By Gary Schnittjer, PhD
Nearly everyone knows what it is like to be an outsider at some point. Most people also remember getting help from companions. The biblical vision for life pivots on how to treat companions and outsiders.
Anyone familiar with the Bible knows about the call to love thy neighbor. In spite of widespread assent to this basic biblical teaching, little attention has been devoted to where it came from.
Moderns tend to get straight to the point. They blurt out what they want to say all at once. Yahweh is not a modern American. He reveals his will differently.
If a person attends a course on biblical studies, they may hear the professor mention “progressive revelation,” which is the progressive revelation of God’s redemptive will. A close study of the Bible points to God revealing his will in stages.
The ancient people of God had messy lives. Time and again Yahweh met them where they were as they went from nomads to refugees to slaves to wanderers to invaders to citizens of a kingdom to exiles to lowly provincial citizens of the empire. The redemptive impulses of God explain why he reaches out to a wayward people with many advances in revelation. But there are other reasons besides circumstance.
The word of Yahweh is active and powerful. Sometimes the power of the word of God itself gives rise to advances of revelation.
And sometimes, progress of divine revelation within the Bible appears at the intersection of Israel’s troubles and the power of the word of God. A combination of external circumstances and powerful teaching inside the Scriptures together play a part in the stream of progressive revelation that culminates in love thy neighbor.
The present purpose is to look at the key steps that gave rise to the revelation of the command to love thy neighbor. Pausing to examine these steps offers insight into the Christian’s responsibility toward both companions and outsiders.
Steps to Love Thy Neighbor
The narrative of the first Passover is interwoven with instructions for commemorating the event. These instructions distinguish between two kinds of “others.”
Redemption was never to be celebrated only by an exclusive ethnic group of chosen people. The very first Passover included others who sought to follow Yahweh’s covenant. Uncircumcised others could not participate in the Passover feast. Circumcised residing foreigners were required to participate alongside Israel. These others, often called residing foreigners, were circumcised to show their desire to follow the God of Israel. (1)
The Hebrew term for residing foreigners refers to those who seek asylum outside their homeland. For example, during a time of severe economic depression, the family of Jacob sought asylum in Egypt. Israel’s lack of political and social standing as refugees made them vulnerable to mistreatment and even slavery. (2) Because residing foreigners within Israel lacked the rights of citizens, the legal standards of Torah classified them with the other protected classes of widows and orphans. (3)
The instructions for holiness in Leviticus go beyond the priests who serve at the shrine. All the people of Israel needed to be holy to continue to bear Yahweh’s glory in the tabernacle. (4) This included the others who sought asylum among the congregation. (5) But including the residing foreigners cut both ways.
Residing foreigners needed to maintain standards for holiness like any citizen of Israel. And Israel needed to extend protections and care for residing foreigners like any native-born citizen. This two-way set of responsibilities gave rise to the next step of revelation.
The legal standards of the holiness collection of Leviticus build on the laws in Exodus.6 Notice how the law to love the residing foreigner unfolds from the earlier laws in Exodus:
When a residing foreigner residing among you wants to celebrate Passover to Yahweh, he must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part as a native-born of the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it (Exod. 12:48). (7)
Do not mistreat or oppress a residing foreigner, for you were residing foreigners in the land of Egypt (22:21).
When a residing foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The residing foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were residing foreigners in Egypt. I am Yahweh your God (Lev. 19:33–34).
The interpretive connections should not be missed. If residing foreigners participated in Passover like native-born citizens, then the positive counterpart followed. Israel needed to treat the others who found refuge with them as they would treat their fellows. But there is more. Israel knew exactly what it was like to be residing foreigners. They had seen all sides of living in Egypt without the rights of ordinary citizens. Yahweh called Israel to draw upon their own experiences as outsiders. That is the important point. The call to love residing foreigners as yourself begins with redemption. Notice how the prohibition against mistreating the residing foreigners and the command to love them both pivot on Israel’s salvation from mistreatment.
The next step in the progressive revelation of this teaching is one of many examples of lesser to greater in the Bible. If Israel must love residing foreigners, then they certainly must treat their neighbors at this level. (8) Compare these intentionally related laws:
The residing foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were residing foreigners in Egypt. I am Yahweh your God (Lev. 19:33–34).
Love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh (19:18b).
Implications of Love Thy Neighbor
Modern people pride themselves on benevolence to and protections of the marginalized. These modern values built upon humanistic impulse have provided relief for many social problems. These are good things. But there remains a gap between humanistic values and the revelation of love thy neighbor.
The command to love neighbors as thyself does not start with humanistic sentimentality. It starts with the redeeming power of Yahweh. The redemption of Israel from brutal slavery carried with it commands that change everything.
Looking at the step-by-step advances in revelation that culminate in love thy neighbor shows several important realities. One is that redemption changes the way the people of God need to look at the outsider. Another reality pivots on the experiential fund of anyone who knows what it is like to be mistreated as an outsider. Memories of mistreatment shine a light on how God’s people need to treat the outsider. And the standard for treating others simultaneously points to the standard for treating God’s own people.
If love thy neighbor embodies the high point in one stream of progressive revelation, it starts with redemption. The redeeming power of Yahweh gives rise to advances in revelation. Redemption gives birth to love thy neighbor.
The Bible includes hundreds of other cases of progressive revelation. Many of these are presented in Schnittjer’s book Old Testament Use of Old Testament published by Zondervan Academic to be released in the second half of 2021. For some of the surprises that came out of researching and writing this book, see Schnittjer’s guest posts at Credo Magazine’s blog.
- See Exod 12:43–49.
- See Exod 1:11.
- See, e.g., Exod 22:21–22; Deut 24:17.
- See Lev 19:2.
- See Lev 16:29; 17:8, 10, 12, 13; 18:26; 20:2; 24:22.
- The holiness collection of laws appears in Lev 17–26.
- All translations of scripture are mine unless stated otherwise.
- For detailed explanation of the relationship between these teachings, see Gary Edward Schnittjer, Old Testament Use of Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, forthcoming), 42–44.
Gary Schnittjer is professor of Old Testament at Cairn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org