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Social Justice and the Prophets

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“Let justice roll down like waters!” (Amos 5:24). Magnificent words, but what do they mean? What the prophet Amos means by them you can work out from the injustices that he attacks. The people he denounces take their own cut from the hard work of poor people (Amos 5:11), treat them with contempt, and take bribes. When they sell wheat, they rig the scales and the currency (Amos 8:5). It is always poor people who are their victims. These ruthless exploiters are nameless, but they plainly have wealth and power. Their home is Samaria, the capital of the eighth-century B.C.E. kingdom of Israel (Amos 3:9, Amos 4:1, Amos 6:1). Amos shows God demanding justice from them rather than worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24).

Other prophets, working in the sister kingdom of Judah, are indignant about similar things. Micah attacks the “chiefs of the house of Israel” “who eat the flesh of my people” and “build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong,” probably referring to building done with forced labor (Mic 3:9, Mic 3:3, Mic 3:10). Isaiah presents God as denouncing “the elders and princes of his people,” saying “the spoil of the poor is in your houses” (Isa 3:14). Judgment awaits those who extend their land holdings at the expense of others (Isa 5:8).

So this is injustice: the powerful treat poor people—who are most of their fellow citizens—as sources of wealth and unpaid labor, using coercion, bribery, dishonesty, legal technicalities, and even violence. And justice means the opposite: those with power behaving honestly, generously, and respectfully to the poor (Ezek 18:5-9). The prophets do not question inequality as such. It is the way the powerful behave that brings God’s judgment down on them.

But the books of the prophets also contain visions of society without injustice. “The tyrant shall be no more…all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—those who…deny justice to the one in the right” (Isa 29:20-21). Jeremiah praises King Josiah because he did “justice and righteousness” and “judged the cause of the poor and needy” (Jer 22:15-16). Instead of exploiting the poor himself, Josiah used his power to protect them from being exploited by other powerful people. That idea of the just king becomes a vision of the future in Isa 11:1-9: “with righteousness he shall judge the poor”—that means he will give them their rights when they appeal to him. Look at the picture in Isa 11:6-9 of fierce animals like wolves and leopards living peacefully with their usual prey. All that ruthless greed will be at an end: “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” For to know God is to do justice, and to give the poor their rights (Jer 22:16).

Can there realistically be power without oppression? Perhaps not. But the prophets are relevant not because they are realistic but because they taught that the test of justice in a nation is how the weakest are treated. This teaching repeatedly emerges in Jewish and Christian writing ever since. The rabbis could not think of a worse sin for the people of Sodom than to issue a decree that no one was to help the poor. In one of Jesus’ parables, the rich man goes to hell for ignoring the poor beggar at his gate (Luke 16:19-31). He did not “listen to Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:31). And James’s words against the rich could have come straight out of the prophets (Jas 5:1-6).

  • Walter J. Houston

    Walter J. Houston has retired after many years of teaching Hebrew Bible in seminaries and universities in England, and he now holds an honorary research fellowship at the University of Manchester.  He helps maintain the Society for Old Testament Study wiki.