Justice and the Old Testament

by Jeffrey Rosario  |  May 23, 2012

A BLOG SERIES EXPLORING THE THEME OF JUSTICE IN THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVE AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CHURCH.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 1

You’ll need a dictionary for that one. That’s classic Richard Dawkins, the leading atheism crusader of our time. Yet it’s just a taste of the venom he has for the Old Testament, which he claims encourages “a system of morals which any civilized modern person, whether religious or not, would find. . . obnoxious.” 2 In fact, he’s declared that most of the Bible is “just plain weird.” 3

I won’t get into the specific accusations and condemnatory labels here4, but Dawkins actually believes that the Old Testament contains dangerous ideas that, if taken seriously, will lead people to wrong conclusions, and in turn, wrong actions.

But why should any of us be concerned with yet another angry rant from a skeptic? Well, because he represents widely held sentiments and attitudes shared by ordinary people I regularly encounter. These people are suspicious of anything that stems from ‘the old book’. Sadly, some have come to view the Old Testament as an appalling record of barbarism. It’s a favorite target for ridicule. Even some Christians find it embarrassing.

Now, let me be clear. There definitely are some things in the Old Testament that I find difficult to understand. I don’t have any problems admitting that. But is the Old Testament something we should be ashamed of? Is it really “just plain weird”? Is it irrelevant to the modern world? Does it have no appeal to secularists?

Too many people have only heard a one-sided story. More often than we do we should draw attention to the beauty we find there.

Wait, beauty?

In the Old Testament?

Yes. Along with the difficulties and mystery, there is beauty.

A true and responsible reading of the Old Testament would produce the kind of people that are sensitive to the hurts and needs of others; people who are actively committed to making society a better place.

It contains compelling ideals that have radically impacted Western civilization. Ironically, one of the central themes in the Old Testament is non-other than that which many secular people are crying out for––that is, justice. Yet many of the people who are conscious of the need for justice in the world are also the same people who reject the Old Testament, which happens to be the earliest and most beautiful expression of justice in all of antiquity.

Oh the irony. Someone should introduce these “activists” to the original source of their passion for justice.

As the authors of the 14 volume set Cambridge Ancient History put it: “the Old Testament embodies the oldest history writing extant.” 5 There is no literature of its age and caliber in existence. The buck stops with good ol’ Moses. And yet in these ancient documents we call the Old Testament, justice is one of the most common themes; it surfaces over 1000 times.

TWO HUGE WORDS: JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS

Biblical justice reaches beyond simply the word justice. It’s linked to another key biblical word: righteousness. Actually, the relationship between these two words are so tight that they are often used interchangeably; they essentially mean the same thing:

“Righteousness in the Bible incorporates the idea of doing justice, and doing justice… conveys the idea of righting what has gone wrong, of restoring things to a condition of “rightness” or “righteousness.”” 6

But in modern English, we use the word “righteousness” to refer to some kind of personal purity or piety. And we use “justice” to describe equality of rights. The former is private, the latter is public.

That’s why the Old Testament notion that these two words are linked is rich and pregnant with meaning. There is no separation between public and personal responsibility. A passionate pursuit of purity and piety in the private realm is no substitute for our public responsibility to maintain ideal relationships with our fellow neighbors.

THE OLD TESTAMENT ACCORDING TO JESUS

The significance and relevance of Old Testament ethics is evident when we look at the numerous encounters Jesus had with the religious leaders of His day. These encounters  shed light on the kind of influence that Old Testament ideals should have on an person’s daily life and interaction with others.

Jesus often rebuked the religious leaders because though they thought they were righteous, they really weren’t. And what were they missing?

You have neglected the more important matters of the law––justice, mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23) 

They merely focused on personal purity and piety, but neglected the essence of justice and mercy in relation to others. They had missed the whole point. And the fact that Jesus was stirred up about it is significant in itself. He expected them to live otherwise.

Why?

Because they had the Old Testament scriptures (the New Testament didn’t exist yet). The essence of the Old Testament is to lead one to live out in mind, heart, and actions the noble principles of justice, mercy and faithfulness.

According to Jesus, a true and responsible reading of the Old Testament would produce the kind of people that are sensitive to the hurts and needs of others; people who are actively committed to making society a better place.

I’ve just described exactly the kind of life that an honest skeptic would want everyone to live. In fact, contrary to Dawkins, “Bible infected” people would behave unjustly only when they live inconsistently with the principles and ideals revealed in the Old Testament.

This is why we often run into the phrase “righteousness and justice” throughout the biblical prophets. It’s like a slogan of sorts, meaning “the right ordering of the universe, the way God intends reality to operate.” 7

When God’s original design for human relationships is perverted, we hear the prophets shouting through the page for righteousness and justice. These are the original activists.

That’s what the Old Testament is all about. If that’s not how you and I view it, it’s not the Old Testament’s fault. The problem lies with our own understanding, or should I say, misunderstanding.

