Justice and the Christian: Justice and Israel

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Smith Hopkins | January 29, 2018

This is the fifth part in an ongoing series on justice. You can access the previous posts here. The posts are based on a teaching series on Wednesday nights at Oliver Creek. Join us! This post explores the purposes of God's mishpat, his justice, in the people of Israel.

The Story of Israel

The Story of God begins with God, the Creator, forming his world. The capstone is his forming of humanity in the image of God. God, the supreme ruler of all that is, shares his rule with humans (“let them rule…let them have dominion,” Gen 1:26-28). God’s rule is mediated through humans. Each human. All humans. As image bearers we are called to rule on his behalf. This is the foundation for our call to justice.

But instead of justice, humans chose sin. We still do. From individuals (Gen 3) to empires (Babylon, Gen 11), sin then magnified and multiplied. God's rescue plan centered on the family of one man, Abraham, whom he called out of Babylon to bless all nations (Gen 12). Abraham’s family, God said, was chosen to fulfill humanity's purpose of reflecting God’s ways to the world. They would reflect him “by doing righteousness and justice” as God does (Gen 18:19). God's people are commissioned to live out God’s justice in and for the world. By the beginning of Exodus, however, the people were victims of extreme injustice. They were slaves in Egypt. But the Lord heard their groaning, remembered his covenant, and entered their story in a great act of redemption. God went to the oppressed and delivered them “with great acts of judgment” (Exod 6:1-6).

These threads—creation, sin, blessing in Abraham’s family, redemption from oppression—inspire Israel to praise God for his justice (read Psalm 146). But God's plan all along was to produce not just people who worship him for his justice but people whose lives reflect and do his justice. 

How will God make his people just? One of the primary answers in the OT is the law. 

The Law of Israel

What's the purpose of the law for Israel? Parenting is a helpful lens. God is the Father of Israel; Israel is his son (Exod 4:22). The law is intended to form the child's identity after the Father. The law's very foundation is a reminder to the son of who the Father is and what he's done for him (Exod 20:1-2). The law is also intended to instruct, guide, or tutor the child into maturity. It's meant to be transformative, changing Israel into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod 19:5-6). God gives the commandments to show Israel how to grow to be like him - like Father like son. That's how Israel will “be holy as I am holy.” 

Israel was charged to create a culture of social justice for the poor and vulnerable because it was the way the nation could reveal God’s glory and character to the world.
— Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy

But Israel's transformation was not just intended for themselves. They were to become a sign for the world pointing to the true God. Commenting on Deuteronomy 4:6-8, OT scholar Christopher Wright notes, “Israel was charged to create a culture of social justice for the poor and vulnerable because it was the way the nation could reveal God’s glory and character to the world. …Israel is told that they should keep God’s commands so that all the nations of the world will look at the justice and peace of their society, based on God’s laws, and be attracted to God’s wisdom and glory.”

By looking at Israel's law, we can get a look at God's justice. It can show how he intends for his people 1) to determine justice, 2) to do justice, and 3) to uphold social justice. These three categories will help us see God's design for justice in Israel, and this may help us in our larger pursuit of seeing God's design for justice and the Christian.

Determining Justice in Israel

God’s law guided toward a fair system of determining justice in Israel. The court environment in Israel, as today, was easily susceptible to corruption and favoritism. In fact, much of what we take for granted in our American justice system is actually derived from God’s laws for Israel.

God gives extensive instructions for just process. “You shall do no injustice in court (mishpat),” Leviticus 19:15 says. It protected the poor and the disenfranchised from becoming victims of favoritism, because in Israel's courts there was to be no partiality to the “poor” or the “great” (19:16). Bribes, too, were condemned as a perversion of mishpat (Deut 16:19). In Israel’s courts, everyone is to be equal. No one is favored. The law protected the innocent from unfair judgment and process. For example, the law required multiple witnesses vetted for honesty and integrity (Deut 19:15-21). This wasn't just a judicial protocol, generous honesty was to be a way of life in Israel.

God also gives instructions for just sentencing. Israel differentiated between levels of crimes, and so levels of punishment. For example, many of Israel’s laws limited punishment and rash revenge—“fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Lev 24:20). Perhaps the sound of these laws seems barbaric today, but they were actually intended to limit retribution and acts of vengeance, as well as to limit prejudice and bias. If someone broke a man's leg, you could not take his life. The punishment must fit the crime. The law also protected minority groups from misrepresentation and excessive punishment. The same “rules” (mishpat) applied to both natives and immigrants (24:22).

The basis for these laws and others like them is often repeated: “I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18). The law and the motivation for keeping it are who God is and what he's done for you. 

Doing Justice in Israel

The law also guided individuals in Israel in how to live justly in everyday life. God passed on his “rules” (mishpat) to follow; doing them was the way to the good life of God’s ways (Lev 18:4-5).

They were to treat people fairly—“love” is the actual language of Leviticus. Neighbors are really extensions of yourself and are to be treated as such. Strangers and immigrants are too, since Israel was immigrants when God acted in justice to redeem them. As Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Once again, who God is and what he's done for Israel.)

The law instructed Israel in everything from sex to business ethics to worship practices (cf. Lev 18-20). Incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and other sexual sins are distortions (“abominations”) of God’s “rules” (mishpat, 18:26). “You shall do no wrong in judgment (mishpat), in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules (mishpat), and do them: I am the Lord” (19:35-37). By walking in God's "rules" (mishpat), Israel can live out God's call to be "separate" and "holy as I am holy" (20:22-26).

Upholding Social Justice in Israel

God’s law regulated and defined morality for the individuals in Israel, but it also defined practices of social justice for the people of God. Special provisions were implemented into Israel’s society to ensure that the vulnerable were not systemically overlooked or oppressed. The law upheld the “rights” of many groups of people, perhaps especially those with limited opportunity for advancement or representation.

