What Does the Bible Say about Neighbors?

Who Is Your Neighbor?
Who Is Your Neighbor?. Nils Hendrik Mueller/Getty

Typically, the concept of "neighbor" is limited to those people one lives near or at least people in the local community. This is how the Old Testament sometimes uses the term, but it is also used in a broader or figurative sense to refer to all Israelites. This is the premise behind the commands attributed to God to not to covet a neighbor's wife or possessions refers to all fellow Israelites, not just those who happen to live in the vicinity.

Neighbors in the Old Testament

The Hebrew word most often translated as "neighbor" is rea and has a variety of connotations: friend, lover, and of course the usual sense of neighbor. In general, it might be used to refer to anyone who isn't an immediate kinsman or an enemy. Legally, it was used to refer to any fellow member of the covenant with God, in other words, ​fellow Israelites.

Neighbors in the New Testament

One of the best remembered of Jesus' parables is that of the Good Samaritan who stops to help an injured man when no one else would. Less well remembered is the fact that this parable was told to answer the question "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus' answer suggests the broadest possible interpretation for "neighbor," such that it even includes members of unfriendly tribal groups. This would be consistent with his command to love one's enemies.

Neighbors and Ethics

Identifying who one's neighbor is has occupied a great deal of discussion in Jewish and Christian theology. The broad use of "neighbor" in the Bible appears to be part of a general trend through the entire history of ethics, which is to increasingly broaden the social circle of one's ethical concern. Noteworthy is the fact that it's always used in the singular, "neighbor," rather than the plural — this highlights one's ethical duty in particular cases to specific people, not in the abstract.