Oct 19, 2021 Last Updated 7:03 AM, Oct 19, 2021

AEFJN: Socio-economic justice in the Bible

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One could wonder why anyone would at present still be interested in norms elaborated some 25 centuries ago somewhere in the Middle East, in response to very concrete local situations. In fact, all human groups are, in the course of their history, confronted with social and economic situations demanding that a system of justice be put into place which could be more or less enforced and efficacious. After all, we are faced here with a universal cultural phenomenon.  

Whether we are dealing with customary traditional practices or with written law, those norms try, by definition, to integrate the rights of the members of a group into the life of the community. However, one cannot but recognize that, in quite a number of cases, what is supposed to be called socio- economic justice, in fact somehow fixes or even consecrates discriminations of all sorts, social inequalities or abuses of power. Whatever may be the case, the people of the Bible were quite original in socio-economic matters, in that they presented the norms elaborated in the course of centuries as formally dictated by God in person; these norms were thought to reflect His own Justice and were in fact accepted as such.

In other words, the project of an economic society proposed in the biblical texts is based on a theocratic vision of the status of Israel’s land and its inhabitants. Realizing this project demanded on their part an act of faith and submission to the God of the Covenant. And this grants it a permanent interest. Even today we are given a Word by means of juridical decisions taken by those people who were facing socio-economic situations which we find again more or less today.

The relationship of Man with the Earth
Any reflection made on economic justice as practised in ancient Israel must start from a fundamental fact of biblical anthropology: the bond of man with the earth.

Man had been modelled by God from a bit of soil, and draws his name from it. Adam – a collective term for all human beings – is related to Adamah, the earth. Human life, personal as well as collective, basically depends on the richness of this soil and on what is produces. On the other hand, the earth is and always will remain the property of God. He is the one who created it and governs it. He has an absolute right to it and disposes of it as He likes. If He entrusts it to Man, it is in order that man cares for it and cultivates it for God’s profit. This is somehow the vocation of humanity. In return man acquires the inalienable right to live of his work with dignity: he, his family, his clan, and his people.

It is in this theological perspective that the Bible situates the gift of a particular land to the people God has chosen among all so as to be His People. The covenant made by God with the people of Israel essentially implies the gift of a Land which becomes its homeland in the full sense of the word and which it occupies by divine right. It is that gift which somehow creates the people of Israel. It is gratuitous gift and it is irrevocable, very much like the covenant to which it gives a concrete expression.

However, God remains the master and lord of this land of Israel; the biblical texts affirm this quite often. Moreover, God resides in person in the temple of Jerusalem. It is important to note that the land is given to the community as such. All members of the people of the covenant enjoy the same rights on the land of Israel, as they also share the same duties, among which the duty to make the land productive by their labour. However, they will observe the Sabbath, just as God rested on the seventh day of creation. This basic observance gives a concrete expression to the recognition of God’s absolute right on the land of Israel.

Socio-economic problems

This theological vision of man’s situation in the land of Israel has obviously been confronted in the course of the centuries by ever more complex socio-economic problems.
-          Problems related to a progressive settling process and to the recognition of the right to private property which was the consequence of the development of agriculture and cattle rearing. Problems related to the permanent presence of natives who, as a rule, were deprived of any rights. And problems related to the massive arrival, at certain periods of history, of populations displaced by occupying powers.
-         Problems related to the succession of political systems and an often heavy-handed administration: requisitioning of labour and taxation needed for the maintenance of government officials or the royal army as well as for the erection of prestigious buildings.
-          Problems related to the appearance of new social classes as a consequence of urbanisation and the development of commerce. Specialized professional groups appearing to the detriment of traditional private artisans. Large estates developed while small farmers became impoverished.

By way of example, here are some traits of the severe critique of the monarchic system attributed to the prophet Samuel speaking on behalf of God: “The King will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and cavalry… he will make them plough his plough-land and harvest his harvest and make weapons of war and the gear for his chariots. He will also take your daughters as perfumers, cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, of your vineyards and olive groves and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops to provide for his eunuchs…etc.”(See 1 Samuel 8, 10-16). The criticism is directed against the fact that the king will not respect the fundamental rights of the people nonetheless guaranteed by God. The king organizes the life of the community for his own profit. He invents his own socio-economic justice.

Another example are complaints addressed to inspector Nehemiah sent to Judea by the Persian king in the 5th century, and which reveal a deep social uneasiness: “The ordinary people and their wives began complaining loudly against their brother Jews. Some said, ‘We are having to barter our sons and daughters to get enough corn to eat and keep us alive’. Others said, ‘We are having to mortgage our fields, our vineyards, our houses to get corn during the famine’. Still others said, ‘We have had to borrow money on our fields to pay the king’s tax; and though we are of the same flesh as our brothers…we have to sell our sons and daughters into slavery…We can do nothing about it, since our fields and vineyards are now the property of others” (See Nehemiah 5, 1.5). The text evokes the situation of exploited and impoverished farmers and the tensions between a Jewish elite returned from exile and the descendants of those who had remained in the land and lived precarious lives. This was in flagrant contradiction with the economic solidarity implied in the covenant of God with his people and with the right of all its members to a life lived in dignity.