Many potentially vulnerable groups had special provisions in the law giving them protection. For example, the priests had no land inheritance, and they were assigned responsibility in the public service of the tabernacle. Accordingly, priests were to be given a tenth from all the people of Israel; this was their right or “due” (mishpat, Deut 18:3). Another protected class of people were those guilty of accidental manslaughter but innocent of murder. They were allowed cities of refuge (Deut 19:4-7). Even the unloved wife and child had special provisions of protection in the law (cf. Deut 21:15-17).

The groups most often associated with  special provisions or protections in the law were the “quartet of the vulnerable”—the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the immigrant. God's justice limited the pursuit of money, property, and productivity for the sake of the poor in the society. For example, the gleaning laws limited the harvesting of fields and orchards to give opportunity for the poor to gather (Lev 19:9). The Sabbath day limited the amount of work done in Israel by the working class. The Sabbath year limited the amount and length of debt incurred, freeing all debts and slaves every 7 years (Lev 25:1-7). Slavery of Israelites was forbidden, as was the charging of interest on loans. The most radical example of special provision for the poor was the year of Jubilee, the release of debts, slaves, and the return of lands back to their original inheritance family (Lev 25:8-17). Jubilee, along with many other laws, was intended to protect the poor from generational poverty. When Israel kept these "rules" (mishpat), God promised them good lives in the land (Lev 25:18).

Why all of these measures for social justice in Israel? The idea, according to Deuteronomy 15, is that “there shall be no poor among you” (15:4). The justice of God in a society is evidenced by the elimination of poverty. That’s not to say that poverty will never reenter the society. For a variety of reasons which we will look at in a later post, poverty will always return. The same paragraph of Deuteronomy 15 recognizes, “There will always be some in the land who are poor." But the verse continues, "That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need” (15:11, NLT, emphasis added). In other words, the laws of generous justice are intended to be the solution to the problem of poverty in Israel. The law-keeping Israelite is to be shaped into a person who gives with an “open” heart and hand, not “hardened” and “closed” ones (15:7-8). He will give generously, not “grudgingly” (15:9-11). He will bless “freely” and “liberally,” as God has blessed him (15:10-14). The motivation for these measures and laws is straightforward. This is who God is and how he treated you, so you must treat others the same way (Deut 15:14-15). Once again, the experience of God's grace is the motivation for doing God's justice.

The Failure of Israel

So how did Israel do at keeping the justice of God? The storyline of Israel grows dark. Instead of mirroring God’s justice to the world like a light to the world, their kings and rulers very often resembled the empire from which they were called (Babylon) and the empire which enslaved them (Egypt). They perverted justice in their courts (relying on wealth instead), in their lives (giving over to idolatry and sexual immorality), and in their society (neglecting the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the immigrant).

Nearly every prophet indicts Israel and Judah for their distortion of justice. They had a glaring inconsistency which was repeatedly condemned in the prophets: they worshipped the God of justice while neglecting to uphold justice in their society. God desires acts of justice, not just acts of worship.

Isaiah declares funeral woes against Israel for their “oppression.” They “turn aside the needy from "justice” and “rob the poor of my people of their right (mishpat), that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isa 10:1-2). Amos also announces funeral woes, arguing that Israel participates in worship and festivals to God as if they are righteous before him; meanwhile, they neglect daily justice. He calls on them to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Micah challenges Israel and Judah’s worship, “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?” No, no, no. That’s not what God is after in his people. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice (mishpat), and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:6-8). Zechariah, likewise, calls on Judah to align their ritual life with a renewed commitment to generous justice. “Render true judgments (mishpat),” he commands them. Here’s how: “show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:9-10).

Israel was guilty of twisting God's justice, and so instead of enjoying long life with God in the land, they were cut off from him and the land.

The Hope of Israel

The prophets of God condemned Israel for their injustice, but they also spoke hopeful words for the arrival of God’s justice for the poor and vulnerable. Isaiah spoke of a faithful, yet suffering servant. He would be “oppressed” and “afflicted” (Isa 53:7). Though he was innocent as a lamb, he would be “led to the slaughter,” the victim of “oppression and judgment (mishpat)” (53:7-8). The innocent would be “cut off” in the place of the sinful people. Isaiah also spoke of an “anointed one,” the Messiah, who would one day embody the return of God to his people. He would bring God’s justice (mishpat, 61:8) for the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, the mourning, and even the strangers and foreigners (61:1-5). He would announce the arrival of the king (“good news”), he would bring the release as in the Sabbath year, and he would “proclaim liberty” as in the year of Jubilee (Lev 25:10).

Jeremiah spoke of a “righteous branch” from the line of David who will “execute justice (mishpat) and righteousness in the land (Jer 33:15). Ezekiel condemned the kings of Judah as wicked shepherds, but he prophesied of a coming good shepherd. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice (mishpat)” (Ezek 34:16). Ezekiel also spoke of a day when God would grant his Spirit to live within the hearts of his people, causing them “to walk in my statutes” and “to obey my rules (mishpat)” (Ezek 36:26-27).

Who is this who will bring God’s justice for the vulnerable, transforming God’s people to actually carry out God’s justice? That’s next time.

Think on these things

What does the story of Israel and the role of the law have to do with justice and the Christian? A lot. But it may not be as straightforward as we'd like. Stay tuned to the series, where we plan to explore this question in more detail.

Where is the main tension between the law's picture of a just society and the picture of justice in our society?

Where is the main tension between the law’s picture of justice and your own practice of justice?

In the next post we will begin exploring how Jesus fulfills and transforms the justice of Israel, how he reveals the justice of God, and how he calls his people to follow in his footsteps.