“Knowing the Heart of the Stranger”: The Old Testament and Loving Our NeighborAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church, Contemporary Ethics, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Love
One of my most vivid memories from the early days of ministry (youth ministry in Florida) was a class on the “covenants” (that is the Old vs the New, this was an “adult” auditorium class that day). One of the major differences between the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament” was, we were informed, that the OT told us to hate our enemies. On other occasions when the teacher actually knew the OT contained no such teaching, we were told “love your neighbor” it meant only other Israelites. Today in the “new covenant” we have been delivered from a “carnal” understanding to a “spiritual” one and now we are to love our neighbor, even if we still have not decided what that means.
I was around 22 when that episode took place in Florida, but already had developed a budding love affair with the Hebrew Bible. However, I still retained a number of ignorant ideas because I did not know my bible well enough to be set free. The teacher based his words on a complete misrepresentation of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. I remember being troubled that day. But I did not know enough to be able to say “that is incorrect, you are bearing false witness against God.” He was the preacher after all!
Today, if I found myself in the same situation, I would invite this brother for a cup of java. I would channel the inner spirit of Jesus and share with my brother an “OT” theology lesson just as the resurrected in flesh and bones Jesus in Luke 24.44-49. I often encountered this sad misrepresentation of not only the Hebrew Bible but of God (!!) many times since.
But, of course, the Hebrew Bible does not encourage hate nor does it tell us to hate our enemy nor the neighbor we are to love is not just fellow Israelites but “the one who hates you.” So a little bit of the Law of Moses is in order, that most represented part of the holy, Spiritual, Word of God (cf. Rom. 7.14, see also vv. 12 & 16).
Hearing the Voice of the Spirit, Book of the Covenant (Exodus)
I will focus on, perhaps, the most neglected, of the the most neglected part, of the Law of Moses. That is what is called the “Book of the covenant.” So a brief look at Exodus 20:22-23:19. Numbers correspond to my outline of the Book of the Covenant. We read of the following provisions of the most powerless people in ancient society
2) Regulations for and protection of slaves (21.1-11)
3) Protection against violence of persons: intended and unintended is extended to both free and slaves (21.12-27)
4) Protection against violence of animals (21.28-36)
6) Protection of weak (22.16-27; 23.1-9)
9) More Protection of the weakest, including the animals, through the completely egalitarian Sabbath rest (23.10-13)
This sadly, ignored material following the Ten Words in Exodus 20, has a great deal to say about some of Jesus’s favorite subjects: strangers/aliens, widows, the poor and orphans. Briefly lets look at two passages within this overall block of material.
God Hears the One that Cries (Ex 22.21-27). All translations are those of Bobby Valentine
“And a stranger/alien you must not wrong or oppress
for strangers/aliens you were in the land of Egypt.
Any widow or orphan you must not abuse.
If you abuse, yes abuse, them
I will listen, yes listen, to their cry …”
A few observations need to be made. One question needs to be posed of the material and the reader.
Who is the alien, historically??
Would it not be a Canaanite!!?? Is there another possibility? So the average CANAANITE was to be regarded, by the average Israelite, as a valuable human being and treated as such. They are the historical ENEMY of God’s people. Who else is in the land?Moses anticipates a future beyond the Conquest in which average Israelites will be neighbors of average non-believing Caananites. How shall they live?
But the Law says there are three categories of people that are of special concern to God. 1) anyone that is an “alien” 2) the widow 3) the orphan. Each of these are WITHOUT POWER in their world. Please note how I translated v.23 where the text stresses God’s reaction: “I will listen, YES LISTEN, to their cry.” This is a prayer from a person that does not belong to Yahweh nor acknowledges his sovereignty. To put it in contemporary terms, the person is not a “Christian.” Yet God listens intently to the prayer of the powerless no matter their skin color, no matter their status, no matter their religion. God is on the side of the one who has NOTHING in this world. The person may not have a clue who the God of Israel is but simply cry out to the universe in desperation … The God who created the universe suddenly listens (note Solomon’s Prayer, 2 Chronicles 6.32ff for a similarly gracious outlook).
