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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

old testament justice

Is not this the fast that I choose:
 to loose the bonds of injustice,
 to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
 and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
 and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
 and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
 the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
 you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

- Isaiah 58:6-9

Some Christians like to make a distinction between "Old Testament justice" and "New Testament mercy," as if God's character changed at Jesus' crucifixion.

It's a strange picture of justice, too. The ordinary meaning of justice -- the one used in the Isaiah quote above and in countless other passages of the Hebrew Scriptures -- is nowhere to be seen. Justice becomes merely a synonym for judgment, as these quotes from the linked article demonstrate:

It is a covenant of the Creator’s righteous justice—or judgment—under the Law!


The Covenant of Law and the principle of judgment (or justice) under the law, therefore, applies to every nation, to every government, and to every people.

In this point of view, justice is the opposite of the mercy that God showed when Jesus gave his life on the cross.

But that's not the way the word justice is used in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Isaiah passage I quoted above, the opposite of justice is "the bonds of injustice" or the "yoke" of oppression. Justice means to share our bread with the hungry, to "bring the homeless poor into [our] house," to cover the naked.

This idea is not limited to Isaiah. In Micah, for example, we are told to "do justice." In this passage, justice is associated with kindness, not judgment:

With what shall I come before the Lord,
 and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
 with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
 with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
 the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
 and what does the Lord require of you
  but to do justice,
  and to love kindness,
  and to walk humbly with your God?

- Micah 6:6-8

In Amos, justice is contrasted with festivals, solemn assemblies, burnt offerings, and praise and worship music. None of these things is as important to God as eliminating injustice:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
 and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
 I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
 I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
 I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
 and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

- Amos 5:21-24

That's just a small sample of what the Hebrew Prophets say about justice. And it's not just the prophets. Psalm 72, for example, begins with this prayer:

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Even the Torah -- the legal code of ancient Israel -- contained specific commands for acting with justice. Deuteronomy has a whole chapter devoted to taking care of the poor:

When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God.

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

- Deuteronomy 24:10-15

And some words that might be relevant to today's debate about illegal immigration:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.

- Deuteronomy 24:17-22

Charging interest on loans was a sin:

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.

- Exodus 22:25

The book of Leviticus offers the earliest bankruptcy protection law, with terms that are very favorable to the borrower:

If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.

- Leviticus 25:35-38

So, in a sense, the folks at Renew America are right: The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a God of justice. But when the Scriptures speak of justice, they mean social justice. God cares deeply about the poor and the oppressed, and expects us to treat them fairly.

It seems to me that, from a biblical perspective, justice and mercy are the same thing.

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At 7/12/2006 3:45 AM, Blogger Monk-in-Training said...

This is an outstanding post, and one that needs to be read by every Dominionist Christian in the nation. Thank you for saying it in such a Scriptural way. :)

I may want to post it on my blog, would you mind if I shared it?

At 7/12/2006 5:41 AM, Blogger truevyne said...

Let justice roll! You used my three of my most favorite scriptures in one post.

At 7/12/2006 8:34 AM, Blogger BruceA said...

Monk-in-Training -

Thank you for asking.

If you ever see something here that you want to share on your own blog, feel free. You don't need to ask permission, just include a link back to me in your post.

That goes for anyone else, too.

At 7/12/2006 3:19 PM, Blogger Monk-in-Training said...

Thank you Bruce, I just think this is an important post.

At 7/17/2006 10:23 AM, Blogger seth said... what a good post. thank you. just watched 'Dead Man Walking' again the other day and they strike the distinction you mention up top - a guard asks if Sister Helen has read the Old Testament and she snipes back about whether he's read the New Testament (and in relation to your top post - a great pop culture discussion piece for Christians if there was one (among many))...but I love how you clear out the 'black and white' we all too often want to subscribe too and paint the bigger picture.

At 9/06/2006 9:40 AM, Blogger Jackson said...

thanks for sharing, Bruce. we've never met, but I appreciate your sharing those scriptures. your post has been a valuable resource for me just now in my own studies!

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