by Doug Ward

The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus is one of the Bible's richest sources of ethical instruction. Verse 18 includes the commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself", a cornerstone of the teaching of Jesus.


Other verses in this chapter describe specific ways in which one can show love to one's neighbor. Through the centuries the people of God have meditated on these verses, pondering the implications of every word in their earnest desire to follow their Creator faithfully.


Consider, for instance, the passage in verses 17-18 preceding the love commandment: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people ...." This instruction, known as the law of reproach, directs believers to confront those who have wronged them and seek reconciliation rather than nurse a grudge.


Several aspects of the law of reproach have prompted deep reflection.1 One is the variety of sins that can result from harboring hidden hatred. These include slander (mentioned in verse 16) and deceit. If someone has offended us, we may hide our grievance in front of that person while airing it to others behind his back. Proverbs 10:18 seems to address such a scenario: "The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool."


Anger is a further negative consequence of failing to deal directly with an offense. The Wisdom of Ben Sirach (late second century B.C.) declares, "How much better it is to rebuke than to fume!" (20:2, NRSV).


A second issue raised by Lev 19:17 is the question of how this commandment can best be followed within a community of faith. Some communities have set up formal procedures to implement the law of reproach. In particular, the Qumran sectarians apparently had such a procedure. Their Community Rule (IQS 5:25-6:1) specifies that a member who had a grievance against a second member of the sect was to bring his grievance to the second member in the presence of witnesses. If that effort to resolve the problem was unsuccessful, an official complaint could be lodged before the entire group.


In Matt 18:15-17, Jesus describes a similar process for resolving conflicts in Christian communities. First, one who suffers offense is to go to the offender privately and seek reconciliation. If the problem remains unresolved, the offended party confronts the offender in the presence of witnesses. A complaint is brought to the whole community as a last resort.


A third question about Lev 19:17 concerns the way one should "reason with" or rebuke someone who has caused offense. In the Hebrew text the verb for "reason with" is combined with its infinitive absolute. This grammatical construction, sometimes known as a "doubling" of the verb, occurs frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures as a form of emphasis. In English translations the emphasis is conveyed with an appropriate adverb.


A very literal translation of Lev 19:17 would say something like, "rebuking you shall rebuke your neighbor." Our modern Bible translations use a variety of verb/adverb combinations to try and capture the intended sense of this phrase. The ESV and NIV call for reasoning or rebuke to be done "frankly." The HCSB says, "Rebuke your neighbor directly," and the NLT says, "Confront people directly." The NKJV uses "surely rebuke," while the NASB and NET opt for "surely reprove."


Some ancient interpreters believed that the doubling of the verb in Lev 19:17 also implied that the rebuke should be repeated if necessary. Suppose that the "rebukee" responds well to the words of the rebuker, leading to reconciliation, but then the rebukee repeats the offense. Such a scenario apparently is envisioned by Sifra on Leviticus, a rabbinic commentary from about the third century A.D. Sifra says that in this situation, a cycle of rebuke and reconciliation could even be carried out four or five times. This source adds, though, that such confrontation should not be repeated so much that the offender is humiliated, since Lev 19:17 cautions against "incurring sin because of him."2 Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud, in a listing of several commandments containing doubled verbs, includes the statement that one should rebuke an offending brother "even a hundred times" if necessary.3


Peter's Question

There is a gospel passage related to this discussion. After Jesus explains the conflict resolution procedure of Matt 18:15-17 to his disciples, Peter asks, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" (Matt 18:21) Here Peter seems to be thinking of this same sort of continuing cycle of repeated sin, rebuke, and apology. How long should this pattern be endured?


Jesus responds with the parable of the unforgiving servant (vv. 23-35), in which a servant who has been forgiven a huge debt fails to show mercy to someone who owes him a much smaller debt. The parable reminds us that any offense we may be asked to forgive is nothing compared to how much God has forgiven us, so we should place no limit on the number of times we are willing to forgive a brother (v. 22).


This teaching of Jesus points us to the beginning of Lev 19 ("You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy"), reminding us that biblical ethics is grounded in the character and example of God. In considering how we should love our neighbor, divine love is our model. As we read in I John 3:16, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers."


In our quest to comprehend and follow the scriptures, we are supported by quite a "cloud of witnesses." Our study of Lev 19:17 illustrates how a treasure house of wisdom, gathered over centuries, is available for each chapter and verse. Especially valuable are the words of Jesus, the "founder and perfecter of our faith" (Heb 12:2).


1Dr. James L. Kugel explores the history of interpretation of Lev 19:17 in Chapter 8 of his book In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.


2See Kugel, p. 225.


3See Baba Metzia 31a-b.

Issue 30


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On 24 Apr 2015, 18:59.