The rest of the passage, 22.25-27, speaks of how we treat the poor. That is the neighbor. Regardless of who they are they are to be accorded dignity. You cannot charge interest. You cannot take their cloak as collateral. For like the alien they will “cry to me” (v.27) and “I will listen, for compassionate am I.”
Love is shown in the actively seeking the best for God’s creation – including animals – and the weakest in the world, are those who have no legal standing whatsoever. Canaanites, Widows, and orphans. LOVE THEM. PROTECT THEM. That is what the Holy Spirit wrote …
Spirit Words: Knowing the Heart for the Alien/Stranger (Ex 23.1-9)
I do not have space to quote all this incredible passage. But note the prohibition of “oppressing” the alien/stranger/Canaanite is repeated (23.9/22.21). But notice verses 4-5, my rendering:
“When you encounter your ENEMY’S ox or donkey lost,
you MUST return it to him.
If you see the donkey of who HATES you
incapacitated from its heavy burden,
and would refrain from lifting it up,
you MUST nevertheless lift it up
together with the one who HATES you.”
Notice this wonderful line in v.9. What a call to empathy in the “Law”
“A stranger/alien you MUST not oppress,
You yourselves KNOW THE HEART OF THE STRANGER/ALIEN,
for strangers/aliens you were in Egypt.”
The “one” who hates you is not identified necessarily as an alien or Canaanite. We learn in the Psalms and Proverbs that enemies can even be those who are supposed to be “Christian!” (I use the word anachronistically on purpose). But who ever it is that “hates” you, the person in Covenant with God MUST, it is nonnegotiable, have a certain loving orientation toward those different than ourselves. We MUST treat the enemy as God himself treats the world as a whole – he loves it. You will actively bring a blessing to the one who “hates” you.
How did we miss this beloved. How did we go from what Moses says here to claiming in Bible classes that the OT tells us to HATE our enemy!?
Spirit Words! Torah Grace!
I cannot say anything about the Book of the Covenant without 23.10-13. In this text, the land in the Sabbath year is to lie fallow “SO that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the WILD ANIMALS may eat …” Apparently, contrary to much rhetoric I have heard all my life, the Law of Moses certainly did apply to non-Israelites at least on this gracious score!
This is a GRACE from the God of Israel to the most powerless in the fallen world
1) the land itself – so easily abused by greedy human beings
2) the poor
3) the stranger/alien/Canaanite (v.12)
The “Law” of Moses does not encourage us to hate anyone. The Greatest commands in the Bible – that have ever been written or spoken – are in the “Law” of Moses. No less authority than Jesus of Nazareth made that claim. Jesus would have said to the preacher that day in Florida, “you being a teacher in Israel and do not know these things?” What are those greatest of commands in the history of universe? Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbor as yourself?
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 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 19.17-18)
Moses anticipated bad readers so he clarified against any potential misreading already in Exodus but he does so here too …
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 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.” (Leviticus 19.33-34)
The Goal of the Command is Love (1 Timothy 1.5)
Loving one’s neighbor is something that is taken with absolute seriousness in the “Law.” This is not simply some kind of abstract soft spot but an ACTIVE action on the part of God’s people to reflect the grace and mercy of God toward those who find themselves among the down and outs of the world. The “Law” tells us to “KNOW the heart of the alien/stranger” …
We Gentile believers today can learn a great deal of what it means to be a “Christian” from Moses. Paul actually said those Holy Spirit Scriptures given through Moses “make thee wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3.15, ASV). Why don’t we read them as often as Jesus, Paul, Timothy, that lack of reading is abundantly evident in the position advocated and believed by so many.
I confess that Moses’ theology was, and is, way better than the teacher I heard (and in many incarnations before and after) in 1992. The “Law” constantly calls us to see ourselves IN the place of the poor, the widow, the orphan … even the alien … the Canaanite!!
The Goal of all God’s commands is to love … God’s People, of all people, should know the heart of the stranger … because we are ourselves redeemed by grace strangers.