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A Fresh Look At Some Familiar Texts

Love of God and love toward neighbor are commandments that, when taken together, comprise the best summary of the Bible's moral teaching. These twin principles are first articulated in the Torah in Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18.

The idea of combining the two "love commandments" to encapsulate righteous living is alluded to as early as the Second Temple period. The pseudepigraphical work Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, written in the first or second century BC, presents a fictional account of the deathbed advice given by the sons of Jacob to their descendants. The author has Issachar saying, "But love the Lord and your neighbor," and similarly, Benjamin exhorting his kin to, "Fear ye the Lord, and love your neighbor."(1)

Jesus of Nazareth fused these two texts when asked to identify the greatest of God's commandments (Matt 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34). The fact that the scribe who posed the question to Jesus heartily endorsed his answer (Mark 12:32-33) shows that his response was not necessarily controversial. However, when we carefully consider the interpretive implications of his instruction, we find that it is truly unprecedented.

Jesus radically declared that "on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 22:40). To better appreciate the depth of the Master's teaching, it is worthwhile to meditate on how specific biblical commandments promote love for God and neighbor. As a case study, let's consider God's instruction to Israel on the use of material resources.

As the children of Israel prepared to depart the land of their captivity, they asked their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold jewelry and clothing. The Egyptians honored their request (Exod 12:35-36), and so the Israelites left with "great possessions," fulfilling a promise that God had made to Abraham hundreds of years before (Gen 15:14).

Although the Bible does not say so explicitly, it appears that a major purpose for this Egyptian wealth was to furnish raw materials for the LORD's tabernacle in the wilderness. Several months later, the Israelites were invited to contribute fabrics, gems, precious metals, and labor for the project (Exod 35). The wealth obtained from their oppressors enabled all the people to participate in the offering and thus have a personal stake in the construction of the tabernacle. Receiving an offering for the work encouraged them to devote a significant share of their resources as worship, out of love for God.

The same goal was served by a regular schedule of public sacrifices to be carried out at the tabernacle (and later the temple), as described in Num 28-29. Each day two lambs were sacrificed, one in the morning and one in the evening (28:1-8). Two additional lambs were offered on a weekly Sabbath day (28:9-10), with ten additional animals (two bulls, a ram, and seven lambs) scheduled for the first day of a month. There were also a variety of special offerings for the annual festival days.

Particularly striking was the schedule for the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration, where the sacrifices included thirteen bulls on the first day, twelve on the second day, eleven on the third day, etc., continuing for seven days. The total number of bulls offered over seven days was seventy, the traditional number of nations in the world. This number was to remind God's people of their high calling and that as a royal priesthood, they were to be his light to the nations. Importantly, implicit in this plan was the promise that God would bless Israel to enable these sacrifices to take place.

In the agricultural society of ancient Israel, the animals in the flocks and herds were a primary proportion of the nation's wealth. The sacrificial schedule of Num 28-29 allocated a significant part of Israel's resources to the tabernacle or temple. These resources were ultimately going toward the all-important cause of building and maintaining a relationship with God. We can summarize the situation in the style of a familiar advertisement: Large numbers of livestock = a substantial financial investment. Living in communion with the Creator of the Universe = priceless.

Along with animals, human resources were also to be dedicated to the tabernacle or temple. The tribe of Levi was set aside for God's service and supported by the tithes and offerings of Israel (Num 3, 18). Levites were to live in towns throughout the Promised Land (Num 35:1-8) and lead the nation in proper understanding and application of the Torah.

A tithe of an Israelite's income was earmarked to help worship during the pilgrim festivals (Deut 14:22-27). Commentator Roy Gane describes this festival tithe as a "celebration account." Gane observes, "The spiritual, culinary, social, and emotional highlight of the year was all wrapped up in the same event. Needless to say, this would tend to encourage a positive attitude toward God and recognition of his gifts."(2)

An additional tithe was to be set aside in the third and sixth years of every cycle of seven years for the poor and needy (Deut 14:28-29; 16:12-13). Torah provisions, like this one, serve to protect the more vulnerable members of society. Others included prohibitions against charging interest on personal loans (Exod 22:25; Deut 23:19), observing sabbatical years and the weekly Sabbath (Exod 23:10-12) and leaving gleanings from a harvest for the needy (Deut 24:19-21).

All of these provisions found in sacred scripture direct the use of material means to promote the eternal values of love for God and neighbors. Jesus emphasized these same priorities for the purpose of the resources that God has granted us in his Sermon on the Mount. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." (Matt 6:19-20).

In the next verse, he ties it all together and brings the point home for our study, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Examining our use of resources to reveal where our values and priorities lie is an important truth. Equally true is the idea that intentionally channeling our wealth toward love for God and neighbors can lead our hearts in the same direction.


(1) T. Issachar 5:2; T. Benjamin 3:3.

(2) Leviticus, Numbers (NIV Application Commentary), Zondervan Academic, Grand Rapids, 2004, p. 655.


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