Justice in the Bible

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Justice in the Bible

Benny Thettayil

The primary objective of the cardinal virtue of Justice, as found in the Bible, is making the cosmos whole, by upholding both goodness and impartiality. It stands at the centre of a true religion that has its roots in the Bible which reminds us that "The righteous care about justice for the poor;the wicked have no such concern" (Prov 29:7). Furthermore, St James reminds us that the "religion that is acceptable to God is the one that looks after orphans and widows and refrains from being polluted by the world" (Jam 1:27). Justice flows from God's heart and character. It is said to be the morally correct state of persons and their affairs. Its essence is found in the protection of rights of everyone irrespective of race, creed, nationality, language. It is a virtue enjoined by almost all religions and is honoured by the wisdom of generations.

The ubiquitous symbol of justice is Lady of Justice, which stands for equality in the dispensation of justice without favour or prejudice, for it demands equality, objectivity and fair dealing.Now, there is a difference between law and justice. Law is a rule of conduct imposed by an authority whereas justice is a timeless value. Law can be amended, promulgated and annulled. However, justice, being a virtue, has eternal value.

A. Standard of Divine Justice

The standard of divine justice, according to Richard J. Clifford, is seen in three major "founding moments" in the Bible. They are the origin of the world as seen is in Genesis 1-11, the origin of Israel seen in the Book of Exodus and the origin of New Israel found in the Gospels. These can be delineated as follows:

1. Creation

In Genesis 1-11, we find two cosmogonies. The first in Gen 1and the second in Gen 2-11. The seven-day creation account, which forms the first creation story provides a lens for viewing the second creation account (2-11). Both these, when put together, highlight two aspects of biblical justice: (a) God is generous (b) God is just.

(i) God is Generous

After the creation of human beings, the two defining imperatives given to the human race by God (1:28) are (i) to be fertile and multiply, of which the fulfilment is found in the genealogies in Gen 4, 5, and 11. (ii) to fill the earth and have dominion overit, the fulfilment of which is found in their spread to diverse lands and taking possession of them. However, when dominion is understood in the sense of overpowering and exploitation, we miss the point. In reality, the generous God, here, is entrusting his precious creation to the human being to care for it as its stewards – justice demanded of human beings by God on behalf of the entire creation. There is a generous supply of land for all so that each of the 70 nations has its own land (Gen 10). Later, this generosity is displayed during the settlement of the people of God in the Promised Land - every Israelite family of every tribe has its land. It is in this context that the phenomenon of land grabbing and depriving people of their lands one way or another, becomes a rebellion against God's generous will for all.

(ii) God is Just

The just God gives everyone his/her due. God affirms the righteous conduct of people as evidenced by his act of rescuing the righteous Noah and family and frustrates wicked conduct of Adam/Eve, Cain and Lamech in their defiance. In the Genesis story of creation God is not depicted as capricious or volatile like the gods found in the Mesopotamian epic of creation. In Genesis, God responds predictably, albeit in a mysterious manner, to human actions.

Creation and Social Justice: The basis of social justice is the equalitywith which God created the first human beings. In addition to the equality, a unique feature of the human beings was "the image of God" (1:26-27). In the Mesopotamian accounts of creation, human beings were created as slaves of gods to observe their rituals and to work for them. The gods created kings separately. They were gods' representatives on earth and human representative before the gods. In the creation story in Genesis, God extends the kingly role to all human beings as all human beingsware made in God’s image and likeness. The image is transmitted to succeeding generations (5:1). It is the basis of prohibition against murder. In the post-Flood world, people were allowed to slay animals but not human beings (Gen 9:6). The image of God in human beings is yet another basis of OT justice.

2. Exodus

The story of exodus concerns not only the flight/expulsion of the Hebrews from Egypt, but also the oppression of the Hebrews, defeat of Pharaoh their oppressor, the journey to Sinai, the covenant and the reception of the law and the constitution of God's people. The law that bound them together was based on divine justice.

