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 Judeans 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. Oded revealed that while YHWH had granted Israel victory on account of Judah’s sins, Israel’s imprisonment of their own kindred had enraged YHWH all the more. In the oracles of the prophet Hosea we find a similar comment on the conflict. Hosea condemned this act of Israelite aggression against Judah, comparing it to the lawlessness exhibited among the Tribes during the first Israelite civil war “in the days of Gibeah” (Hosea 9:7-9, 10:9-15, cf. Judges 19-21). Yet against all odds, Oded’s appeal was successful. The Israelites repented of their iniquity and returned their brethren from Samaria to Jericho.

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

[They] 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)

Though Luke 10:34-35 and LXX 2 Chronicles 28:15 contain no identical words, the story of Oded appears to have been in the back 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 (Judean/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 parable.

Covenant brothers—Israelite and Judean

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’s way of life. 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 people taken out of Egypt are obligated to love one another. This love was to be expressed in part by honoring the freedom and land which the children of Israel inherited at the Exodus and Conquest.

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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 loyalty among Hebrews serves as its primary intertext. 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. Yet based on the literary origins of the parable, our evangelist is probably pursuing other rhetorical purposes.

For one, Luke may be comparing the division of the covenant people in the past with the division of the covenant people in the present. Just as Judeans during the reign of Ahaz considered their northern neighbors apostates from the law and golden calf idolaters, so too did Jews in the time of Jesus consider Samaritans apostates and idolaters. Yet all four of these groups claimed membership in the Mosaic covenant; and if they were all members of God’s covenant people, then they were all brothers bound together by the Law.

The Samaritan in the parable then is not strictly a foreigner; he is a wayward member of the covenant people, worthy of his brother’s loyalty and pledged to his brother’s welfare.

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

The target of Jesus’ indictment then is not a prevalent 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.

In the end, the answer to the lawyer’s question Who is my neighbor? is simple and biting: his neighbor is every suffering and marginalized Jew (and Samaritan) who having been rejected by the priests, Levites, and lawyers of Jerusalem, is now, in desperation and joy, turning to the good shepherd.

8 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).

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