We must have a strong concern for the poor, but there is more to the Biblical idea of justice than that. We get more insight when we consider a second Hebrew word that can be translated as “being just,” though it is usually translated as “being righteous.” The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships. Bible scholar Alec Motyer defines “righteous” as those “right with God and therefore committed to putting right all other relationships in life.”25
This means, then, that Biblical righteousness is inevitably “social,” because it is about relationships. When most modern people see the word “righteousness” in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study. But in the Bible tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity, and equity. It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.
These two words roughly correspond to what some have called “primary” and “rectifying justice.”26 Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.27 Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social. A passage in the book of Job illustrates what this kind of righteous or just-living person looks like:
I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him. The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. I put on righteousness [tzadeqah] as my clothing; justice [mishpat] was my robe and my turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the immigrant. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth. Job 29:12–17
If I have denied justice [mishpat] to my menservants and maidservants when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me?… If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless—but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow—if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint … these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high. Job 31:13–28
Francis I. Anderson points out in his commentary on Job that this is one of the most important texts in the Scripture for the study of Israelite ethics. It is a complete picture of how a righteous Israelite was supposed to live, “and to [Job], right conduct is almost entirely social.… In Job’s conscience … to omit to do good to any fellow human being, of whatever rank or class, would be a grievous offence to God.”28
In Job’s inventory of his life we see all the elements of what it means to live justly and do justice. We see direct, rectifying justice when Job says, “I took up the case of the immigrant; I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.” This means Job confronted people who exploited the vulnerable. In our world, this could mean prosecuting the men who batter, exploit, and rob poor women. But it could also mean Christians respectfully putting pressure on a local police department until they respond to calls and crimes as quickly in the poor part of town as in the prosperous part. Another example would be to form an organization that both prosecutes and seeks against loan companies that prey on the poor and the elderly with dishonest and exploitive practices.
Job also gives us many examples of what we could call primary justice or righteous living. He says that he is “eyes to the blind and feet to the lame,” and “a father to the needy.” To be a “father” meant that he cared for the needs of the poor as a parent would meet the needs of his children.29 In our world, this means taking the time personally to meet the needs of the handicapped, the elderly, or the hungry in our neighborhoods. Or it could mean the establishment of new nonprofits to serve the interests of these classes of persons. But it could also mean a group of families from the more prosperous side of town adopting the public school in a poor community and making generous donations of money and pro bono work in order to improve the quality of the education.
In chapter 31 Job gives us more details about a righteous or just life. He fulfills “the desires of the poor” (verse 16). The word “desire” does not mean just meeting basic needs for food and shelter. It means that he turns the poor man’s life into a delight. Then he says that if he had not shared his bread or “the fleece from my sheep” with the poor, it would have been a terrible sin and offense to God (verses 23 and 28). This certainly goes beyond what today we would call “charity.” Job is not just giving handouts, but rather has become deeply involved in the life of the poor, the orphaned, and the handicapped. His goal for the poor is a life of delight, and his goal for the widow is that her eyes would “no longer be weary.” He is not at all satisfied with halfway measures for the needy people in his community. He is not content to give them small, perfunctory gifts in the assumption that their misery and weakness are a permanent condition.
When these two words, tzadeqah and mishpat, are tied together, as they are over three dozen times, the English expression that best conveys the meaning is “social justice.”30 It is an illuminating exercise to find texts where the words are paired and then to translate the text using the term “social justice.” Here are just two:
The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. Psalms 33:5
This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness and social justice on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 9:23–24
Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 2010), 1–2.
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