The injustice that we see being suffered by the Hebrews in Exodus 1-6 was system-related and man-made malice, the result of which was exploitation and social degradation (Dt 26). The point to note in the event of Exodus is that God eases the distress of the Hebrews not by giving somethingto the poor but by removing the slaves from an impoverishing situation and leading them out of the Egyptian system. Exodus is understood as God's work of a new creation.

The faith of the people of Israel was that it was a people shaped by the just God in his generosity in order to show the nations around God's generosity and power. It was called to be a holy community with a mediating role regarding divine justice.

3. Work of Jesus

The New Testament is the latest and best form of the ancient tradition because Jesus was born, raised and worked in it. The Christ event led to a new exodus and a refounding of Israel. This is symbolised by the choosing the Twelve, feeding the people in the wilderness, fulfilling the Law of Moses, making a new covenant and finally sealing it with his own blood. The greatest symbol for his reform was the kingdom of God which expressed God's rule over Israel in the present and its eventual triumph over all evil powers in the future.

B. Hebrew Culture and Justice:

In the ancient Israel, they had judges, not juries to render a verdict. The downside of such a system is that it left plenty of room for false accusations, bribery and influence to bring about injustice (Deut 16:18-20; 1 Sam 8:3; Prov 17:23; 19:28; Is5:23; Jer 5:28; Ezek 22:29; Am 2:6-7; Zech 7:9-10), the victims of which were often the most vulnerable - the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the resident alien (Deut 27:19; Ps 82).The Scripture strongly advises that a righteous judgeshows partiality neither to the rich (Deut 24:17) nor to the poor (Lev 19:15), instead, all were called repeatedly to follow in the "paths of justice"(Gen 18:19; Ps 106:3; Prov 21:15; Is 1:17; 1:59).

After the conquest and settlement in the Promised Land, the people relied on the CharismaticJudges for legal matters.They were charismaticsindividuals rising ad hoc as the need of the occasion demanded. There could be one or more at a given time. The woman Judge called Deborah stands out as an illustrious judge in the century of the Hebrews in Canaan (Judges 4-5).The Charismatic Judges were followed by theRoyal Judges.During the Monarchy, the king was final arbiter of justice (2Sam 8:15; 15:3-4). Solomon's wisdom made him a just king (1 Kings 3:28; 2 Chron 9:8). However, Ahab, a later king proved to be a wicked judge for Naboth (1 Kings 21).

Several of the Prophetswarned the kings about the injustice their subjects suffered (Jer 21:12; 22:2-3; Mic 3:1-3; 3:9-11). For these prophets, justice was of greater worth than religious ritual (Prov 21:3; Mic 6:8; cf. Mt 23:23). They insisted that justice must lead to honesty, even in business(Lev 19:35-36; Hos 12:7).

Justice was rooted in the very nature of God (Is 40:14) who even-handedly rewards good, but does not ignore the sins of any (Ps 33:5). He, however, does not deal out instant justice, rather, in human terms, a studied justice. At the face of the evil that abounds, the oppressed pray to God to intervene (Ps 7:9; Prov 29:26). Their prayers take the form of a complaint (Hab 1:2-4) but they do not challenge God's essential justice (Job 40:8; Mal 2:17).

C. Types of Justice that People Seek

The Scripture being the mirror of the Israelite society living in their own age reflect the various vicissitudes of the judicial process in the land. Some of them would not be very palatable to us in our age.

1. Discriminatory Justice in Judaism

Midrash is a branch of interpretation of the Jewish Scripture. Midrash halakha attempts to take biblical texts that are either general or unclear and to clarify what they mean. It focuses on Jewish law and practice. Example 1. According to this interpretation, the murder of a Jew is a capital offence. If a Jew murders a Gentile, he is not punishable by a court. If a Gentile is the murderer in Jewish jurisdiction he is to be executed (whoever be the victim). If the victim is a Gentile, and if the murderer converts to Judaism, he is not punished. Example 2. It was presumed that all Gentiles are promiscuous. If a Jewish man and a Gentile woman make love, the Gentile woman should be executed and the Jewish man must be flogged (Jn 8????). Example 3. There are genocidal biblical exhortations. There is a special law against the pre-conquest Canaanites: "thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth" (Deut 20:16) (Mind you, this was never put into practice).

