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Spring 2006 · Vol. 35 No. 1 · pp. 82–86 

“And the Third Is Like unto It”

Paul A. Keim

One of those bright graduate students in biblical studies asks Jesus, “Teacher, which do you think is the greatest precept in the Torah?” (cf. Matt. 22:34-40). Jesus thinks to himself, “I know you’re just trying to test me, you little rascal. Perhaps you heard what happened when the Sadducees tried to catch me with a weak syllogism to advance their anti-resurrection agenda. The line that shut them up still dances in my synapses: I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God isn’t God of the dead, but of the living. Resurrection, baby. Sweet!”

In calling us to love the sojourner and the enemy, Jesus extends the ethos of Torah obligations to its logical and moral conclusion.

Addressing himself to the questioner Jesus replies, “The greatest precept? Shema—Listen—here it is: I command you to love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” Quoting Moses from the “Book of Words” (Deut. 6:5).

You start at the beginning, and at the beginning is God. You start at the center, and at the center is God.


But what kind of love is it that can be commanded? Hardly love in our romanticized sense of the word. It is love related to awe and respect. It is love expressed in loyalty, service, and obedience to Torah. It is love defined by a covenanted, legally-binding relationship. That much is clear from the parallels known in ancient Near Eastern treaty formulae. The language of love denoted a formalized friendship between independent rulers. It was also used to describe the bond between a suzerain and dependent vassal kings. The vassal was obligated to “love” the suzerain by serving and obeying the suzerain and, above all, by remaining exclusively loyal to the suzerain.

Against the background of ancient Near Eastern models of statecraft the confessional precepts of the greatest commandment require exclusive loyalty to Yahweh. In Deuteronomy 6, the command to love God is reinforced by statutes of a ritual nature: It’s the words that are to be taken to heart and repeated to the children. It’s the words that are to be spoken about at home and away, lying down and getting up. It’s the words that are to be bound on the hand as a sign and between the eyes as a totafot-emblem (Deut. 6:8). It’s the words that are to be written on the doorposts of the house and the gates. And yet, it is a command to love God with heart and soul and mind, which suggests a relationship not devoid of affection and devotion. It is a love not reducible to symbolic behaviors. Yet neither is it fully contained in the inner experience of religious emotion.

According to Jesus, this is the first and the greatest commandment.


And the second, he says, is like unto it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Quoting God, speaking to Moses, from the book known in the Hebrew Bible by its first word—way-yiqra’—and later endowed with the off-putting title, Leviticus (in the division that would come to be designated as the nineteenth chapter and the eighteenth verse). We-’ahavta, it says in Hebrew. In the Greek translation of the First Testament this becomes agapeiseis, and is quoted as such in the Second Testament: “I command you to love your neighbor” (Matt. 22:39-40). But Lord, we disingenuously demur, who actually is my neighbor. When you think about it, it’s pretty vague. Kind of depends on what the definition of is is, you know?

Don’t even start. You know the story of the Samaritan who loved his neighbor. And if that isn’t enough, read Leviticus 19 in toto. You’ll see that the command to love the neighbor is embedded in a section full of stipulations about how to get along with friends and neighbors and kinfolk. You are not to show favoritism, but judge fairly. You are not to go around slandering people. You are not to hate your brother or sister in your heart. You are not to take vengeance or hold a grudge against any of your people, or your people’s people, but you are to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

And perhaps most striking in this context, you are not to harbor animosity against those you daily rub up against and bump into, cross paths with and lock horns with, those who dance on your last nerve (friends, neighbors, and kinfolk), lest you incur guilt upon yourself. Rather, hokheyakh tokhiyakh: “Reprove your neighbor” (Lev. 19:17). In other words: Don’t hate, adjudicate! Let this motto be emblazoned upon the walls of every Christian church, displayed in every Christian yard, stuck on every Christian bumper, and worn on every Christian bracelet in America!

This verb hokhiyakh is the same one used in the beautiful Zion hymn of Isaiah 2 in which the nations stream to the holy mountain to be instructed in Torah. And the Lord will shaphat (judge) between the nations and hokhiyakh (adjudicate) for many peoples. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations shall not take up weapons against other nations, neither shall they learn the art of warfare anymore. In the days to come the city on the hill will be reestablished. Nations and peoples will stream to Zion to be instructed in Torah, and Yahweh will be there to arbitrate among the nations, since to be human and live in community is to have conflicts (Isa. 2:2-4).