Chronic pauperism

Numerous texts of the same sort could be quoted. In fact, reading these documents drawn up over a span of 5 to 6 centuries compels us to draw a conclusion. All along its history, biblical Israel was faced with a major socio-economic problem, namely the existence of a real rural as well as urban proletariat, whose members lived below what we today call the breadline. We can speak of a chronic pauperism.

In Hebrew, several terms are used to define or describe the poor: ras, the person who lacks the essentials; dal, the lean, the puny; ebyon, the miserable who are compelled to beg; anaw-anawim: the downcast, crushed, marginalized.

A minority trend of thought considered the socio-economic inequalities to be the outcome of laziness, of lack of foresight and often also of sin, of unfaithfulness to the Law of God. Hence the tendency to consider poverty as a punishment inflicted by God himself. On the contrary, wealth, success in business, a flourishing health are considered to be the just recompense for an upright life lived in respect for the divine laws.

Even in Christ’s own time we still find similar views. On meeting a poor blind man, the disciples ask Jesus who could have sinned for him to be blind and have to beg: he himself or his parents (John 9, 2). All along its history, the problem of divine retribution hoped for in this life (as we ignore what that would be in the other life) was on the mind of the people of Israel.

Denouncing injustice

On the other hand, it becomes evident to the sages and prophets that the poor are first and foremost victims of the injustices perpetrated by the powerful, especially the big landowners; victims of abuse of power by the administrative services and at times of the priestly class ; victims, too, of the crookedness of traders or of rapacious pawnbrokers; victims of a too often corrupt judicial system, and victims of a never totally disappearing proslavery.

The texts denounce those injustices in very realistic terms. With impunity, landowners change the boundary marking of their fields so as to enlarge their domains. Workers are not paid at the end of their day’s work. The scales of merchants are altered. Pawnbrokers refuse to hand back the pawns they demanded when lending money. Priests who are also judges allow themselves to be bribed with a pair of new sandals. Widows are exploited. Slaves are ill-treated and bashed. Farmers feel compelled to sell their daughters so as to pay off their debts. These and similar can often be found with prophets such as Amos and those who came after him: Isaiah, Michah, Jeremiah, etc. It is therefore not astonishing that in such a socio-economic context, the handicapped and the chronically sick were reduced to begging.

We could recall here that numerous parables told by Jesus evoke situations of injustice and poverty persisting into his own time. He speaks of a poor widow whom the judge denies justice (Luke 18, 1-5), of the unfortunate begging at the door of a rich man from whom he does not even get the remains of the meal (Luke 16, 19-31), of workers all day unemployed (Matthew 20, 1-16), of a father of a family who has nothing left to offer to a visitor (Luke 11, 5-8). He denounces the indifference of some members of the priestly class with regard to the victim of bandits along the main road (Luke 10, 30-35). He recalls the dishonest manager of a big commercial enterprise (Luke 16, 1-8). He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a banquet the poor are invited to: for once they will be able to satisfy their hunger (Matthew 22, 1.10). He admires the poor widow who slips a small piece of money into the collection box of the temple: it was all that remained for her to live on, but she gave it (Mark 12, 41-44).

No doubt one could say that “the” sin of Israel, all along its history, has been what Pope John-Paul II, in his encyclical ‘Sollicitudo Rei Socialis’ (1988) calls a ‘social sin’, a sin of society that results in the dehumanisation and alienation of human beings. Man ceases to belong to himself and becomes an object. The prophets will say that God is being personally affected in his very divinity by human injustice. His own justice is put up to ridicule. Human injustice in some way attacks Him and wounds Him. In fact, his sovereignty over Israel is thus denied: “By what right to you crush my people”, he declares, “and how do you dare to bash the face of the poor who cry out to Me”? (Isaiah 3, 14-15). Social injustice makes vain and useless the sacrifices offered in the temple in the name of the people. They become hypocritical gestures, the prophets will say, and they add that religious festivals and practices have become a real farce from which God turns away.

Biblical justice

Courageous reformers have more than once reacted and tried to eliminate abuses and protect the economically feeble. In the course of centuries they worked out and refined a socio-economic legislation and tried to justify it by referring to God Himself and to the Covenant He made with his people. In other words, they tried to determine, in God’s name, what is just and to distinguish it from what is unjust, from what damages the basic rights of the person and the nuclear family. This justice they codified aims at making concrete the authority God has over his people, his sovereignty. The biblical notion of socio-economic justice is fundamentally a theological notion. The ultimate reference to this justice will for ever remain those first words directed by God to Moses: “I have heard the cry of my people enslaved by Pharaoh… I have decided to free them from oppression and to give them a land where they will live in peace and abundance” (see Exodus 3, 7-8).