2. Distributive Justice

Remember the complaint of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27 and the complaint against the discrimination against the Greek widows in Acts 6:1-7. Distributive justice denotes the claim that all have a share in the goods which are essentially public or social. It has implications for economic justice, which is about fairness in what we receive. It is rooted in socialism, where equality is a fundamental principle.

3. Procedural Justice

Procedural Justice operates on the principle of fair play (as opposed to fair share in distributive justice). It calls for the use of fair process in deciding what is to be decided. Some of the biblical examples are the labourers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16), Nicodemus defending Jesus in the Sanhedrin (Jn 7:50), the Zebadees looking for high places (Mk 10:35). The Biblical exhortation is ‘do not be biased either toward the rich or the poor’ (Deut 10:17–18; Lev 19:15; Ex 23:3)

4. Commutative Justice:

Commutative Justice denotes fidelity to freely formed mutual bonds and of fairness in exchange. It is rooted in the fundamental equality of persons. It calls for honest weights, measures (Lev 19:35–36; Am 8:5; Prov 11:1) and honest exchange of goods and services.

5. Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice is what the betrayed person seeks from the betrayer. Justice demands that some form of restitution is made, putting things back as they were. The process may include action, even extra payment to the offended party. This is also known as corrective justice. The demand of Lev. 6:2 is to return what one stole or defrauded, or the lost item one has found. This is done in three steps: (a) make full restitution for the goods involved (b) add a fifth of its value to it (c) bring one’s restitution-offering to the Lord.

6. Retributive Justice

Retributive Justiceworks on the principle of punishment. It is given in order to dissuade the perpetrator, prevent future wrong-doing and re-offending by the offender. It might also include the satisfaction of victims and those who care about them. Sometimes, the Lord sees to it (Hab 2:15-16).

7. Wild Justice:

Survival was the most important concern at this phase. Judges 21:11 demands: “This is what you shall do; every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction.” This is cherem, translated as something like "put under the ban" or "devote to destruction" and refers to the wholesale destruction of all living things - men, women, children and animals - that God commands when the Israelites captured a city. Cherem texts are the most difficult texts in the bible. Here the book of Joshua looks back and describes how Israel, at least at the beginning, had an absolute hostility toward idolatry. In Joshua this hostility, of which cherem is the most extreme example, is a religious, ideological, and national ideal. The ideal was for Israel to have extreme antipathy toward their pagan neighbours and the gods they worshiped. This was in order to protect the newly conquered land and to prevent the possible apostasy to foreign gods (Remember that Israel was a child).

8. Humane Justice:

According to Ex 22:26, if you at all take your neighbour's clothing to pledge, you shall deliver it to him before the sun goes down. Similarly, in Job 24:3, it is the wicked who take the widow's ox for a pledge. In the first case you deprive the debtor of his night’s sleep and in the second case, you deprive the widow of her means of livelihood.

Social Justice: Arrangements are made by the early Israelite settlers in Canaan to make social equality prevalent in the society. Once every 50th year, the society reverts to its pristine equality. Jubilee was an institution in Israel that brought social justice back to the land in the Jubilee Year as seen in Leviticus 25 (see the detailed note in the our Reflection No, 1).

9. Familial Justice:

If a child is born to you from a slave, it could become part of your family if the slave is yours. In this way, four of the Israelite patriarchs were born of handmaids. Zilpah and Bilhah were the handmaids of Leah and Rachel, respectively. Zilpah bears Jacob two sons - Gad and Asher and Bilhah bears him two sons - Dan and Naphtali. However, this does not happen with Hagar and her son Ishmael probably because the owner of the handmaid did not choose to consider them part of the family.

10. Trans-generational Justice:

After the creation of human beings God gives them the stewardship of all that is created (Gen 1:28) that the posterity might enjoy the creation just as it was given to them. Similarly, Abraham’s blessing (Gen 28:3-4) is not just for him, but for all his children. Care for the future generations and leaving provisions for them is part of biblical justice. Genetic modification, exploitation of natural resources might go against justice. The earth is good because God created it. Of late, we have begun to interfere and we are not sure where this will lead us!

