Judaism: Meaning in Justice

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

The Prophetic Principle can be put as follows: The prerequisite of political stability is social justice, for it is in the nature of things that injustice will not endure.

It is to a remarkable group of men whom we call the prophets more than to any others that Western civilization owes its convictions (1) that the future of any people depends in large part on the justice of its social order, and (2) that individuals are responsible for the social structures of their society as well as for their direct personal dealings. 

The prophets were the pioneers of social sciences.

When someone today is referred to as a prophet or is said to prophesy, we think of a soothsayer—someone who foretells the future. This was not the original meaning of the world. “Prophet” comes from the Greek word prophetes, in which pro means “for” and phetes means “to speak.” Thus, in its original Greek, a prophet is someone who “speaks for” someone else. This meaning is faithful to the original Hebrew. When God commissions Moses to demand from Pharaoh the release of his people and Moses protests that he cannot speak, God says, “Your brother Aaron shall be your prophet” (Exodus 7:1). 

These prophets spoke out for the universe about its principles.

If for the Hebrews the generic meaning of the word prophet was “one who speaks on the authority of another,” its specific meaning (as used to refer to a distinctive group of people in the biblical period) was “one who speaks for God.” A prophet differed from other men in that his mind, his speech, and occasionally even his body could become a conduit through which God addressed immediate historical conditions.

The people saw it as God speaking through the prophets.

A review of the prophetic movement in Israel shows it not to have been a single phenomenon. Moses stands in a class by himself, but the prophetic movement passed through three stages, with the divine working differently in each of them. 

The first is the stage of the Prophetic Guilds, of which the ninth and tenth chapters of First Samuel provide one of the best glimpses. In this stage prophecy is a group phenomenon. Prophets are not here identified as individuals because their talent is not an individual possession. Traveling in bands or schools, prophecy for them was a field phenomenon that required a critical mass. Contemporary psychologists would consider it a form of collective, self-induced ecstasy. With the help of music and dancing, a prophetic band would work itself into a state of frenzy. Its members would lose their self-consciousness in a collective sea of divine intoxication. 

Prophecy came about when prophets in groups worked themselves into a self-induced ecstasy and felt one with nature.

There was no ethical dimension to prophecy in this guild stage. The prophets assumed that they were possessed by the divine only because the experience brought an inrush of ecstatic power. In the second stage, ethics entered. This was the stage of the Individual Pre-Writing Prophets. Being alive and in motion, prophecy now began to launch individuals like rockets from the bands that formed their base. Their names have come down to us—Elijah, Elisha, Nathan, Micaiah, Ahijah, and others—but as they were still in the pre-writing stage, no books of the Bible carry their names. Ecstasy still figured large in their prophetic experience, and power, too, for when “the hand of the Lord” visited these men they outran chariots for thirty miles and were caught up from the plains and cast on mountaintops. But two things were different. Though these prophets too had a guild base, they could receive the divine visitation while they were alone. And second, the divine spoke through them more clearly. No longer did it manifest itself as an overpowering emotion only. Emotion backed God’s demand for justice. 

Two episodes from the Bible may be drawn from many to make this point. One is the story of Naboth who, because he refused to turn over his family vineyard to King Ahab, was framed on false charges of blasphemy and subversion and then stoned; as blasphemy was a capital crime, his property then reverted to the throne. When news of this travesty reached Elijah, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel. Say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord. You have killed and taken possession. In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood’” (1 Kings 21:18–19). 

Later divine ecstasy overpowered individual prophets and their prophecy started to include the dimension of ethics. The prophecy grew beyond emotion to include rationality.

The story carries revolutionary significance for human history, for it is the story of how someone without official position took the side of a wronged man and denounced a king to his face on grounds of injustice. One will search the annals of history in vain for its parallel. Elijah was not a priest. He had no formal authority for the terrible judgment he delivered. The normal pattern of the day would have called for him to be struck down by bodyguards on the spot. But the fact that he was “speaking for” an authority not his own was so transparent that the king accepted Elijah’s pronouncement as just. 

The authority behind any pronouncement comes from universal principles. Even a king must bow to it.

The same striking sequence recurred in the incident of David and Bathsheba. From the top of his roof David glimpsed Bathsheba bathing and wanted her. There was an obstacle, however: she was married. To the royalty of those days this was a small matter; David simply moved to get rid of her husband. Uriah was ordered to the front lines, carrying instructions that he be placed in the thick of the fighting and support withdrawn so he would be killed. Everything went as planned; indeed, the procedure seemed routine until Nathan the prophet got wind of it. Sensing immediately that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord,” he went straight to the king, who had absolute power over his life, and said to him: 

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: “You have struck down Uriah with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, [so] I will raise up trouble against you within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel. Because you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” (2 Samuel 12:7, 9, 11–12, 14) 

The surprising point in each of these accounts is not what the kings do, for they were merely exercising the universally accepted prerogatives of royalty in their day. The revolutionary and unprecedented fact is the way the prophets challenged their actions. 

