Justice unveiled: Exploring divine justice in God’s law

Justice unveiled: Exploring divine justice in God’s law

Justice unveiled: Exploring divine justice in God’s law

 

This week, I am starting off with our theme of justice in the Bible series. This 5-week series will be more of a bible study, for lack of a better word; I am going to focus on a few specific passages throughout, but if this is an interesting format to you all, I may dive deeper and/or do more at a later date.

 

As I am a planner and like to know what is in front of me here is an overview of what the next few weeks of blog posts will look like.

 

Today is week one Week 1 – with a focus on the Pentateuch (or books of Moses). 

Week 2- The prophets focusing particularly on Amos.

Week 3 – Luke which is considered the social justice book of the gospel.

Week 4 – Easter week I am going to write specifically about Jesus and Justice 

Week 5 –Romans and maybe another passage, depending on how this all flows.

 

Another thing or caveat I suppose that I want to share is that I am just sharing passages rather than doing a more exegetical study, which is interpreting text more critically. At times, it may feel like I am pulling out random verses or sections of the Bible. As much as possible, I want to put things into both canonical as well as literary contexts and then share how this passage fits into the contemporary world. I also ask for grace. I think it is important to recognize that how we have always understood Scripture may change as we dig deeper or learn more information, so these blogposts will be from a place of my current understanding. 

 
With that idea, I think it is important to understand the role social location plays in how we read and understand scripture. If that is a new term for you, Social location refers to a blend of elements such as gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, ability, religion, sexual orientation, and geographical placement. It’s worth noting that this combination varies between individuals and is rarely identical for any two people, although it CAN be experienced communally. It is also important to understand that the Bible read through our own story or our collective experience, is not necessarily or automatically the right and correct interpretation. For centuries, the “correct” interpretation has been viewed through a white male vantage point. To help clarify that, I can share some personal realizations. 

 

 

My faith identity and biblical interpretations were dramatically influenced by my gender, where I grew up, the churches I attended, my race, and my privilege. As I matured in my faith, I recognized that normative interpretations of the Bible at times became incompatible with new things I was learning.  As my worldview expanded, I was able to listen to others from vastly different social locations and found myself deconstructing some of those early belief systems.  I came to recognize the importance and complexity of the varied stories that people find in their understanding of the Bible. Books like “Reading While Black” by Esau McCaulley and “The Bible in History” by David Kling helped me understand this concept. Kling’s book has a Chapter on Exodus in the African American experience, which helped me see how our experience with the world vastly shapes how we see the Bible and its stories.

 

When it comes to justice in the Bible, the black experience is particularly pertinent for us to understand as we expand our worldview in a church setting. McCaulley calls it “Black ecclesial interpretation.” His experience is that in order for black affirmation to happen in white conservative spaces, one has to criticize or ignore black theology and the black church. Why is this important when we talk justice? Quoting McCaulley, “enslaved persons, viewed events like God’s redemption of Israel from slavery as paradigmatic for the understanding of God’s character.” For them, God is fundamentally a liberator. This was important as slaveholders of the time were weaponizing Bible verses to justify the inhumane treatment of the enslaved. Understanding social location does not automatically make one interpretation correct over another but it is important to understand, nevertheless. Particularly as we exercise humility in our faith-inspired work. It is important to ensure that our “multi-cultural” churches are allowing people to come to the table with different viewpoints that are not quashed because they are not the one that we experience. The concept and importance of justice in Exodus is just one example.

 

I would argue that for many, the words spirituality and social justice next to one another are wholly incongruent. We know differently. We know that our God is a God of justice. Throughout the Old Testament, this is abundantly clear (Deut. 10:12-22, Ps. 68:5, 82:3, Isa. 1:17, 61:1, Jer. 22:3, Amos 5, Micah 6:8). Likewise, the gospels were unapologetic that Jesus’s ministry was to the poor, oppressed and marginalized (Matt. 25, Luke 4:18, 7:22). Still, the evangelical church has found ways to at best dip their toes into justice work with feel-good programming and at worst to ignore the issues or label the work as communist, too political, and anti-Christian. Addressing social injustice is imperative. It is a living and breathing representation of Jesus’s work in the world.  For each of us, this will look different.  God calls us with our unique personalities, strengths, and experiences. We can’t do it alone, but we can each use our gifts and follow where God leads as we explore justice in the Bible. 