11. Poetic Justice: It is a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished. One of the beautiful examples is given in the Book of Esther where in a strange turn of events, Haman, the evil plotter against the Jews,is executed on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

D. Vengeance and Justice:

Sometimes one can stray into the realm of Retaliatory Justice (revenge). Here the hurt party seeks to make the hurting party suffer in return, maybe, many times more severe than reparation. In this case, often emotion guides 'justice' not fairness or prevention.

Look at the changing biblical phases of the response of the hurt party and compare them to the growth of a child and consider Israel growing from childhood to adolescence to youth and the sagacity of old age. In the first phase, Lamechtells his wives: ‘I have killed a young man for striking me... If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold’” (Gen 4:23-24). In the second phase, a law called lextalionis is promulgated to prevent the spiralling of violence according to which the punishment must correspond in degree and kind to the offence; it shall not be harsher than deserved - “an eye for an eye” (Ex 21:23-25). In the third phase, we have a corrective given in a manner unheard of: You have heard: "An eye for an eye … If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:38–39). It is in a similar teaching that Jesus answers Peter’s question: “How often shall I forgive my brother?” - "… up to seventy times seven” (Mt 18:21-22) was the answer. See here the uses of the number in Genesis and Matthew the reverse of what used to be!

E. Justice and the Kingdom of God

Some of the Prophesies and Prayers are the outcome of the dreams visions of the holy people in which they foretell a future when God exercises absolute justice over creation (Ps 98:9; Eccl 3:16; Isa 28:5-6; 29:19-21). They await the Messiah to execute justice on God's behalf (Is 9:7; 11:3-4; 16:4b-5; 28:17). They look beyond the wise Solomon to an ideal just king who would protect the poor (Ps 72). In the Incarnation, Jesus, by means of his life, deathand resurrection, carries out the Father's justice on earth (Mt 12:18-21; Jn 5:28-30). Those who believed in Jesus trusted that in the future he will execute God's will over all(Acts 17:31; Rev 19:11).

The event by means of which Jesus brought about the fulfilment of the prophesies leads us the discussion on the crucifixion and the kind of justice that was involved in the sentence of death. From the human perspective, Jesus was unjustly tried and executed (Is 53:8; Jn 7:24; Acts 3:14). However, in the divine perspective, Jesus' death satisfied God's justice (Rom 3:26). Gruesome? Look at the last words of Jesus from the cross. In Greek, tetelesthai ("It is finished." - Jn 19:30)implies that something has come to an end, it has been completed, perfected, accomplished in the full and that something has consequences that will endure on and on. In the ancient Greece, it is a cry of victory by the athlete who stood first, a cry of perfection. Having endured the trials of preparation, the victor feels, in comparison with all the fellow competitors, a sense of perfection. In Jesus, it was the word that turned this apparent tragedy into a scene of victory that shook the earth, split rocks, split the temple curtain and laid open the Holy of Holies. Jesus was the victor. Hence, in Mark, we do not have much of the resurrection scenes. His death was his victory.


Many are the Contemporary Implications of NT Justice. (1) Jesus' solidarity with the poor brings the marginalized (incl. women) to new roles. He talksabout and associateswith the poor! (2) The virtue of justice has an eschatological dimension, in the sense that the work of justice here on earth is linked to the just world hereafter. (3) The just God liberates people from oppressors and false gods to form them into a just community, the new creation, the new Israel, which is the most provocative legacy of the New Testament. Any just law reflects God's standards (Gen 9:5-6; Deut 1:17), not mere human reasoning (Hab 1:7). Human reasoning might justify abortion, embryo harvesting, assisted suicide and other evils in the modern world, although they do not correspond to the standard of God.

For the modern disciples of Jesus, love of justice is a virtue (2 Col 7:11; Phil 4:8). However, we are advised that we might not take justice into our own hands (1Thes 4:6) rather, for peace, at times it is better to suffer a bit of injustice than to take a brother to court (1Cor 6:7-8). Christians who belong to the Kingdom of God have a mediatory role to play in a world where some people are denied justice.

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