I’d say that’s a decent portfolio: the oldest history writing in existence, the earliest and most beautiful expression of justice in all of antiquity, the embodiment of ideals that produce the living out of justice, mercy and faithfulness in both private and public spheres.

Does that sound ‘dangerous’ to you?

Maybe Dawkins just skipped through a few lines rather than reading the whole story? I don’t know.

But I do know that most people have skipped over a line or two. You know, like the thing about “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a principle every secularist claims to advocate, and yet, where did it come from? Don’t say the New Testament. It’s found in Leviticus 19.18. The golden rule is actually an Old Testament concept that Jesus popularized in the New Testament.

So Mr. Dawkins (and the sector in society that you represent), doesn’t the Old Testament merit a second look? Doesn’t it warrant a patient, honest, humble attempt to understand it in light of the complexities of time, culture and geography? Doesn’t it deserve a fair and just hearing?

Just saying.

To be continued. . . 

1 The God Delusion, p.31
2 ibid, p.237
3 ibid, p.237
4 Maybe we’ll tackle this in a future blog. But some literature in response to these false claims could be of interest. For example, Is God A Moral Monster? By Paul Copan, and his numerous articles on this subject, some of which are available through the Evangelical Philosophical Society.
5 Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 1, p. 222
6 The Little Book of Biblical Justice, p.12
7 ibid, p.23

Jeffrey Rosario Speaker
Light Bearers
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  • Jennifer Schwirzer

    Great, Jeff. Eloquent and accurate. I’d add that OT social justice is grounded in divine retributive justice. Witnessing God’s burning wrath toward inhumanity shaves off our callouses and helps us see it for what it really is. Most of the ppl I’ve known to have an aversion to divine retributive justice are white, educated, privileged . . .Dawkins types. While they ask why God avenges, the marginalized an oppressed ask why He doesn’t. What I think God is doing now is trying to get the privileged to feel desire for justice in behalf of the downtrodden.

  • Sharon Wiseman

    I agree that the Old Testament is a book that is at times hard to digest, but it is also a book that if we did not have it we would not be also to understand the New Testament happenings. For the Old Testament is full of prophetic messages that are and will be fulfilled in the New Testament times, even very soon the way things are going. Without the Old Testament we would not have understood who the coming Messiah would be and how to look for him. We would not know the Law of God without the Tem Commandments which are a stable/intricate part of a Christians life. So those that say that the OT is not necessary do not realixe the implications of that statement to their own eternal life.

  • Marcelo

    Marvelous. Can’t wait for the rest. I’m extremely excited that here and there we start to see Christian theologians and teachers come around to a re-interpretation of the Old Testament, of justice, and an explanation of the apparent genocidal God that is found there.

    Preach on…

  • Marcelo

    Jennifer. Where do you see the terms retributive justice in the OT? Are they ever linked together?

  • Jennifer Schwirzer

    The term, no. The idea is everywhere in both testaments. Too numerous to count!

  • Marcelo

    I’d like to suggest that your concept is not justice, but rather judgment. Can we venture to say that this is a more appropriate terminology?

  • Matthew

    This is a very interesting article, I can’t wait for the second half.

    However, I have to say that simply brushing over the problems in the Old Testament by saying, “There definitely are some things in the Old Testament that I find difficult to understand” is not sufficient.

    The Old Testament sanctions (implicitly, or directly) actions which are barbaric, cruel, and bluntly, evil. I recently got into quite a discussion on this very topic. I’m very interested in where you come down on the bad, not just the good.

    It’s easy to focus on the good and pretend the rest isn’t there; but, I think that does Christians no service.

  • Ricky Kearns

    Thanks for the clarity in the defense of God. I look forward to the Light Bearers convocation in a few weeks time. There is a great deal to talk about. Until then.

  • David Asscherick

    Great stuff Jeffro. Keep it coming. Thanks for writing this…

  • Anca Gritto

    Thanks for sharing your understanding concerning OT, Jeff. I see God, a Merciful and Loving One. The reason He had to act drastic in different cases is because mankind has come short of God’s glory, of His image.

    Because of it, God wants to teach and restore us, showing what it means to Love our neighbour as ourselves and to do not be selfish. True Love has nothing selfish in it. Justice, Mercy and Goodness comes from God, man has lost those qualities but we do have the promise to be restore into His Image, if we allow Him. Therefore people who doesnt know and understand God, sees Him in wrong image.

    To Marcelo question: Justice brings judgment as a consequence. Think about the process as a judge in a court. When someone has done something wrong and is brought before a judge there is a judgment going on and justice is done in the same time.

  • Jennifer Schwirzer

    Okay. Wrath.

