The most frequently occurring Hebrew word translated “neighbor,” rēaʿ, has a wide range of meanings, from “lover” (Song. of Sol. 5.16; Jer. 3.1) to “friend” (2 Sam. 16.7; Job 2.11) to “neighbor” in the familiar sense of someone living nearby (Exod. 11.2; cf. 3.22; Prov. 27.10); in general, its semantic field encompasses anyone not considered either a “brother” (a kinsman) or an “enemy.” In legal contexts, however, “neighbor” has the more specialized meaning of a member of the same social group, but not as close as a blood relative—in other words, a fellow Israelite. A key text is Leviticus 19.16–18, where the neighbor is grouped with one's “people,” one's “brother,” the “sons of one's people, one's fellow”; the passage concludes with the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This command is repeated with a significant variation later in the chapter: “You shall love the alien as yourself” (Lev. 19.34), which indicates that legally at least the alien was not subsumed under the category of neighbor, who would be the “native‐born” (Lev. 19.34; NRSV: “citizen”).
This sense of “neighbor” as a fellow member of the covenant‐community seems also to apply to the occurrences of the word in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 19.16–17; Deut. 5.20–21), where the Israelites are instructed not to bear false witness against a neighbor nor to plot to expropriate (“covet”) a neighbor's property (house, wife, slaves, livestock). It is likely that other commandments dealing with social relations have the same restriction: premeditated murder, adultery, and kidnapping are prohibited when perpetrated by one Israelite against another; the commandments against these crimes are not necessarily universal in scope.
Varying understandings of extent of the obligations of mutual assistance are found in different legal traditions in the Pentateuch. Thus, while Deuteronomy 22.1–4 enjoins the Israelites to return lost animals and property to their “brother” (NRSV: “neighbor”), and to assist him when a pack animal has fallen under a heavy load, in Exodus 23.4–5 this philanthropic obligation extends even to the enemy, to “one who hates you.”
Given the wide range of meanings for the word “neighbor,” it is not surprising that debate about its interpretation existed in Jewish tradition. The lawyer's question to Jesus reported in Luke 10.29 seems to echo that debate: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus' response to the question is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37), in which Jesus extends the obligations of Jews toward each other to include those outside the community as well. By choosing as the hero of the parable a Samaritan, a member of another group (see John 4.9; cf. Matt. 10.5), Jesus implies a maximalist interpretation of the concept of “neighbor.” The same view is expressed in Jesus' saying “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 56.27; cf. Matt. 6.44), and is generally characteristic of the ethic demanded of Christians, as derived from Jewish tradition: the command of Leviticus 19.18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is cited throughout the New Testament as an essential part of, even the very essence of the Law (Matt. 19.19; Mark 12.31 par.; Rom. 13.9; Gal. 5.14; James 2.8).
Michael D. Coogan