We cannot possibly enumerate here the numerous socio-economic problems which the biblical legislation seeks to solve. It will suffice to evoke some of them as a matter of instance. Among those that seem to have always been weighing on the shoulders of the Jewish proletariat, we could quote debt – “over-debting” we would say these days – which soon or later makes individuals and families topple into misery. Neighbouring peoples knew the practice of lending: loans of sums of money, of cereals or oil, produce for the bare necessities of life. Mostly it is a matter of usurious loans, interest being determined by the whims of the lender, up to 33% for cereals.

Loans on interests will be prohibited in Israel: “You are not to lend him money at interest, or give him food to make a profit out of it” (Leviticus 25, 36). Because this law was reactivated and refined at various periods in the name of the solidarity that was to characterize the people of the Covenant ( see, e.g., Exodus 22, 13-14; Leviticus 25, 35-38; or Deuteronomy 24, 10-22), one is bound to recognize that this demand was not always respected, even not very often.

On the other hand, the law was tempered by the fact that a moneylender was given the possibility to demand some pledges that would give him a certain guarantee of repayment. But in this matter likewise, one had to remedy certain abuses: “If you are making your fellow a loan on pledge, you are not to go into his house and seize the pledge… you must stay outside and the man shall bring out the pledge to you. And if the man is poor, you are not to go to bed with the pledge in your possession; you must return it to him at sunset so that he can sleep in his cloak and bless you…” (Deuteronomy 24, 12-13). The principle at stake here, as in other norms, is that for no reason at all someone is to be deprived of a good which he is really in need of, in this case his blanket for the night. It would mean wounding him in his dignity as a human person recognized by God Himself.

The sabbatical year

Much more important and much more original is a practice the codification of which was made more precise in the course of the centuries, namely the sabbatical year which recurs every seven years, at least in principle (Deuteronomy 15, 1-18). At first, it imposes a rest for the soil. Fields are to be left fallow and the poor can collect whatever might have grown spontaneously. The same held for vineyards and orchards which are left at the disposal of the neediest. God signifies by this that He remains master of the earth and it is on this account that what it naturally produces belongs to the needy every seven years.

Later, the sabbatical year will try to remedy the social scourge of slavery. Small farmers always end up indebting themselves and are finally forced to sell themselves out to big landowners who make them work free of charge and enrich themselves at their expense. This type of slavery, even if it was not as hard to bear as in the neighbouring countries, was nonetheless a social scourge which one tried to remedy by taking two measures. On principle, every seven years all debts are simply cancelled and pledges are returned to their owners: “Let there be no poor among you then. For Yahweh will bless you in the land Yahweh you God gave you for your inheritance…” (Deuteronomy 15, 4).

Moreover, and this is most important of all, slaves will recover their liberty: “If your fellow Hebrew is sold to you, he can serve you for six years. In the seventh year you must set him free, and in setting him free, you must not let him go empty- handed. You must make him a generous provision from your flock, your threshing-floor, your winepress; as Yahweh your God has blessed you, so you must give to him” (Deuteronomy 15, 12-15). These are earnings which allow the freed man or woman to start life again with dignity, a sign of solidarity with him/her and of gratitude towards God who ensures the life of all members of his people. In fact, slavery was never abolished in Israel, but it has been regulated. The sabbatical year aimed at remedying the impoverishment of rural workers who were all too often exploited by their compatriots and at putting the brake on the progressive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few profiteers.

The Jubilee Year

The same fundamental vision is to be found in an institution which never truly functioned but which makes concrete a project of society that would ideally be the one of God Himself. This institution is the jubilee year celebrated in principle every 50 years (7 times 7 years). The main theme of that year is liberation: “You will proclaim liberation for all inhabitants in the country” (see Leviticus 25). It is first of all a moral liberation. Man frees himself from his debts towards God, from the weight of sin on his life. Celebrations and sacrifices renew the Covenant that founded the people.
The jubilee year is first of all a holy year, a year of conversion. The people reconciles itself with God, it renews itself in some way as the chosen people. This conversion must show in social life. The laws applied in each sabbatical year are strengthened, especially the cancelling of debts. Moreover – and this is a most extraordinary feature – a genuine agrarian reform is launched: “Each of you will return to his ancestral home, each to his own clan” (Leviticus 25, 10). Fields, vineyards, orchards and all real estate one has had to sell or leave to someone for whatever motive will be given back without compensation to the former owner or to his family. It is the dismantling of the large rural estates and a radical revision of the urban as well as the rural cadastre. It is some sort of tax levied on big fortunes for the immediate benefit of the less fortunate. In other words: a redistribution of wealth. Adding this rural reform to the demands of the sabbatical year in fact entails a radical reform of the socio-economic order. Ultimately it amounts to putting the account back to zero in all domains, just as one has put the accounts back to zero with God.