  • Jennifer Schwirzer

    One more comment about social justice, Jeffery. I love that Lightbearers/Arise and others in our faith community are embracing these causes. Advent Christians have a history of being so caught up in the future world we forget the present. Though not humanistic we should be humanitarian. But while we appropriate, for instance, strive to end sex trafficking globally, we have yet to learn how to end its more subtle form right within our own faith community. We’re still woefully ignorant about the psychological dynamics of clergy abuse, for example. I’m dealing with a situation right now in which the girl was 20 and the man was 54. She was a new convert and he a famous author. She came to him for counsel and he took advantage of her in his hotel room. People look straight at these facts and say, “We’re not sure if it was her fault or his.” Jesus didn’t share that ambiguity. He said, “Lead one of these little ones into sin and it would be better if a millstone was hung around your neck and you thrown in the sea.” Jesus understood the psychology of power imbalance. I pray we become more savvy about these things, plus (and this may be the bigger issue) more willing to get involved in the difficult process of meting out social justice right within our own social circle. To that end I’ll be producing a documentary this fall called “The Sex Slave Next Door.” Please pray for me.

  • Bridge

    Marcelo, I’ve studied the word judgment and saw how it is very intertwined with justice. However, I could see the Asscherick, Rosario, and Lightbearers logic going something like this: “The word judgment has so much baggage from the many times it has been misused. Let’s use a term that everyone can agree has a positive connotation and end the end use that to indirectly redefine God’s true reason for JUDGMENT. Judgment is such a beautiful word for God’s people. And I’m sure the word judgment will be redeemed in His time.

    I’m excited to see the upcoming blogs. And Rosario is right, it all begins with Moses…what a beautiful model of justice to follow. I’ve been studying with my small group now and it has been a blessing and kick in the pants to get moving with practical ways to spread the Gospel.

  • Jonathan Balaban

    Excellent article, Jeffrey; very pertinent to our times. I recently preached a sermon on the topic, and a key point that came to me in my preparation was that God operates on eternal priorities, while we tend to judge Him on our temporal definition of success or failure.

    God does not save or judge souls in a vacuum, shielding others from the spillover of our actions and consequences.

  • Jeffrey Rosario

    I’m stoked about your documentary Jennifer! Keep me posted

  • Jeffrey Rosario

    @Matthew: I agree that we need to confront the difficult passages in the Old Testament. We can wrestle with that in future posts. But my interest in this series of blogs is simply to highlight the theme of justice in the biblical narrative and its implications for the church.

    I’m not “brushing over” anything or pretending that it’s not there by focusing on the good. But it’s a side of the story most people have not encountered. I’m interested in seeing a fair picture. And I don’t think we should be concerned about the difficult stuff getting any attention. The secular sector has been doing a great job with that.

  • Marcelo

    Jennifer, Bridge…

    My studies have shown me time and time again that justice is NEVER associated with retribution, or vengeance, but always, associated with doing the right thing. Doing good, relieving the oppressed.

    Judgement/Wrath on the other hand is that retribution. Confusing the terms is very damaging to our theology.

    Besides, even judgement/wrath is not that retributive as many think. There’s an aspect of this that is as much a natural consequence as something imposed by God, therefore, even there, we must be real careful not to portray God as this blood-thirsty deity that demands punishment and retribution.

  • Herb

    From a personal perspective, and contrary to Mr. Hawkins diatribe, the Old Testament’s value to the Christian is that it contains accounts of ordinary people living out their relationship with God from ordinary lives. Farmers, craftsmen, sheepherders, men who struggled with adulterous spouses, inner sexual sins. The list could go on…these are stories never brought up in the New Testament. Rather Paul talks about a “thorn in the flesh” which we are never to know what that was and whether or not we have a similar one. But David, for example who all his life struggled with lust issues which led him to a conspiracy of murder, and Hosea whose wife Gomer prostituted herself with other men. These are the same struggles many Christians have today!

    And quite to the contrary of the perception of those who see God as a vindictive and petty being, if you take the time to read the story of these people, you will see a God of love and compassion, more ready to forgive than most were to ask for forgiveness. Even in the midst of the consequences of sin, such as the death of the child born to David and Bathsheba, God was there for David.

    I think the whole world would benefit from a better understanding of the Old Testament, perhaps Christians should read it more!

  • Great article Jeffrey. Enjoyed reading it and I look forward to reading the others. Keep up the good work my friend.

  • Melissa

    Loved this article!
    I know some things in the OT are hard to understand and “yikes!! God means business” but in a beautiful way. God just wants the best for us and the best for us is His perfect ways. I love the OT is so mysterious and prophetic and the love of God is demonstrated over and over and still over…truly His Mercy knows no bounds!

    When I read about Moses, King Manassess or King David am comforted. God truly can forgive me being A BIG SINNER. When I read about Job am like “ok I have God by my side..we got this!” *fistpump

    Oh I can go on with the stories!

    Can’t wait for the rest!

    God Bless!