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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of One’s Neighbor—Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

In YHWH’s instructions to Israel in Leviticus 19, we see a concern for social justice and the righteous treatment of the poor and weak which has continued relevance in our own day.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 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.… 9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.

11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. 13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. 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.

Leviticus 19 is part of the so-called Holiness Code, a body of material in the Pentateuch that is considered to be of priestly origin. The purpose of this material was to exhort the ancient Israelites to holy living in the land that Yahweh their God had given them. A fair bit of the material has similarities with the Decalogue (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). This shows the importance of the Decalogue—or at least laws that came to form it—for ancient Israelite ethics. The chapter also has some similarities with priestly materials that do not have direct references to holiness (19:5-8 vs 7:15; 19:11-12, 20-22 vs 6:1-7; the Sabbath command in 19:3, 30; cf. Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, 1602).

Within this passage, verses 1-2 speak of the holiness of Yahweh. Verses 9-10 are about not harvesting too carefully so that something can be left to poor people. Verses 11-12 promote honest living, also alluding to the Decalogue. Verses 13-14 continue on the theme of honesty, also calling hearers not to discriminate against people with disabilities. Verse 15 is exhortation for fair and honest legal proceedings.

Verses 16-18 can be considered to belong together in that verse 16 asks for honesty in keeping one’s neighbor’s reputation intact. Verse 17 links with verse 16: a person who is unhappy with another person is expected to raise and discuss the issue of discontent with that person, rather than holding a grudge. Verse 18 adds the idea that one should not take vengeance, even if this may need to be read in the context that in some cases such vengeance could be sought for (e.g. Numbers 35:9-34; Deuteronomy 19:1-13; Joshua 20). It would appear that the idea is to avoid “extralegal” retribution (as suggested by Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, 1651). A general exhortation to love one’s neighbor as oneself concludes the passage.

Most of the injunctions are quite easily translatable to modern contexts. It would seem that these principles in fact could be agreed to by most cultures, whether ancient or modern. The extent to which they are upheld in real terms, however, is another matter. Many of these issues are a matter of honor and ethics rather than legal regulation, even in societies that may have legislation that pertains to such issues as theft and robbery (vv. 11-12), false oaths and partiality (vv. 11, 15) and, especially in modern times, equality (v. 14).

In effect, many of these rules, as is the case with ethics in general, cannot be dealt with through a legal system. Much of this is because one’s behavior stems from attitudes that can often be expressed in some very subtle ways, and the legal system cannot in reality pay attention to such things. Even when a legal system can, at least on many occasions, catch the most flagrant offences, some actions that may seem trivial, or for one reason or other not addressable through the system, can escalate into more major problems. For example, insidious forms of bullying can lead to major problems within families, in schools, and in workplaces. Corporations can avoid taxes when this is advantageous to them through legal loopholes. Strong countries can bully and exploit smaller ones, even in cases where there is international legislation against this. While tabloids can be seen as the major modern slanderers (v. 16), in the international political scene massive propaganda campaigns, if not outright violence and war, are launched against nations that do not wish to follow the rules of the strong. If the aspects of ethics that are expressed in this excerpt of the ancient Israelite legal code could be upheld, both in intra-societal and international contexts, it could result in better protection of the weak and thus in a better world.

Bringing the New Testament into the equation, Jesus’s answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” still holds: the one who looks after another person, especially when that person is weaker than themselves, is the neighbor. Much of New Testament ethics is founded on Leviticus 19:19, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). These texts give pointers for aspiring to something better than the prevailing order. This in itself is already something special, a kind of “theology of hope” in the midst of a reality that does not always fulfill one’s expectations. While originally spoken in the context of ancient Israelite society, the principles in today’s text provide positive aspirations that can and should be universally applicable.

Pekka Pitkänen is a Senior Lecturer in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, UK. He is the author of Central Sanctuary and Centralization of Worship In Ancient Israel (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2004) and Joshua in the Apollos Old Testament Commentary series (Leicester: IVP, 2010). His current research focuses on Genesis-Joshua and the early history of Israel.

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