It is obvious that this reform was utopia in its radicalism. The texts prescribing its modalities reveal clearly enough how much one was aware of the concrete difficulties it entailed and the opposition it would arouse in those who would be its victims. Yet, it made concrete an ideal of distributive justice based on the inalienable right of each member of the chosen people, the right to possess and to enjoy in total autonomy all that is needed to live. And this in the name of God himself. It amounts to a project of society which eliminates, to the extent that this is possible, all socio-economic discrimination, that is to say all abuse of power by some privileged people, whatever the source of their power.

In other words, it is a project of economic justice that refuses that a person be alienated, that refuses any situation due to external economic circumstances in which a person stops to belong to himself and to be master of his own destiny. A project of economic justice that puts the brake on the development of social classes which run the risk of becoming antagonistic and enter into conflict. This project is based on the affirmation, received in an act of faith, that God, master of the world, absolutely refuses any form of injustice or socio-economic fracture that goes in against his own project and installs a sort of social anti-project of which the poor (in the broad sense of the word) are the first victims. Ultimately, human injustice is a denial of God’s justice, and the jubilee year, a year of conversion, prevents this injustice from becoming an accomplished and irreversible fact.

Jesus and the announcement of the Kingdom of God

The message of Jesus will broaden these perspectives and will give them a universal bearing in freeing them from their local and unavoidably limited framework.

Matthew reports a very clear statement of Jesus in the ‘sermon on the mount’, his programme speech concerning the Kingdom: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them” (Matthew 5, 17). This is an affirmation of general significance. The project of God for this world has been progressively revealed in the history of the Jewish people and its institutions. It will be brought to its final completion in the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus.

Jesus’ programme speech as related by Luke is more explicit. Addressing his compatriots in the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus makes his own a text evoking the prophet of the ultimate times: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to the blind new sight and proclaim the Lord’s year of favour” (Luke 4, 18). A very clear reference to the jubilee year. In biblical terms, Jesus’ mission is to inaugurate the decisive jubilee year of the world’s history, a year that will become a permanent reality in the Kingdom. All victims of injustice, the poor and the oppressed, will be given back their human dignity. And a sign of it is being offered: the blind, those most deprived of the marginalized in ancient societies, will find a normal life again. The dream of the reformers of the people of Israel will finally come through in the inauguration of a Kingdom of justice and peace by Jesus.

What about us? Preferential option for the poor

For a number of years now, in the wake of Vatican Council II, Christians have so to speak rediscovered the problem of poverty in the world and the demands for an economic justice freed from all compromises that so often distort it. A theme that brought about numerous reflections, more particularly in religious institutes, is the theme of preferential option for the poor. Numerous and often courageous initiatives have been taken to give it concrete forms. A preferential option that would in some way be the echo of God’s own option, since He is a God of Love. One of the fathers of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez, says it clearly: “The ultimate reason for this option is to be found in the God in whom we believe. It is truly a theo-centric option rooted in God”. Still, this way of presenting things which insists on the gratuity of God’s love has been challenged over the last years, first in Latin-American countries, then in others. One says: if God is love, he loves and cares for all people equally. Nobody can think of himself as privileged nor as an object of discrimination, whether it be positive or negative. God has no favourites, not even the poor. To speak differently amounts to falling into some sort of anthropomorphism, as when the Bible says that God is getting angry and from the heights of heaven roars against the impious like a lion.

Option for justice

If, with reference to God, we wish to speak of an option, we need to do it in the field of justice. The will of God identifies itself in an absolute manner with justice. In biblical terms, God is definitely on the side of justice and against injustice. Objectively speaking, the two alternatives of justice and injustice exclude each other by definition. Speaking of preferential option for the poor obliges us to determine who these poor are and to distinguish them from those who are not poor and who would therefore not be subject to our option.

In fact, those whom the Bible calls poor are the victims of human injustice. In our modern societies, the economically weak are not the only victims of injustice. Those suffering from racial and cultural discrimination are equally victims. It is therefore preferable to speak of option for justice, an exclusive and radical option which calls for courageous political, social and economic praxis, a true struggle. It constitutes an essential dimension of Christianity because it refers to God’s own being as revealed in the history of the chosen people and, ultimately, in the person of Jesus.

The statement on justice in the world by the bishops’ synod of 1971 remains and will always remain topical: “Struggle for justice and participation in the transformation of the world appear to us to be fully a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, which is the mission of the Church for the redemption of humanity and its liberation from all oppressive situations”. This struggle is an act of faith in a God who wants justice for all men and women, since He is a God of Love.


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