Social Justice in Ancient Israel 1

25 04 2008

Truett Seminary

Moshe Weinfeld’s Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East examines how the Old Testament and other ancient Near Eastern culture tackled the problem of social justice.

In the introduction of his book, Weinfeld points out that the concepts of justice and righteousness are “more associated with mercy and loving kindness or… are to be seen with the context of ameliorating the situation of the destitute.” The point of his book then, is to show that the practice of righteousness and justice in the OT and in ancient Israel is essentially acting on behalf of the poor and less fortunate classes of people.

He compares the practice of Israel with other Mesopotamian cultures: the Mesopotamian kings instituted liberty and freedom when they came into power. This proclamation of liberty appears to be a propaganda tool so as to win over the hearts of the people. For instance, King Cyrus sends the exiles home during the Persian Empire. In Israel’s case, on the other hand, the proclamation of justice and righteousness is done on the part of YHWH. Thus, the sabbatical and jubilee years (established periods of liberation) “were understood as divinely ordained institutions, in which human interests fulfilled no role whatever.”

In other words, the OT calls the people of Israel to consistently pursue justice and righteousness. This is not a negative command (that is, it is not a command not to do something), but a positive command. Justice and righteousness are positive actions, such as feeding the hungry or visiting the sick. Plus, there is a stronger call for the ruling classes to remember the plight of the disenfranchised.

The introduction is intriguing because it contrasts the divine inspiration and general goodwill of justice and righteousness of the OT with the often times oppressive nature of “justice and righteousness” in other ancient cultures.

More to come…



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