Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Christians in the Holy Land

Our fourth in a series of Just Lectures that take a look at how justice and the Christian faith can and do intersect. Please join us on Tuesday, December 7th, to listen to Marlin and Sally Vis discuss their work in Palestine. For more information on them and what they are up to these days visit

Join the Justice Conversation.

On Tuesday, December 7th, join other Christians as we continue paging through the Scriptures to see what they have to say about justice. Our conversation will begin at 8:15pm in the lounge of Hope Reformed Church. To catch up, page through this blog. Our Bible Study will follow the Just Lecture, "Christians in the Holy Land" by Marlin and Sally Vis.

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 7

They have also been referred to as retributive justice and distributive justice. The first deals with the punishment of crimes and holding people accountable for their sins. The second deals with the ordering of society in a way that provides for the needs of the people. Both types of justice are covered in God’s law.


Witness Requirements – A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. – Deuteronomy 19:15

Cities of Refuge – “You shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. – Numbers 35:9-12

Tempered Response – “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Exodus 21:23-25


Tithe – “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites…resident aliens, orphans and widows…may come and eat their fill.” Deut. 14:28-29

Gleaning – When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest…you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 19:9-10, Deut. 24:21-22

Sabbath – If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free…you shall not send him out empty-handed. – Deut: 15:12-18, see Exodus 20:8-11

Jubilee – And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. – Lev. 25:10

“Vengence is mine,” says the Lord. God knew that his people were prone to violence; a violence that desecrated the image in which humanity was made (remember Genesis 6:11, 9:6). So, God instituted laws of justice that could temper humanity’s natural, violent response so that justice could be done. Comparatively, Israel’s laws were merciful than many of the surrounding cultures. Again, the reason is that each human being is made in the image of God and it would be unjust to dismiss that life based on false witness or in the heat of revenge.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” God new that his people were prone to be hard-hearted and tight-fisted (see Deut. 15:7ff). So, God instituted laws of justice that would call for regular and generous distribution of grain and land. No man or woman, because they were made in God’s image, was to be deserted to a life of slavery. They had been called to co-create with God, to bring order and beauty to the world. It was not a vocation that could be carried out in slavery. God’s laws of economic justice ensured that no one would be stuck in a cycle of poverty and no generation would suffer injustice without relief.

The Lord would set up judges over the land to maintain these rituals. Israel would be unique in this way as well, but not for long. Their insecurity, hard-heartedness, and tight-fistedness would lead them down a different path. Instead of pursuing justice and only justice, they would pursue the path of the other nations. God would not be happy about it.

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 6

Walter Brueggemann writes in his book THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION, “Israel can only be understood in terms of the new call of God and his assertion of an alternative social reality.” The key word in that sentence is alternative. In Biblical terms we are talking about being holy, set apart, or different. The whole story revolves around that idea. If we forget that Israel was meant to be an alternative social reality we are also in danger of forgetting that God is alternative divine reality. It goes, almost without saying, that the way the people viewed their God affected they way they lived with one another. Another way to say this is that idolatry often led to injustice. The prophets were sent by God to address both. Their common theme placed worship and sacrifice as a secondary notion to justice.

Has the Lord as great delight in brunt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of the rams. – I Samuel 15:22

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?...I have had enough of burnt offerings or rams and the fat of fed beasts…even though you make many prayers I will not listen for your hands are full of blood…learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. – Isaiah 1:10-17

Why do we fast, but you do not see?...Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? – Isaiah 58

Add you burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. – Jeremiah 7:21-22

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. – Amos 5:21-24

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? He has told you, O mortal, what is good: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:6-8

These are not all the verses in which you will find the prophets reminding Israel of their alternative-ness, but they are enough to make the point. That is, when the prophets looked at the surrounding cultures and countries, they saw a worship that led to society that was oppressive and exploitative. The king prospered while the rest of the citizens slaved away. Because the view of the gods rooted this social reality in created order there was little recourse to rebel or critique. Worship was only a means of appeasing the gods and maintaining the established order. Chaos, even a revolt by the overworked masses, would have been seen as punishment by the gods. Israel’s prophets would not tolerate such an order.