Contrary to the inspiring, romanticized understanding of this prophecy cherished by many, Jerusalem of the days to come, according to the text, does not promise a utopian paradise in which we all just get along. Rather, the master mediator is there among us, helping us to resolve our conflicts, showing us how to find nonviolent ways of living together in spite of our differences. The outcome is not so much a principled pacifism as it is a loss of interest in the anachronism of war. Discarded sword blades and spear tips get recycled for use in field, orchard, and vineyard. Since nations no longer waste their resources and energy fighting each other, it gradually makes more sense to study each other’s languages and cultures and religions. The faculty of the war colleges will be the first to redo their curricula, followed by the elite private academies and the state universities. And last but not least, the Christian colleges will transform their programs of study. They will call it Walking in the Light of Yahweh.

As Christians we share the promise of this Zion of the days to come, and also its moral imperative to pattern our lives after the divine reconciler of peoples and nations. In so doing we fulfill the promise made to Abraham that, through us, all the families of the world will be blessed.

At the beginning, there is the love of God, and we move forward to love the neighbor. At the center, there is the love of God, and we move outward to love the neighbor. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. And the third commandment is like unto it.


What? There’s no third commandment. Ah, but if you follow the love commands in Leviticus 19, you do indeed find a third like unto it: “When a ger yagurs (“sojourner sojourns”) with you in your land, you are not to oppress him. The ger who gars with you should be treated exactly as a citizen among you; we-’ahavta, and I command you to love the ger as yourself. For you were gerim in the land of Egypt. And I am Yahweh your God.” Quoting God, speaking to Moses (Lev. 19:33-34).

The ger is the sojourner sojourning among you, the alien residing in your midst, the illegal immigrant working alongside you. Compelled to seek something better for themselves, their lives may be desperate and tenuous. The gerim are those people vulnerable enough, then and now, to be classed with widows and orphans as marginal people, easily victimized, requiring divine protection and tangible acts of human kindness. But to love the ger as ourselves? How could we? Why would we? Because, the text says, somewhere and at some time we were all gerim. Our ancestors migrated in search of a better life, leaving loved ones behind, facing an uncertain future, dependent on the hospitality of strangers.

Various pieces of immigrant legislation are currently pending in the United States Congress. It was a hot-button political topic in Germany, where we spent this past spring and summer, and helped to propel the conservative party into an albeit thin majority in the recent elections. Guest workers and refugees from around the world have made immigration policy a current topic of debate throughout northern Europe. The specter of large and largely unassimilated Muslim populations, the current epitome of the resident alien, haunts every single Western industrialized nation.

But the ironic spectacle of the immigrant nations of North America uniting around the rhetoric of expulsion and containment of the ger bruises the moral conscience. When the security of the homeland is perceived to be at risk, our impulse may be to circle the wagons and fortify the borders. But when homeland security becomes the magnetic pole to which we orient our moral compass, then the ger will not fare well. And when the ger and the widow and the orphan do not fare well, the providential pathos of the Sovereign of heaven and earth is provoked. Prophets feel God’s agony and cry out in accusation against a people who neglect their moral obligations in favor of public expressions of piety. Are we taking adequate care of the ger?


At the beginning, there is the love of God, and we move forward to love the neighbor, and we move forward again to love the ger. At the center, there is the love of God, and we move outward to love the neighbor, and we move outward again to love the ger. Then Jesus calls us to move even further forward and further outward to love the enemy (Matt. 5:44; cf. Prov. 25:21-22). In so doing he extends the ethos of Torah obligations to their logical and moral conclusion. Nature provides us with the instinctual impulse to preserve self and protect kin. The love of God transforms communities of exclusion into communities of embrace. Care for self and one’s own are not negated but become the model for loving the neighbor, the ger, and even the enemy.

In Genesis 32-33 the patriarch Jacob prepares to meet his brother Esau. Set within this dramatic account is the ancient tradition of Jacob’s tussle with a heavenly being. Jacob refuses to let go until he receives a blessing. He emerges with a limp, a different name, and an unexpected resource for living in a new way. He then sets out to confront someone he has every right to believe is his enemy. It is his brother Esau, whom he tricked out of his paternal birthright. But in the frightening encounter, he receives an embrace instead of animosity. Overcome by this act of forgiveness, he exclaims, “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (Gen. 33:10).

What are the greatest commandments in the Bible? Love God. Love the neighbor. Love the ger. Love the enemy. Do this, and chances are you will see the face of God.

Paul Keim, Professor of Bible and Religion and Instructor in German at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, teaches courses in Old Testament and biblical languages. He is a graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, and is an adjunct faculty there. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He is honored to offer the following contribution as a tribute to Allen Guenther (Beati pacifici).

Adapted from a chapel address delivered at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, October 19, 2005.

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