“Who is my neighbor?” and the Ten Commandments

I’ve previously posted about the key Jewish commandments, reviewed by Jesus to his followers, to obey the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…” Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and treat all “the children of thy people” well and “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). The two greatest commandments are to obey the tribe’s God, and to be good to the tribe’s people.

Even those famous Ten Commandments are not a prescription for the human race: they are a prescription for the success of the Jewish tribe, which success is often going to be at the expenses of other tribes.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens has a lovely 8-minute video in which he reviews and and updates the Ten Commandments for our time. But Hitch missed the question of who is your ‘neighbor’ (“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house”, etc – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”…) Neighbor means fellow Jews. It is all very tribal. That’s why it was fine for Moses to say “God says Thou shalt not kill” and then to go out slaughter the men, women and children of Palestine, now that God had given the Promised Land to the Children of Israel.

There are universal religions, and there are tribal religions. The Romans understood the former, and tried to draw in every local religion they conquered. Judaism, the religion of Moses and of Jesus, was and is tribal, and in the time of Jesus it was bitterly opposed to being swallowed up by Roman syncretism.

The Miracles, 2 – Feeding 5,000 and feeding 4,000

Jesus mostly avoided the big cities, and instead held his mass rallies in the countryside where he was free of interference from the Romans and their Sadducee collaborators. He became a wanted man, and was constantly on the move: “The birds have their nests, and the foxes their dens, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Jesus looks for pricing on a bulk volume deal.

His message was always the same: the unity of the Jewish people, the need for purification and submission to the will of God. And he made his points by stories (parables) and by vivid events (stage-managed miracles).

When he preached in the countryside he could attract crowds of up to 5,000 people. Obviously he didn’t just start talking, and have that many people show up spontaneously. These were publicized events. As at an outdoor event like Woodstock, some people would have brought food and drink with them, and others wouldn’t. But here there was nowhere to get food if you needed it.

Having preached to a large crowd, he would have a small boy come up and offer to share food – “five barley loaves and two small fishes”. He would praise the spirit of the boy, and ask everyone to sit down where they were, and for those who had brought food to share with whoever they were next to. They were all Jews, they were all God’s children, they were all one family. Jesus and the disciples and the whole crowd would share food between them as a communal celebration for one large family, and reinforce his teachings and their bonds as a single chosen people.

The miracle was in getting 5,000 people to share their food with strangers.

(And it was all done without rock music or recreational drugs.)

“Who is my Neighbor?” The Good Samaritan

Let’s assume that, as in the previous two blog posts, Jesus told his followers to obey the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…” Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and treat all “the children of thy people” well and “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18).

One question that arose was, Who is my neighbor? The uncertain boundary for Jesus appears to be the Samaritans – followers of a slightly different version of Mosaic Law, and without loyalties to Jerusalem or its Temple. Not Jews exactly, but almost… and living in the Jewish heartland, halfway between Jerusalem and Galilee, so that Jews and Samaritans inevitably went through each other’s territories.

Samaria, the region halfway between Galilee in the north and Jerusalem in the south

Although the Samaritans were not receptive to Jesus’ focus on the Temple at Jerusalem, he considered a charitable Samaritan to be closer to God than an uncharitable Jewish priest or Levite.

In some ways, the Samaritans appear to be in a very similar position to the Palestinians of today – monotheists, claiming descent from Abraham, respecting the Torah but following slightly different traditions, with their own non-Jewish holy sites, and with a historical right to live where they live, regardless of what Jewish fanatics think.

And in fact, some of the Palestinians of today are Samaritans. Some 700 live at Mount Gerizim and in Tel Aviv.

Mount Gerizem, West Bank, April 19, 2008. Samaritans gather around fire pits as sacrificed sheep smolder during a ritual of Passover, the annual Jewish holiday marking the liberation of Hebrews from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Jesus’ Message, 2: “Love thy neighbour…”

Jesus is quoted as saying that the second most important commandment is “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. This may be accurate, but not the whole story.

Because the phrase isn’t among the Ten Commandments, many Christians have the impression that it’s a Jesus original, expressing love towards the whole world. When you see it in its original context, though, it has a slightly different message. Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18 –

“Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.”

Love thy neighbour - Leviticus 19:18

The commandment is for Jews to love their fellow Jews. It says nothing about loving gentiles. It certainly says nothing about loving the idolatrous pig-eating beard-shaving military occupation forces, no matter how St. Paul would later try to twist the teachings of Jesus to fit his own pro-Roman agenda.

Taken together, the two greatest commandments say “Think of and obey the God of Israel constantly, and look after your fellow Jews”.

Jesus was not preaching a universal message.