Review:The Hebrew Old Testament and the Ministry Today: An Exegetical Study of Leviticus 19:18b

David Noel Freedman, in a small article in his collected writings,[1] discusses the wide breadth of knowledge that should  be possessed by those in ministry, while also illustrating the benefits of being knowledgeable in various related interdisciplinary fields (i.e. archaeology, linguistics, theology, philosophy, and history) by exegeting Leviticus 19:18b.  However, archaeology and history never figure into his exegesis of the above mentioned passage.

This is a wonderful article; however, I wish Freedman would have belabored his initial point a bit more (that ministers need to be more knowledgeable in many fields in order to more faithfully take the ancient message and carry it into their modern context), but his exegesis of Leviticus 19:18b does help contribute to that point (although I wonder if another verse could have served his point better).

I particularly want to focus on Freedman’s understanding of the term thyself in Leviticus 19:18b and its usage in Matt 22:39 and Mark 12:31. Freedman suggests that the crux of this passage is the term thyself. Previously, I held a slightly different position than Freedman, but I have since changed my mind based on the reasoning presented in this paper.  What does yourself/thyself mean?

In order to answer the above question the author states, “Many commentators seem to regard it as equivalent to an adverb of degree, thus limiting the force of the verb, as e.g., “You shall love your fellow man as much as you love yourself.”  Such an interpretation would seem to be linguistically possible, but it leaves several unresolved questions.  This first is that self-love is rarely mentioned in the Bible, and then only in a figurative sense (c.f. Proverbs 19:8-looks after his true well being).  In this biblical sense, we could say that to love others is to love oneself, i.e., to do what is right and good is to love oneself.  But this is not what we normally understand by self-love.  Defined in the usual way, those who manifest self-love most conspicuously commonly show the least concern for others.”[3]

Personally, I always looked at this verse through the eyes of cynicism.  I felt that if such a twisted people, as you and I, could learn to love anything more than we loved ourselves, than the Kingdom would become more realized on Earth.  Freedman critiques this approach to this passage by saying, “Even so, this would imply the displacement of concern for self with concerns for others,” which creates a paradoxical situation, in which self become more devalued.[4]

The next approach that Freedman dismantles is what he refers to as the “prudential balance between neighbor-love and self-love.”[5] This seems to violate the spirit of the passage, as well as Jesus interpretation of this passage in light of the parable of the Good Samaritan, not to mention the example of neighborly love of Christ on the cross.

Freedman advocates that we are to understand ourselves as apart of the “corporate personality[6]“.

I think this concept (corporate personality) is difficult to understand in a Western context.   We are individualistic, egocentric citizens; however, in many other parts of the world people do not think in isolation, as we Westerners do.  Built into our society is the notion of privacy, which is not a commonly held ideology for the rest of the world.  Freedman suggests is that the Hebrews lived in community and this community created a “consciousness that all Israelites belonged to each other in a peculiar way.”[7]

Thus “yourself” is more than “yourself”, but yourself includes those are apart of the community.  Freedman suggests “that in this passage ‘self’ is to be understood in the broader sense of whole unity which constitutes the person, i.e., his wife and children: the immediate community which bears the individual’s name and shares his life.  The relationship to these determines the norm of love: the common experience, the affection and consideration which are shown to wife and children, and by them to husband and father, are the pattern upon which neighbor-love is to be modeled.  Thus the commandment is to be understood as meaning:  You are to love your fellow man as through he were part of you, i.e., part of the kinship group which is the immediate and natural area for the expression of love.  The measure of a man’s love is the scope or inclusiveness; the wider its reach, and the more who are made part of the ‘self’, the greater the depth of magnitude.  In short, he who love much, love many.”[8]

While this essay is short, the questions that were posed, by this giant of Old Testament studies, are probing and yield insightful answers.  My only critique is that  another verse could have been exegeted to make his initial point better.  In the end, ministers need to be better versed in multiple  fields of study in order to enrich their exploration and proclamation of the written Word.  But with that being said, his treatment of this passage was wonderful, convincing, and extremely challenging.


[1] David Noel Freedman, “The Hebrew Old Testament and the Ministry Today: An Exegetical Study of Leviticus 19:18b,” in Divine Commitment and Human Obligation: Ancient Israelite History and Religion (vol. 1, 2 vols.; Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1997), 179-18

[3] Ibid., 182

[4] Ibid., 182-183

[5] Ibid., 183

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 184

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