When Israel laid out many sacrifices or weighed themselves down in fasting or ashes, but did not maintain justice they imagine their God to be like the others. It is a seductive notion, after all. Why should God be concerned with my social dealings as long as I continue to offer what is due him; the fat of the calf, the blood offering, a chorus of music, or fervent prayer? Shouldn’t God be happy to look the other way as long as I flood his nose with the sweet fragrance of sacrifice? “No!” say the prophets, “You have turned the Lord into an idol.” The Israelites may not have been bowing down before the other gods (though often they were), but they had been assuming their God offered no alternative to the other gods. Their idolatry led to injustice.

The prophets make clear that God set Israel apart not so that there would be a people to call his own, but so that there would be a people who could show the world an alternative social reality, a holy way of life. Central to that way of life is not pious worship, but justice. In contrast to exploitation and oppression, Israel would be a land off order and beauty as all people, male and female, joined with God in creating. The prophets did not tolerate idolatry because they knew all too well that false worship led to injustice. They knew that their God was the God of justice and worshipping that God in heaven led to an alternative, social reality on earth. While the prophets articulated this message, it was the law that made it plain.

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 5

What I’ve been trying to do in the first few posts is form a Biblical notion of justice that is rooted in the image of God. Justice, so far, is rooted in what it means for us to be human and how we honor that humanity. First and foremost, justice acknowledges that everyone, male and female, is made in the image of God. Second, the image of God is a vocation; it is a calling to join with God in creating order and beauty in the world. Justice makes room for everyone to express their creative talents and desires freely in the world because God has invited us into that freedom. To be clear, injustice is anything that denies someone is made in God’s image. That denial often takes on various forms of slavery (chains, debt, addiction, etc.) or fails to draw out of people the creative abilities that God has given them (poor education, lack of basic needs, etc.). If this tree of justice is rooted in humanity, we also find that it reaches to the heavens.

Psalm 82 begins like this: God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

This is a powerful picture and a clarion call for justice. Like the surrounding cultures, this Psalm pictures the gods of the various nations convening for one reason or another. Like the surrounding cultures, the Hebrew Bible imagines its God to be the leader of the rest. Unlike the surrounding cultures, the concern is not with the failure of humanity to serve the gods. Rather, God bemoans the failure of the gods to serve humanity; to honor the image in which they have been made. In particular, the weak, the orphan, the lowly, the destitute, and the needy have been slighted by the gods. The gods have failed to judge justly, to give justice, to maintain rights, to rescue, and to deliver those who have been dishonored. As a result, God has been dishonored.

The picture is vivid for us now. When humans fall into desperate or lowly situations, justice demands that they not be allowed to stay there. As today, the world can be cruel especially to those who have fallen on hard times. Whether because of poor decisions or bad luck, there are always those who will have labels piled on top of them to add to their burdens. The gods see no reason to ease their needs because there seems to be little value with them and little that they can offer in return. “Not so!” says God, “Buried underneath all those labels and all those burdens is an image, my image. Do not withhold justice. Do not deny them their freedom to create with me.”

Once again, God is not like the other gods. The gods have no use for those who have fallen into poverty, who come to the table without great intellect or affluence. They have no honor in the gods’ eyes. In fact, the gods would rather honor the wicked because at least they are able to offer great sacrifices and wealth. God shows great concern at this state of affairs. His concern is for justice. That concern stems from the fact that some people are being denied their vocation to create freely in God’s world. God has gathered the gods to condemn their cold-heartedness and stir up their compassion. This would not be the last time that God calls for justice.

Echoing this heavenly scene of the Psalms, are the earthly voices of the prophets crying out before the kings and priests of the day. We will listen to their common refrain in the next post. It is my hope that you will see justice, not as a secondary notion, but as the primary desire of God’s suffering heart. God will not tolerate injustice and no ritual of worship is going to appease him. This is a crucial point to grasp and the prophets make it abundantly clear.

