws, such as circumcision (Gen 17), are embedded in narrative material, most laws are found in larger legal collections. Scholars used to call these “codes,” but this is inaccurate, since unlike codes, known from later legal traditions, these legal texts are neither systematic nor complete, and we are not sure that they were ever actually used by judges within the judicial system. For this reason, the term “collection” is more suitable for the groups of laws found in Exod 20:22-23:19, Lev 17-26, and Deut 12-26.

Lev 17-26 is known as the Holiness Collection, since several times it enjoins the entire Israelite community to be holy, as in Lev 19:2: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” It extends the notion of the priests’ holiness, found in the preceding material, to the entire Israelite population.

The Holiness Collection is not the work of a single author but is a compilation of various earlier written sources. This explains why it contains two very similar lists of prohibited sexual relationships in Lev 18 and Lev 20. Some scholars see the beginning of the intervening chapter, Lev 19, preceding the love command, as a restatement of the Decalogue, since it begins with the commandments to honor parents and to observe the Sabbath (Lev 19:3), followed by prohibitions against idolatry (Lev 19:4), stealing (Lev 19:11), and swearing falsely (Lev 19:12).

Lev 19:18 is full of surprises. Most readers incorrectly understand its famous words, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” to be very broad. Yet this narrow concept of brotherly love as referring only to one’s compatriot is part of a larger legal collection that contains more lofty ideals. Lev 19:34 concerns loving the foreigner and describes broad “love” as the proper treatment of all. This love was not understood as words or feelings but as ethical actions—deeds that expressed human obedience to God.


Marc Zvi Brettler, "Love Your Neighbor (Lev 19:18)", n.p. [cited 18 Oct 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/love-your-neighbor-as-yourself-lev-19-18

Contributors

Marc Zvi Brettler

Marc Zvi Brettler
Professor, Brandeis University

Marc Zvi Brettler is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies at Brandeis University. He is author of How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford, 2007) and co-editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, The Jewish Study Bible, and The Jewish Annotated New Testament.

In its original context, Leviticus 19:18 meant that you should treat your fellow Israelite properly, but it is part of a larger legal collection that also commands love of the stranger.

Did you know…?

  • Lev 19:18 is embedded in a larger legal collection, the Holiness Collection, which mandates that all Israel must be holy.
  • The word "love" in "love your neighbor" does not refer to romantic love.
  • Deut 6:4, the beginning of the Shema, clarifies what "love" means.
  • The injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself" may refer to Israelites, not foreigners.
  • The injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself"  should be read in conjunction with a following verse that mandates love of the alien or foreigner.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Matt 7:12

The Golden Rule
12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Lev 19:15-18

15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.16You shall no ... View more

Lev 19:18

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Lev 19:34

34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am ... View more

Lev 19:18

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Exod 21:5

5But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,”

Lev 19

Ritual and Moral Holiness
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the ... View more

Deut 6:5

5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Lev 19:18

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Lev 19:34

34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am ... View more

A group of people attending religious services, worshiping.

A more accurate name for the Ten Commandments, literally translated as the ten words (deka = ten, logos = words).

separate from the ordinary or profane.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Gen 17

The Sign of the Covenant
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameles ... View more

Exod 20:22-23:19

The Law concerning the Altar
22The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven.23Y ... View more

Lev 17-26

The Slaughtering of Animals
1The Lord spoke to Moses:2Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them: This is what the Lord has com ... View more

Deut 12-26

Pagan Shrines to Be Destroyed
1These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has ... View more

Lev 17-26

The Slaughtering of Animals
1The Lord spoke to Moses:2Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them: This is what the Lord has com ... View more

Lev 19:2

2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Lev 18

Sexual Relations
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God.3You shall not do as they do in the lan ... View more

Lev 20

Penalties for Violations of Holiness
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Say further to the people of Israel:
Any of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who re ... View more

Lev 19

Ritual and Moral Holiness
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the ... View more

Lev 19:3

3You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.

Lev 19:4

4Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.

Lev 19:11

11You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.

Lev 19:12

12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

Lev 19:18

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Lev 19:34

34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am ... View more

Lev 19:18

18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Deut 6:4

4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.

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