 

To help set the canonical context, let me share a bit about the first 5 books, which in theological circles are often called the Pentateuch, which simply means 5 books. These include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Another name used for this section of the Bible is the “books of Moses,” as Moses is a “central character” throughout the books after Genesis- Genesis being an account of creation and the origins of the people of Israel. Ancient Israel referred to this section as the Torah, from the Hebrew word meaning instruction or teaching. 

 

These first five books of the Hebrew Bible are primarily narrative. They weave a storyline from creation to God’s people, the Israelites, at the doorstep of the Promised Land. They tell the story of God’s relationship to humankind through his first connection with us in creation, to His care for the Israelites in their freedom from slavery and wanderings in the wilderness.  It contains laws not created as punishment but guideposts for how we are to live in covenant care with one another. The laws and ordinances given as the people entered the Promised Land were meant to guide an entire society, not just individuals. It is clear from the start that justice is at the heart of God’s laws.

 

But before I get to Deuteronomy, the last book in the Pentateuch, it is important to understand how the liberation of the Israelites in Exodus is fundamental to a justice-drenched Bible. The exodus from Egypt stands as a pivotal moment in Hebrew tradition. It is valued as the ultimate symbol of liberation. It serves as a beacon of hope and resilience, a reference point in times of adversity. Exodus embodies the very essence of emancipation from oppression, illustrating the profound bond between God and His people.

 

From the outset, Moses emerges as a champion of social justice when he intervenes to stop an Egyptian from abusing a Hebrew (Ex. 2:11-12). Despite his initial reluctance to lead his people, he becomes a messenger of God’s compassion, acknowledging their anguish, degradation, and oppression. Moses confronts authority speaking truth to power, when tasked by God to demand that the Pharaoh “let my people go” (5:1). While Moses, like any human, is imperfect, he remained steadfast in his divine mandate to guide the people to the Promised Land, an act of justice. Representing God, he signaled the promise of liberation from both oppressive societal and political structures. The Exodus signifies not only freedom from tyranny but also the freedom to worship and serve God. It encapsulates the core theme of divine redemption, portraying God as deeply concerned for the marginalized, the downtrodden, the suffering, and the powerless. How can we not hear this story without seeing God as a being rooted in justice issues for his people?

 

I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t note that many interpretations or allegories exist for the Exodus story. Some see the Egyptian bondage as bondage to sin, with Moses as a symbol of Jesus, being the deliverer. For African Americans the Exodus story was and is one of hope. It points to a God who sees their suffering and will redeem them. And, for many early Americans, the exodus story was interpreted as America being the Promised Land in escaping the Pharoah of religious tyranny in Europe.  Of course, this particular interpretation does not hold at all for those who were brought here in shackles. But today, I won’t go down the rabbit hole of how this Eurocentric interpretation has become the bedrock of white Christian nationalism. 

 

 

Nevertheless, moving on to our focus text, Deuteronomy 10:12 -22.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

14 To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today.16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. 20 Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your ancestors who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Putting this book in its literary context is important for our theme. Deuteronomy in Hebrew means “a second law” or a copy given to the Israelites just as they were to enter the Promised Land. The book begins with a speech by Moses recounting the story of their wanderings (1:1 – 4:43) and moves through the preparation of receiving God’s laws and response to God’s covenant, including grace and warnings, as well as keeping of the law (4:44 – 11:32). A third section, including the law code (12:1 – 26:15), is followed by blessings and curses (26:16 – 30:20), and finally wraps up with a section containing two great poems, The song of Moses and the Blessing of Moses as well as detailing the arrangements for what is to happen to Israel after the death of Moses (31:1 – 34:12).

We often see the book of Deuteronomy as just a set of laws, or at least I did previously.  But in its fullness, it is a reminder of God’s faithfulness, and it calls His people to a response at the beginning of their story in the Promised Land. 

 

This passage from Deuteronomy 10 occupies a crucial space between Chapter 9, outlining the repercussions of rebellion, and Chapter 11, discussing the blessings of obedience. It begins with the account of God’s directive to preserve the second set of tablets in the ark. Verse 8 reveals the designation of the tribe of Levi (the Levites) as guardians of the ark of the covenant. The Levites would not receive a territorial inheritance like the other tribes, as their inheritance is the Lord (v. 9). Verse 12 introduces the central theme of this discourse, often titled “the Essence of the Law.” Here, the narrative revisits the story of the second issuance of the Ten Commandments following the shattering of the original tablets. This is described as signifying a renewal of the covenant. Opening with the inquiry, “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you?” (NRSV v.12), God reminds the Israelites of their chosen status in verse 15. Emphasizing His identity, He begins with a proclamation of justice, explicitly mentioning orphans, widows, and strangers. Justice serves as the cornerstone of the law, as God directs His people to demonstrate love and care through practical provisions like food and clothing. Furthermore, He underscores the imperative of treating strangers kindly, reminding them of their experiences as foreigners in Egypt (v. 19).

