Creation, by God’s very pronouncement, is “very good” at its inception (Gen 1:31). Last week we explored the goodness of creation and this goodness, completeness, as providing a launching point for the biblical narrative from the perspective of justice.
But as soon as God created a good world, rebellion, chaos, disorder, pain and injustice entered the story (Gen 3-4). As we begin to tease out how justice will be regained in God’s world, we will first need to consider the story’s next significant chapter: the story of Israel. Israel’s story begins in a very inauspicious way, a pattern we will see repeated throughout the biblical narrative. The story begins with a promise to a single person, Abraham, and his descendants. The nations of the entire earth will be blessed through Abraham. In distinction from the Canaanites (Gen 12:6) and Egyptians (Gen 12:14) of Abraham’s time, who would seek to oppress those around them, Israel is called to be the instrument through whom God would bless the nations (Gen 12:3).
As is widely known, after creation the story unravels quickly through the book of Genesis and we find Israel in bondage in the great empire of Egypt. What is the state of the promise to Abraham now? How will God restore the goodness and the justice of creation, with his people enslaved in a powerful nation? While in bondage, God continues to unfold his promise through just this one family, fulfilling one of the great intentions of the creation narrative (see Exod. 1:7). It is God who is restoring his intention for creation and his promise to Abraham. God hears the cry of the oppressed, his own people, and delivers them from their oppression (see Exod. 3:9).
So we see very thoroughly as the exodus narrative begins that the pattern of the restoration of justice, of shalom, is grounded in God; in this way the attention of Israel to justice, to shalom, is tied to their understanding of their history with God. The exodus and liberation from an oppressive situation will be a constant refrain in Israel’s literary reflections on her history. They were oppressed foreigners, enslaved without hope by a power far greater than themselves. Their only hope for justice must come from God, who is the author of justice. God indeed responds to their cries arising from oppression and in the signal miracle of the Old Testament liberates Israel from slavery.
After a generation in the wilderness, God delivers his “blueprint” for what society in the land promised to Abraham would look like, the society through which God would bless the nations of the world. This budding society in Israel would be marked, obviously, by exclusive worship of the LORD, who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. But as a crucial element in this exclusive worship of the LORD, the society would also be marked by a keen interest in the shalom in all aspects of society. Examples of this concern are throughout the Old Testament – passages which describe the type of society Israel will become.
Deuteronomy 10:14-22 stands as one of the prime examples that bring together the concerns we have been exploring. All creation is the LORD’s (v. 14), and worship of him will entail following him in his concern that justice, shalom, permeate his land. He has kept his promises to build a great people, and that people must now reflect his very character (vv. 17-21).
Later biblical authors, particularly the prophets, will reflect this same concern. Micah 6:8 is known by many as the rallying verse for a concern for justice and shalom as his people walk with the LORD:
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.”
The Hebrew for “to act justly” is “to do mishpat (“justice”).” But, as we noted a few weeks ago, mishpat here is not a cold, legal word. Rather, it is used in parallel with hesed, “mercy.” This is arguably a word that also reflects God’s abundant covenant care and abiding faithfulness for his people. To love this mercy, to do justice and to walk humbly with God is, in the end, what the LORD requires of humanity. This is woven in to our core identity as those created in the image of God.
Humanity, bearing the image of God, is to be attentive to the vulnerable. Nicholas Wolterstorff helpfully points out the four-fold vulnerables in the Old Testament: the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner; four life-threatening economic and social realities in the ancient world. Other kings in the ancient Near East seem to take an interest in three of these (the widow, orphan and poor). The foreigner seems to be unique in the Old Testament, very likely due to the history of Israel we have seen above. Zechariah 7:9-10 mentions all four of them.
There is an admission in the Old Testament that poverty and vulnerability are ongoing realities in the land, that even the promised land will find poor inhabitants (Deut. 15:11). But far from a resignation of an unfortunate reality, the blunt admission of continuing poverty in the land is the basis for compassionate response.
What a beautiful and challenging picture we have of God’s intention for the care of humanity in his creation.
Sadly, in this history of Israel God’s vision, his ideal, his calling is not implemented. We find this particularly with the rise of the monarchy, with even the great King Solomon binding the Israelites to accomplish his tasks, forgetting that he is simply one from among his people and should not trust in many wives, great riches or military power (see Deut. 17:14-20).
In this ongoing situation of abuse in Israel, God raises up the great prophets of Israel. There is great debate over who the prophets were and what they were to accomplish. At the very least, we should acknowledge that in addition to telling of future disasters and deliverance, the prophets of Israel had a great deal to say about the situation of Israel in which they found themselves. They brought an urgent message to their contemporary audiences. Not surprisingly, the prophets avail themselves of the great traditions and texts of Israel to bring their case of injustice against the people of Israel and their kings (Isa. 1:15-17).
While the prophets rightly receive much attention regarding God’s demand for justice, for shalom, in his land, we benefit greatly in noting also that the concern for shalom permeates other genres in the great story of the Bible. For example, consider the great traditions of poetry in the Bible. We find in Psalms 9 and 10 (which may originally have been a single poem in a beautiful Hebrew poetic structure known as an “acrostic” in which each successive poetic line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet) a poetic account of David the king remembering this fundamental quality of his God:
The LORD reigns forever;
he has established his throne for judgment.
He rules the world in righteousness
and judges the peoples with equity.
The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
Those who know your name trust in you,
for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you. Psalm 9:7-10
In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
who are caught in the schemes of his devices….
He lies in wait near the villages;
from ambush he murders the innocent….
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
You, LORD, hear the desire of the afflicted;
You encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that mere earthly mortals
will never again strike terror. Psalm 10:2, 8, 14, 17-18
We see in these beautiful Psalms that God himself takes note of these cries, and the psalmist here begs for God to act. The cries of the afflicted, the poor, the fatherless, the innocent, do not rise to a deaf heaven. No, God hears. We, too, must struggle to give poetic voice to the violence, oppression and injustice we see in the world. When encountering the lack of shalom—in poverty, in persecution, in disregard of God’s intended wholeness of his world—we do not shrink back in a callous indifference. The poetic cries on behalf of the poor complement the accusatory oracles of the prophets against the oppressors. As we, too, pray the psalms, we can give voice to this same pain, and join with the psalmist to entreat God himself to act.
But there is one more consideration, which aptly serves as the conclusion to our reflections on the Bible and justice. We do not pray the Psalms, identify with narratives, or join with prophetic voices, in isolation from the rest of the Scriptural story. In our final reflection, we will see how this great Israelite tradition of shalom, of justice, finds its glorious end-point in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Far from canceling out or mitigating the concerns of the Old Testament narratives, poetry or prophetic pronouncements, the Lord Jesus Christ comes and walks the land as a fulfillment of all these desires. And as he fulfills these Old Testament desires for justice, he sends us out to follow him as he continues to spread the balm of healing in a troubled world.