Does the Old Testament teach to hate your enemies?

No, the Old Testament never teaches to hate our enemies any more than the New Testament does. Throughout the Scriptures, we are commanded to treat even those who hate us with dignity and compassion as men and women created in the image of God. Some critics challenge, however, that this creates a problem with Jesus' own teaching, which seems (they claim) to indicate that the Old Testament taught hate of enemies and that Jesus replaced this with the stricter ethic of love for even one's enemies. During His famous "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus utters the powerful words:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," (Matthew 5:43-44).

These words have been a central part of Christian ethics for nearly two thousand years and resonate even with many unbelievers around the world. Yet, there are those who cry foul here, saying that Jesus' statement is predicated on a misquotation of the Old Testament and a false assumption that the Old Testament taught people to hate their enemies. The command to "love your neighbors" comes from Leviticus, and reads:

"You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord," (Leviticus 19:18).

The command says to love your neighbor, but it never says anything about hating your enemies. Indeed, the fact that it forbids vengeance seems to indicate that you are to love your neighbor even if they are your enemy. This is consistent with other statements in the law like:

"If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him," (Exodus 23:4-5).

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we read words such as:

"If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink," (Proverbs 25:21).

So why does Jesus say that it says to hate your enemies? The simple answer is that Jesus doesn't say that at all. Jesus is demonstrating what God really commands over against the teachings and practices of his day. He is addressing faulty interpretations of the Law. How can we know this? Jesus refers to the Old Testament Scriptures often in Matthew's Gospel, and He never uses any phrase like "you have heard," to quote them. Matthew frequently records Jesus challenging the Pharisees with phrases like, "Have you not read?"1 Never, "have you not heard?" When speaking from the Prophet Daniel, Jesus bids "let the reader understand," not "let the hearer understand." This pattern is extremely consistent. The Gospel of Matthew doesn't present Jesus as speaking of the Scriptures themselves as something "heard,' but rather as something "read." So in Matthew 5, when Jesus uses the formula of "you have heard it said...but I say," Jesus is not arguing with the passage itself. Indeed, Jesus later cites this very passage "love your neighbor as yourself," (Leviticus 19:18) as the second greatest commandment of the whole law.2 So, Jesus is not critiquing the words of Scripture, but rather the way those Scriptures were being taught and interpreted by the teachers and practices of His day. Remember that Jesus prefaces this whole section of His sermon by saying:

"For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven," (Matthew 5:20).

And also:

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven," (Matthew 5:17-19).

So, when Jesus challenges what the people have heard, "love your neighbor and hate your enemy," He is not twisting the Old Testament to attack it. He is defending the actual teaching of the Old Testament against this popular misrepresentation of its intent!

Interestingly, Mormonism alters Jesus' words here and accidentally creates the very problem for which Jesus is falsely accused! The Book of Mormon tells a story of Jesus descending from heaven in ancient America and preaching the Sermon on the Mount again to the people there. In the Book of Mormon version, however, Jesus' words are reported as: 

"And behold it is written also, that thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy; But behold I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you," (3 Nephi 12:43-44).

Notice that Jesus' actual words, "you have heard it said," are replaced with the formula "behold it is written." Now, whenever Jesus used the words "It is written," in Matthew, He is always referring to the words of Scripture. So, by carelessly altering Jesus' words, the Book of Mormon actually creates a false situation where Jesus does accuse the Old Testament of containing the command to hate your enemy. The fault here, however, is not with Jesus or the Old Testament. The fault is with the Book of Mormon and its author. In reality, the Old Testament and the New both teach that we are to love even our enemies. Jesus was consistent with and upheld all that had been revealed before His earthly coming.

  • 1. For example, Matthew 12:3, Matthew 12:5, Matthew 19:4, Matthew 21:16, Matthew 21:42 Matthew 22:31
  • 2. Matthew 22:39