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.