 

In contemporary context, this passage highlights the pervasive theme of justice throughout the Pentateuch, reflecting the intrinsic nature of God. Social justice is portrayed as an extension of God’s love, both in tangible and symbolic terms. From the earliest scriptures, God urges us to remain mindful of the less fortunate. Specifically, in this passage, God emphasizes our responsibility to care for widows, orphans, and strangers, underscoring the importance of extending hospitality to those in need. He emphasizes to them that, having experienced life as foreigners themselves, they must extend care and compassion to the foreigners within their midst. This is particularly timely as political discourse over our southern border often lacks empathy for those looking for a better life. The discourse that forgets that other than the indigenous, all of us were foreigners to this land. Anyway, positioned between discussions of the consequences and rewards of covenant-keeping, in this passage God emphasizes the importance of embodying the spirit of the law, emphasizing love as the guiding principle.

 

Even in the earliest accounts in the bible as in Exodus, we witness God establishing special provisions in the law to safeguard vulnerable individuals—especially widows and orphans (Exodus 22:22). God assures that He will heed the cries of these afflicted ones and promises retribution against those who oppress them. The protection is further emphasized in Deuteronomy, extending to sojourners or temporary residents (Deuteronomy 24:10, 14:20, 26:12, and 27:19). These provisions are embedded in divine law to ensure that the poor and needy receive care and support. The law serves as a shield against those who would exploit or exacerbate their suffering for personal gain. God’s concern is so intimate that Scripture depicts Him as personally administering justice for widows, orphans, and sojourners, ensuring their basic needs like food and clothing are met (Deuteronomy 10:18). Throughout these laws, God instructs His people on how to respond to suffering, guiding them to prioritize the welfare of the most vulnerable among them.

 

As we look at our role as believers with respect to social justice, depending on your version of the bible, we can find the phrase “widows and orphans” mentioned 41 times in the Bible. Beginning in Exodus, the term orphans and widows represents those without cover. In biblical narratives, orphans embody profound loss, vulnerability, and societal breakdown. Their dire circumstances call for compassionate intervention, as they are deprived of the care and shelter provided by their parents—their primary source of support and security. Consequently, God assumes the role of protector, underscoring our complete reliance on Him for unfailing care and defense. This highlights our inherent dependence on God for His flawless provision and safeguarding and the expectation that we care for those who need this same care that God provides for us. I would further suggest that the terms orphans and widows, which, although God is speaking of concretely, is also allegorical as we look at those who have been overlooked, marginalized, or shunned in our contemporary world. 

 

Orphans and widows are mentioned seven times in Deuteronomy alone (10:18, 14:28-29, 16:11, 24:17, 24:19, 26:12, 27:19). For us, we are to love and care for the marginalized people we encounter daily. God calls us directly to minister to and care for those widows and orphans.  He again reminds us that as we were once strangers, we are to care for the strangers using a term that speaks to those unknown to us.  For me, there is power in that as we learn to understand others. As we have been blessed, so are we to bless those who have less, individually, and corporately as the body of believers. Our God is just and calls us to exemplify justice for those who need it most. Social justice is a call to care for the most vulnerable, and God is clear that this is part of our covenant relationship with Him. 

 

Clearly, I could write forever about this, as many passages in these first 5 books highlight God as a God of justice and our role as believers to care for those less fortunate.  Let’s look at some of the fears many have of losing power and privilege that seem inevitable. If our intent is to aim for a more just society for all, we can see that God never speaks about this as a zero-sum equation but speaks about it as how we live fairly in community.  Those with more support those with less. The law outlined in these books was much less about obedience, although that was important, but more so about community and love for one another. How do we live this out in a world that continues to worry about our personal lack. 

As a side note we will talk a bit more about biblical law during tax season when I share about the laws of Jubilee outlined in Leviticus.

 

What surprises you when you look at the intent of God’s law? How does this change how you see the immigrant, the poor, and the marginalized? How does it change what our churches look like or how we interact with the world?

 

Let me know what you think!

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