Who has not heard the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37)? For centuries, Jesus’ tale has inspired people to help their neighbors. But there are parts of the story that we may miss if we are unfamiliar with first-century Judaism. What made the good Samaritan so good? One reason may be that he saw what he thought was a dead body on the side of the road (the Samaritan did not know the person was alive) and he did not ignore the corpse as others did.
In Jewish culture to be unburied was perceived as a curse. Elijah prophesied that Jezebel would meet this ugly fate and, indeed, her dead body was torn apart by wild dogs (2 Kgs 9:34-35). In Babylonian exile, a righteous man named Tobit secretly buried the bodies of other Jews whom the king had slaughtered (Tobit 1: 16-20; c. 2nd century BCE). Mishnah preserves rabbinic thinking on the matter “A High Priest and a nazir [a person who took a Nazarite vow] may not become impure for their relatives (Lev 21:11), but may for an abandoned dead body.” (m. Nazir 7:1). For the ancient rabbis, even priestly purity was secondary to deeds of kindness.
Indeed, the Torah associates dead things with ritual impurity, and Moses did not give any commands obligating one to bury an abandoned body. Those who passed the supposed corpse on the side of the road could have shown mercy, but instead, they followed the letter of the law. In Jesus’ day burying a body that no one else could care for was seen as a highly ethical deed, as a selfless act of kindness that cannot be repaid. Yeshua asked, “Which… proved to be a neighbor…” and he was told, “the one who showed mercy toward him” (Lk 10:36-37 NASB). In Yeshua’s teaching (ἔλεος; elios) “compassion” “mercy” or “loving kindness” (חֶסֶד; chesed) towards other people transcends all other commandments. A Samaritan was an outsider, with no obligation to care for the corpse of a Jew, yet he showed compassion, and thereby acted like a good neighbor.