The literary origins of the Good Samaritan: Oded and the priestly law of brotherly love

The Lukan parable of the Good Samaritan contains certain intriguing similarities with the obscure story of the prophet Oded in 2 Chronicles 28. As I hope to show here, the correct interpretation of Luke’s parable lies in these similarities. We thus begin with Oded.

According to the Chronicler, during the reign of king Ahaz Judah suffered a devastating military defeat at the hands of the neighboring kingdom of Israel. As a result, the Judahites were “robbed” (σκυλεύω) of their possessions and transported as captives to Samaria, Israel’s capital. Yet before the Israelites could sell off their captive “kindred” (ἀδελφοὶ) as slaves, the prophet Oded intervened with a word from YHWH, the ancestral God of both Judah and Israel. Oded revealed that while YHWH had granted Israel victory on account of Judah’s sins, Israel’s subsequent imprisonment of their kindred had enraged YHWH all the more (cf. Joel 3:2-3). Fearing punishment from YHWH, the Israelites returned their brethren from Israelite Samaria to Judahite Jericho.

It is at this point, at the close of the story, where echoes of the Good Samaritan most strongly reverberate.

[The Israelites] got up and took the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kindred at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria. (2 Chronicles 28:15)

He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ (Luke 10:34-35)

Although Luke 10:34-35 and LXX 2 Chronicles 28:15 contain no identical words, the story of Oded appears to have been at the forefront of the evangelist’s mind. In both stories the feeble and stripped are clothed, anointed, carried by animals, and otherwise cared for.

Moreover, given that both stories share locations (Samaria/Jericho) and a motif of ethnic tension (Judahite/Israelite, Jew/Samaritan), the similarities we see are most likely intentional and meaningful on Luke’s part.

So with this literary connection in mind, let us draw out the meaning of the Chronicles passage and then attempt to incorporate its meaning into the meaning of the Lukan parable.

Covenant brothers—Israelite and Judahite

The rhetorical import of the the Oded episode lies in the prophet’s speech before the officials of Samaria.

[YHWH] gave [Judah] into your hand, but you have killed them in a rage that has reached up to heaven. Now you intend to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem as your slaves… Now hear me, and send back the captives whom you have taken from your kindred, for the fierce wrath of the Lord is upon you. (28:9-11)

The moral logic maintained by Oded here follows the priestly law codified in Leviticus 19:17-18 and 25:39-43 which state:

You must not harbor hatred against your brother in your heart… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am YHWH.

If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.

This overlap between Oded and Leviticus should not come as a surprise as both Chronicles and Leviticus are priestly compositions. Both texts are concerned with in-group loyalty in the midst of nations hostile to Israel. As such, Israel’s harsh treatment and enslavement of his brother Judah in the Oded story awakens the wrath of the God of the Exodus. For Oded, as for the priestly school, the tribes taken out of Egypt are obligated to love one another so as to safeguard the survival of the confederation. This love was to be expressed in part by protecting the land and liberty which the children of Israel inherited at the Exodus and Conquest.


Covenant brothers—Samaritan and Jew

Due to longstanding popular interpretations of the Good Samaritan, however, it might seem odd that a story promoting in-group solidarity among Hebrews serves as the parable’s primary intertext. Indeed, interpreters have often found in the parable an indictment of those who narrow the definition of ‘neighbor’ and restrict the second greatest commandment to one’s own kin or religious community. Yet based on the literary origins of the parable in 2 Chronicles 28, our evangelist is probably pursuing other rhetorical purposes.

It seems, rather, that Luke is comparing the division of the Hebrew people in the past (i.e. Judahite vs. Israelite) with the division of the Hebrew people in the present (i.e. Jew vs. Samaritan). Just as Judahites during the reign of Ahaz considered their northern neighbors apostates from the Law and golden calf idolaters (cf. Hosea 8:5, 10:6-8), so too did Jews in the time of Jesus consider Samaritans apostates and idolaters, offering service to God in a false temple. Yet all four of these groups claimed membership in the Mosaic covenant, being thus, at least allegedly, members of God’s covenant people and brothers bound together by the Law.

The Samaritan in the parable is not, therefore, strictly speaking, a foreigner; he is, rather, a wayward son of Israel—being both worthy of his brother’s compassion and pledged to his brother’s welfare.¹

Though severely mistaken on many matters then, the Samaritan of Luke’s parable upholds the priestly law of brotherly love so as to shame two derelict Jewish holy men, the priest and Levite. The Samaritan loves his estranged Jewish neighbor and brother as himself while Jerusalem’s religious leaders turn a blind eye to the poor and lost Jews among them. Just as the Israelites of Samaria once showed compassion for their Judahite brothers, so too does the Samaritan show compassion for his left-for-dead Jewish brother on the road to Jericho.

The target of Jesus’ indictment then is not Jewish ethnocentrism as many have maintained; his target is rather the wicked shepherds of 1st century Israel, those who had so blatantly failed to care for the spiritual, material, and legal needs of their brothers. Those they were obligated to protect they left to robbers; the house they were put in charge of they left in disarray. Micah’s metaphor is without equal in this regard: Israel’s rulers butcher and devour God’s people (Micah 3).

In the end, the answer to the lawyer’s question Who is my neighbor? is simple and biting: his neighbor is every wayward and marginalized Jew who, having been rejected by the priests, Levites, and lawyers of Jerusalem, is now turning to a new shepherd, Jesus, for guidance and healing. The meaning and origin of the parable thus lies more in Jesus’ table-ministry among Israel’s “sick” as their “physician” than in modern notions of universalism or the brotherhood of man. Vying for authority over God’s flock, the people of Israel, Jesus takes aim at his competitors, Jerusalem’s priestly class: they have less moral sense than the lawless Samaritans.  


Parts 2 and 3 in this series. 

1—Whether or not Samaritans were truly members of the covenant people is besides the point. The proverbial Samaritan acts as though the robbed Jew is a member of God’s household while the religious elite treat Jewish sinners and tax collectors with disdain.

10 thoughts on “The literary origins of the Good Samaritan: Oded and the priestly law of brotherly love

  1. Thanks friend, I think the story plays on the fact that the priest and the Levite should know and practice the Law better than anyone else but are failing to do so in Jesus’ estimation. Jesus picks a Samaritan to best them because Samaritans are the worst Torah-keepers from a Jewish perspective. This message then fits well into Jesus’ basic message about Jerusalem and its shepherds (Wicked Tenants): They have not been a neighbor to their siblings (those now flocking to Jesus).

    Liked by 1 person

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