In this third post on the story of “the Good Samaritan” (the story set as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday), we give consideration to the portrayal, in the story, of the Priest and the Levite. Were they acting in an uncharitable manner? Or were they simply adhering to the provisions of the Torah, which governed their lives?
A common interpretation of the lack of assistance provided by the Priest and the Levite, in contrast to the Samaritan, rests on the commandment of Lev 21:1–4, at the start of a long section relating to the ways that “the priests, the sons of Aaron” should ensure they remain holy (Lev 21–24). The first commandment relating to this priestly holiness is, “no one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, except for his nearest kin” (Lev 21:1).
These commandments are given to ensure the holiness of the priests as they minister within the Temple, in the area just outside the Holy of Holies itself (see Lev 21:21–23). However, the Priest and the Levite are both heading away from Jerusalem (“going down from Jerusalem to Jericho”, Luke 10:30), so they are not required to keep holy in order to conduct the ceremony. Furthermore, the commandments of Lev 21 do not actually apply to the Levites, only to the Priests.
Indeed, Josephus (writing at the end of the first century) notes that there is a command, relating to a person who has been convicted of a crime and left to hang on a tree, that “his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day” (Deut 21:22–23). He indicates that all Jews should obey “those things which our legislator ordained for us beforehand, which of necessity we ought to do in common to all men; as to afford fire, and water, and food to such as want it; to show them the roads; not to let any one lie unburied” (Against Apion 2.211).
So neither Priest nor Levite are excused from attending to the traveller, even on the presumption that he may have appeared dead to them as they passed by. Indeed, the expectation of normal human compassion is for the travellers to stop and render assistance. The Samaritan was a neighbour, to whom compassion and love (and practical assistance) ought to be offered. They are not excused by obedience to Torah; they are condemned by their hard hearted indifference.
The three characters in the story may well indicate that Jesus is riffing off a well-known threefold categorisation of the people of Israel: there are Priests, and Levites, and Israelites. (In the same way that we have the threefold categorisation, often told in jokes, “an Englishman, and Irishman, and a Scotsman walked into a pub …”)
The Priests all descended, it was claimed, from Aaron, the brother of Moses, regularly designated a priest (Exod 31:10; Lev 1:7; Num 3:6; Deut 10:6; Ezra 7:5; Neh 10:38; and see the note that Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah, was “a descendant of Aaron”, Luke 1:5–which puts John the Baptist into a priestly line.) The Levites, as their name suggests, traces their lineage back to Levi, the third son of Jacob and Leah (Gen 35:23; 1 Chron 2:1; Ezra 8:18), and thus Levi gave his name to one of the twelve tribes of Israel (Deut 27:12–13)
The Levites were “set apart … to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord” (Deut 10:18) and thus had no inheritance (Josh 13:14, 33), were not counted in the census of Moses (Num 1:49) and received “no allotment or inheritance within Israel” (Deut 18:1; Josh 13:14). They were to be devoted to assisting the priests (Num 3:6), 53: 3:7–9), to be responsible for “the tabernacle of the covenant, and over all its equipment, and over all that belongs to it” (Num 1:49–50). Whilst all the other tribes were allocated land (Judges 13–19), the Levites were given the cities of refuge to care for those fleeing acts of retributive justice (Num 35:9–34; Deut 19:1–13; Josh 20:1–52).
The Israelites were all others, descended from the other sons of Jacob (the early stages of these genealogical tables are given at Gen 46:8–27).
So those listening to this story (presuming the disciples, present at 10:23, are still nearby) are expecting the typical pattern: first a Priest, then a Levite, then (of course) an Israelite. Instead, Jesus punctures these traditional expectations and moves from the Priest and the Levite, to the Samaritan (v.33). This is the first punchline in the story.
Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington, in their recent New Cambridge Bible Commentary on this Gospel (CUP, 2018) , suggest that the story that Jesus told may have been influenced by the incident reported in 2 Chronicles 28, when the armies of Adam and Israel conquered the people of Judah, and “intend[ed] to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem, male and female, as your slaves” (2 Chron 28:10). A prophet named Oded spoke in the name of the Lord, commanding the victors “you shall not bring the captives in here” (2 Chron 28:13).
As a result, “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 Chron 28:15).
We can hear the echoes of this story reverberating in the story of the traveller and his Samaritan rescuer: bandaging and anointing the man, putting him “on his own animal”, and leading him to an inn (on the road to Jericho? or actually in Jericho??).
Go, and do likewise, indeed!