When Justice becomes Injustice

We are making our way through the book of Leviticus in my Sunday school class. This is the passage we considered this past Sunday:

“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 
~ Leviticus 19:15 ~

We have here a general prohibition followed by several specific examples. The general prohibition is:  “You shall do no injustice in court.” The court, we should understand, is not a human invention, but a divinely authorized institution (Deut. 1:9-18; Rom. 13:1-7). It has been established for the purpose of pursuing justice (Deut. 16:18-20). Justice involves the administration of law in order to prevent one person from harming or defrauding another and to provide a legal remedy when such harm or defraudation takes place. The role of the judge is to decide cases in terms of God’s law. Judges, therefore, are to recognize the Lord as the ultimate source of justice and to understand their role as mediating “divine decisions.”[1] This is why judges are sometimes referred to as elohim, i.e., gods (see for example Ex. 21:6; 22:8-9; Ps. 82:6). This is also why Moses charged the judges of Israel, saying, “You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s” (Deut. 1:17).[2]

This last statement is very significant. As judges decide cases under the authority of God’s law, they are rendering the Lord’s judgments. They are his decisions. It must be stressed, however, that this is only the case when the decisions are made in terms of the body of case law which the Lord gave to Israel.[3] Case law consists of a collection of past legal judgments that serve as a rule to guide judges in deciding all present and future cases. The use of case law involves reasoning by analogy, comparing present cases with previous rulings and making judgments accordingly. The Lord provided Moses with a number of legal scenarios which were likely to come before the judges of Israel for a decision. In each scenario God declared his will concerning how the case should be decided. “If this happens (i.e., if this offense should occur, or if that crime should be committed) here is how the matter should be handled judicially.” This would be of immense practical value to those charged with ruling Israel.

The preface to the first collection of biblical case law states:  “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them” (Ex. 21:1). The word translated “rules” (mishpatim) might better be translated judgments. The idea is that the decisions given in the specified cases represent God’s judgments. They represent the decisions he would give if he should personally preside in the case. Thus, the case laws provide the judges of Israel with a divine exemplar for rendering legal judgments in all similar cases. They serve the purpose of providing legal precedent. If past rulings were just and equitable, then it is good and wise to decide present cases consistently with past ones. Israel, however, was a new and independent nation; her judges had no legal history from which to draw when deciding cases. Of course they had the example of Egyptian law; and there were other legal codes available to them that provided case law,[4] but these were all fundamentally flawed in that they were of merely human origin and did not recognize the one true and only God. But the Lord provided Israel with a body of case law to establish legal precedents that were stamped with divine perfection.

Just laws, however, are not sufficient to guarantee a just society. A legal system, however well-grounded in God’s law, is only as good as the men who administer it are honest, hence the command in v. 15a, “You shall do no injustice in court.” In other words, You shall not turn the justice system into a tool of injustice. We find many similar admonitions in Scripture (e.g., Ex. 23:2-3; Deut. 1:17; 16:19; 27:19; Ps. 82:2; Jas. 2:9). The integrity of the courts is perhaps the single greatest indicator of society’s faithfulness or apostasy. The prophet Isaiah laments the state of the legal system in his day when he says,

No one enters suit justly;
no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity (Isa. 59:4)

Asaph speaks of the Lord confronting unjust judges.

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods [i.e., judges] he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? (Ps. 82:1-2)

The legal system had become a tool of injustice, the very thing the Lord had warned against in Leviticus 19:15.

The text goes on to prohibit several specific ways in which injustice might be done. “You shall not be partial to the poor” (v. 15b). Levine remarks, “In the pursuit of justice there can be no favoritism, even toward those for whom we have instinctive sympathy and who are otherwise deserving of our aid.”[5] This is a point which is also stressed in Exodus 23:3, “nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” This principle stands as a rebuke of the socialist/liberationist agenda, which claims that God is on the side of the poor. He is not. Let me repeat. God is not on the side of the poor. This does not mean, however, that he is on the side of rich, as the rest of the verse makes clear:  “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” Justice is no respecter of persons. This is a principle which is stated repeatedly in Scripture and has its ultimate foundation in the very character of God, who is himself impartial.

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe (Deut. 10:17).

[He] shows no partiality to princes,
            nor regards the rich more than the poor (Job 34:17) [6]

The impartiality God requires of judges is a reflection of his own impartiality. Justice does not take into account the litigants’ economic status. Rich and poor alike are subject to the same law. A poor man who steals from a rich man is as answerable to the law as a rich man who steals from a poor one. The same law applies. The same holds for other offences, as well. This is an application of the principle stated in Exodus 12:49, “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (cf. Num. 9:14; 15:15-16).

The commandment is expressed in a way that corresponds to the natural temptations a judge might feel: pity for the poor and deference toward the rich. But if he decides in favor of the poor only because he is poor or in favor of the rich only because he is rich, he has committed injustice. He is to have a regard only for the law and for the facts in the case. There must be no favored classes and no favored individuals.

[1] See Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice, and Society:  Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 2011), Chapter 4:  “Justice as a Calling,” pp.  103-144
[2] Years later King Jehoshaphat “appointed judges in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city,” and charged them in words very similar to those of Moses:  “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment” (2 Chron. 19:5-6).
[3] See for example Exodus 21-23; Leviticus 18-21; and Deuteronomy 13-27
[4] Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Atlanta, GA:  Scholars Press, second edition, 1997)
[5] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary:  Leviticus (New York, NY:  The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 128
[6] See also Ex. 23:3; Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; 16:19; 2 Chron. 19:7; Ps. 82:2; Prov. 18:5; 24:23; 28:21; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6; Col. 3:25


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