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 4

As a way to conclude the previous post and to begin this one, I’d like to clarify the role of the earth in all of this. Again, when compared to surrounding creation stories the creation receives a much more prominent role. It is not an afterthought. In fact, with such detail through every day of creation it’s almost as if a celebration is going on. Of course, God’s creative work culminates in the creation of humanity after which God looks at the whole thing and considers it “very good.” God loves the world we might say at this point. So, while the sun and stars, fields and mountains, fish and cattle are all creatures, they are very good creatures whom God cherishes all of which God has given to humanity. The question is, for what?

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” That’s a phrase we understand well. But we find other references to the earth as the foundations of a building and as a footstool for God’s throne. In Isaiah 24:18 we read, “For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.” In this passage, the earth serves as the foundation for God’s creation and built on top of that foundation is heaven. In a sense, the Hebrew Bible views creation as a building with heaven and earth serving as a house for God. In Isaiah 66:1 we find the Lord saying, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool.” From there God goes on to describe the kind of worship that is to take place in his “house.” We often think of God’s house as a building, but the Hebrew Bible looks at the whole of the heavens and the earth as God’s sanctuary. What does that mean for how we worship the Lord?

When God placed humanity on the earth he told them to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “have dominion.” In other words, it might mean that we worship the Lord by filling and decorating his house. These days most people think of worship as a set of rituals that take place within a special building. I’m suggesting that we consider worship to be more earthy, that building the building is worship, that paving roads, doing art, making music, is worship. I’m suggesting that anything we do in the sanctuary of the earth is meant to be worship. God has invited us into his house and asked us to make it our home, to honor him by creating things for ourselves. What’s most striking about this is that God is the ultimate in hospitality. At this point in the story God has not yet prescribed anything for humans (aside from the fruit) except to create. We find examples of this in the next chapters.

In chapter 4, Able keeps sheep and Cain tills the ground. Later in that same chapter Cain builds a city. Later still, Jabal and his ancestors live in tents and keep livestock, Jubal makes music with the lyre and pipe (apparently creating the instruments as well), and Tubal-Cain makes all kinds of bronze and iron tools. Later in Genesis 9, we find that Noah was a man of the soil and was the first to plant a vineyard. Then, in Genesis 10, vv. 8-11, highlight Nimrod who was a mighty warrior and hunter who founded kingdoms in Babel and founded the great city of Ninevah in Assyria. All of this work done by these various humans is good and creative work, faithful to the reason that God put us here. It is not something done in addition to worship. These trades are the very acts of worship in the world. There is a problem, however.

Eventually Cain kills Abel. In Genesis 6, we find that violence has erupted on the earth. Noah will get drunk on his own wine. Nimrod’s Babel will build a tower to make a name for themselves, Ninevah will be threatened by Jonah, and eventually Babylon and Assyria will over take the tribes of Israel. The picture is quite clear already in the first few chapters of the Hebrew Bible. For all of the good that humans are doing, they cannot escape the fall. All of their creative work is tarnished by destruction. Humans have corrupted the earth with violence. The warning of Genesis 9 is not meant to be a justification for capital punishment, but a statement against violence in the first place. To be clear, Genesis 9:6 is a response to Genesis 6:11. God is looking for co-creators, not co-destroyers. While the gods of other cultures were violent in their creation and toward one another, to live in the image of God means to be non-violent creators as God was when he created the heavens and the earth. God helps us to that end.

This is where the Spirit of God enters the equation. That phrase, “Spirit of God,” is found only twice in the first 5 book of the Bible. The first is right before God creates the earth. The second is just before the creation of the tent of meeting in Exodus 31. This creation could not be corrupted by the fall, it could not be tarnished by violence. So God fills two men, Bezalel and Oholiab, with the Spirit of God, “with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” Notice how “earthy” the work of God’s Spirit is here. The Spirit of God is filling these two men so that they might build and craft. The Spirit of God is equipping them to do work. This will be important when we begin discussing justice from a New Testament perspective.

