Consider this an introduction we will revisit from time to time.
The Poor/Needy, the Widow, the Foreigner, the Orphan/Fatherless in the Hebrew Tradition
Yahweh is very specific about the poor, the widow, the foreigner, and the orphan/fatherless. It isn’t because he values them more than others. It is because their state of being makes them the most vulnerable in their society.
In ancient near eastern societies poverty happened for many reasons. One primary reason is that governing systems of a nation most often worked better for some groups of people than others. In many cases these systems could work against other people. This group of people were defined as those who were “made poor”.
Let’s talk about that language of “made poor” for a moment.
In the gospel accounts there are two greek words for the English word poor. There are the penés, understood as the person who serves their own needs with their own hands. It describes the working person, the peasants who have nothing to brag about as they are neither rich or landowners, but they are not destitute or excluded from the social order. Though they lived on the edge of existence and their status lowly, they still had status. But it is important to not that this isn’t the word Jesus chooses in His sermon in Luke 4:18-19. It is the ptóchos, which describes absolute and abject poverty. In Jesus’ world (the Mediterranean region) one’s status in society was not located solely in economic realities, but was dependent upon a number of conditions, including gender, education, family heritage, vocation, religious standing, economics and so on. This was a word reserved for those of nominal status and spoke to those excluded based upon the social categories of status and honor bound up in any number of conditions mentioned above, also known as structural and systemic realities.
Back to the prophets. Those “made poor” are vulnerable to the wealthy people of privilege and power. In Israel the powerful and privileged often exploited the poor. But they didn’t stop there.
Widows, orphans and foreigners were also vulnerable. The widow and orphan had no one to protect them, especially if they were female. The same is true of the foreigner who would be at a natural disadvantage due to ethnicity and pagan religious commitments.
Justice & Righteousness
In Hebrew Scripture the two words for justice and righteousness are often connected to these four specific groupings of people.
Mishpat is understood as justice in legal and governmental spheres of civic life, and is often translated “justice,” depending on the context of the Scripture. It is used in its various Hebrew forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. You can call this legal justice.
The other word is Tsedeqa, understood as justice in social and human-to-human spheres of civic life on social levels, dealing with how one treat his/her neighbor and fellow human. It is sometimes translated “justice,” but most often translated “righteousness,” which could literally be called social right-ness (justice), or doing right (justly) by your neighbor. It is used in its various forms over 399 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, it is overwhelmingly concentrated in the Torah in directing God’s people to do right by their fellow human (Genesis, 16 times; Deuteronomy, 18 times; Exodus 4 times; Leviticus 5 times). You can call this social justice (if you want people to throw stuff at you).
Mishpat and tsedeqa are paired together over 50 times, mostly in the ministry of the Hebrew prophets. God sent these prophets to be truth-tellers that would remind his people of what it means to faithfully love God and do right by one another, especially the vulnerable.
The heart of God has not changed. We see it in the ministry of Jesus. We see it in the life and teachings of the apostles. We see it as a part of God’s summons for His Church, if we are to faithfully to participate in his redemptive work in the world by the Spirit.
So, the concept of social justice is as biblical as tsedeqa and mishpat. It is biblical because Jesus, when he is deemed King and Lord, has something to say about how his people live and interpret life in society as a colony of heaven in the midst of the nations. Or in Peter’s words, a “royal priesthood” and “holy nation” in Babylon.
When the Church fails to teach justice in accordance with the biblical tradition and settles for reacting/responding to party-political notions of justice, or when the Church declares a gospel that fails to speak to justice, let’s not be surprised when Christians fall for other definitions, understandings or theories of justice. Maybe this is why I am consistently hearing christians, pastors, and theologians going off on what they call ‘social justice,’ but doing so generally without dealing with the whole of the biblical tradition first. Instead, social justice becomes defined by or compared to ideological terms like Critical Race Theory or Marxism, or discussed primarily in terms of what has become party-political issues. Consequently, the biblical tradition becomes (unknowingly) a secondary source (I will attempt to speak to this in other posts).
In the meantime, if someone speaks out against social justice and fails to deal with justice in the Hebrew tradition or the Hebrew language house, please be discerning. Quoting the Christian Scriptures here and there, or even the Hebrew Scriptures here and there, isn’t sufficient. The entire biblical discourse needs to be considered. The Christian tradition holds that the Lord gave us one collection of books as a Sacred text. Let’s spend our lives well learning it and do our best to resist cherry-picking or proof-texting.
Some resources that inform this post:
Social Critique by Israel’s Eighth-Century Prophets: Justice and Righteousness in Context by Hemchand Gossai
Wrestling with God and the World: The Struggle for Justice in the Biblical Tradition by Robert L. Foster
The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets Then and Now by Nahum Ward-Lev
In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible by Michael Walzer
Justice: Rights and Wrongs by Nicholas Wolterstorff
Informing the Future: Social Justice in the New Testament by Joseph Grassi