For now we can say that all people, male and female, are made in the image of God. That image has a lot to do with joining the creative process that God began when he laid the foundation of the earth. In other words, God has called all of us to use our talents to bring order and beauty to the world. A just world is one in which everyone is afforded that dignity. When some people are made to be slaves, exploited for cheap labor, or denied the right to work then the image of God has been denied in them. This is the way of the pagan gods who only want to be fed, but it not the way of the Hebrew God who has given us freedom to build as we see fit. Injustice is anything that prevents someone from joining in the creative process that God began in the beginning. Injustice is something that God and the Hebrew prophets railed against. We’ll listen to them next.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Finding Justice in the Bible - Part 3

Let me preface what follows by acknowledging that the uniqueness of the Hebrew creation story is not everywhere agreed upon. There are those who see very little that is truly unique when compared to the surrounding creation stories. Some of this is covered in THE LIBERATING IMAGE and I don’t feel the need to cover it here. It’s my impression that even a simple reading of the stories offers some obvious differences that reveal a different view of God, humanity and the world. Walter Brueggeman has written in his book THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION that “we are indeed made in the image of some God. And perhaps we have no more important theological investigation than to discern in whose image we have been made.” Again, it seems clear to me that the Hebrew creation story offers a unique perspective on the character of God, the vocation of humanity, and the place of creation.

First, there are obvious differences in the character of God as we explore Genesis 1 and even the following chapters. The first thing to note is that, while God does order the chaos, God creates out of nothing. There is no violent combat, no spilling of blood that results in the formations of humanity. It seems that God is enjoying this task of creation and its result, commenting again and again how good it seems to be. Perhaps one way to say this is that the God of the Hebrew story seems self-giving, while the gods of competing stories come across very self-centered. Drawing the story out a little further illustrates the point.

In Genesis 6, humanity is making their fair share of noise. In fact, they are violent and corrupt in all their ways. As opposed to the other creation stories in which the gods become annoyed, the God of the Hebrew Bible is grieved; sorry that he had made creation in the first place. In other words, God’s motivation for sending the flood is different. In the Hebrew Bible, God is a suffering god verses the vindictive gods of the other stories. The method of creation (out of nothing) and the reason for flooding it (eruption of violence) portray God as one who is opposed to death and destruction and resorts to the flood only out of deep pain and loss; grieving the corruption of humanity whom he has invited to join him creating the world. That point brings us to the next unique aspect of the Hebrew story.

Humanity is seen in a much greater light and, therefore, held to a much higher standard in the Hebrew story. Rather than being made after the lesser gods to slave over the structures of civilization, they are made a little lower than the gods and invited to join in creating the structures of civilization. This is true of male and female alike. While it may be valid to point to Genesis as a model for relationships, when comparing it with surrounding cultures, the main point seems to be to emphasize the equal place of the female gender. Any distinction or subservience seems to be the result of the fall that doesn’t come until chapter 3. The Hebrew creation story begins with a much more democratic and gender-equal perspective. That is, the image of God is found, not just in the king nor simply in men, but in all people, male and female. That same story moves forward with humanity playing a much more prominent role relative to the other myths.

In the creation stories of surrounding cultures, civilization is passed down to humanity by the gods and through the king. It is a way of keeping the humans in check and making sure they follow through on their task of keeping the gods fed. In contrast, civilization in the Hebrew story is never prescribed and always attributed to different individuals. The first city, arts and crafts, agriculture and animals, music, the first vineyard are all “discovered” in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. None of them are commanded by God. All of them come across as an expression of the creative work of those creatures whom God has set apart to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “subdue the earth.” In other words, the civilizations that humans build on top of the foundation that is the earth are actually a faithful response to God’s invitation and concrete expressions of what it means to live in the image of God. This final idea will be especially helpful in forming a definition of justice. We can pursue this further in the next post.