There was a revolution in that the rationality of prophets start to challenge the temporal authority of the kings.

We have spoken of the Prophetic Guilds and the Individual Pre-Writing Prophets. The third and climactic phase of the prophetic movement arrived with the great Writing Prophets: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the rest. Again at this stage, ecstasy was not absent from the prophetic experience; Ezekiel 1–3, Jeremiah 1, and Isaiah 6 (where the prophet “saw the Lord, high and exalted”) are among the most impressive theophanies on record. The Pre-Writing Prophets’ ethical emphasis, too, continued, but here there was an important development. Whereas a Nathan or an Elijah perceived God’s displeasure at individual acts of flagrant injustice, an Amos or an Isaiah could sense God’s disapproval of injustices that were less conspicuous because they were perpetrated not by individuals through specific acts but were concealed in the social fabric. Whereas the Pre-Writing Prophets challenged individuals, the Writing Prophets challenged corruptions in the social order and oppressive institutions. 

The rationality of prophets, then, evolved to challenge the corruptions in the social order and oppressive institutions. 

The Writing Prophets found themselves in a time that was shot through with inequities, special privilege, and injustices of the most flagrant sort. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of rich grandees, paupers were branded like cattle and sold as slaves, and debtors were traded for a pair of shoes. It was a world in which masters punished their slaves at will, women were subjugated to men, and unwanted children were abandoned to die in lonely places. 

Society was very unjust and cruel at the time of the writing prophets.

As a threat to the contemporary social health of the body politic, this moral delinquency was one important fact of Jewish political life at the time, but there was another. Danger within was matched by danger from without; for, sandwiched between the colossal empires of Assyria and Babylonia to the east, Egypt to the south, and Phoenicia and Syria to the north, Israel and Judah were in danger of being crushed. In similar situations the other peoples of the region assumed that outcomes rested on the relative strengths of the national gods involved—in other words, on a simple calculus of power in which questions of morality were irrelevant. Such an interpretation, however, drains opportunity, and hence meaning, from such situations. If eventualities are strictly determined by power, there is little that a small nation can do. The Jews resisted this reading, out of what we have targeted as their unquenchable passion for meaning. Even where it seemed almost impossible to do otherwise, they refused to concede that any event was meaningless in the sense of leaving no room for a creative response involving a moral choice. Thus, what other nations would have interpreted as simply a power squeeze, they saw as God’s warning to clean up their national life: establish justice throughout the land, or be destroyed.

What other nations would have interpreted as simply a power squeeze, Jews saw as God’s warning to clean up their national life: establish justice throughout the land, or be destroyed.

Stated abstractly, the Prophetic Principle can be put as follows: The prerequisite of political stability is social justice, for it is in the nature of things that injustice will not endure. Stated theologically the point reads: God has high standards. Divinity will not put up forever with exploitation, corruption, and mediocrity. This principle does not contradict what was said earlier about Yahweh’s love. On the whole the prophets join the psalmists in speaking more of love than of justice. Later, a Rabbi was to describe the relationship between the two as follows: 

A king had some empty glasses. He said: “If I pour hot water into them they will crack; if I pour ice-cold water into them they will also crack!” What did the king do? He mixed the hot and the cold water together and poured it into them and they did not crack. Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say: “If I create the world on the basis of the attribute of mercy alone, the world’s sins will greatly multiply. If I create it on the basis of the attribute of justice alone, how could the world endure? I will therefore create it with both the attributes of mercy and justice, and may it endure!”

The Prophetic Principle can be put as follows: The prerequisite of political stability is social justice, for it is in the nature of things that injustice will not endure. The prophets spoke of both mercy and justice.

The prophets of Israel and Judah are one of the most amazing groups of individuals in all history. In the midst of the moral desert in which they found themselves, they spoke words the world has never been able to forget. Amos, a simple shepherd but no straw blown north by accident; instead, a man with a mission, stern and rugged as the desert from which he came; a man with all his wits about him and every faculty alert, crying in the crass marketplace of Bethel, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Isaiah, city-bred, stately, urbane, eloquent, but no less aflame with moral passion, crying out for one “who will bring forth justice in all the earth.” Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah—what a company they make! The prophets come from all classes. Some are sophisticated, others as plain and natural as the hillsides from which they come. Some hear God roaring like a lion; others hear the divine decree in the ghostly stillness that follows the storm. 

In the midst of the moral desert in which they found themselves, the prophets (8th century) spoke words the world has never been able to forget.

Yet one thing is common to them all: the conviction that every human being, simply by virtue of his or her humanity, is a child of God and therefore in possession of rights that even kings must respect. The prophets enter the stage of history like a strange, elemental, explosive force. They live in a vaster world than their compatriots, a world in which pomp and ceremony, wealth and splendor count for nothing, where kings seem small and the power of the mighty is as nothing compared with purity, justice, and mercy. So it is that wherever men and women have gone to history for encouragement and inspiration in the age-long struggle for justice, they have found it more than anywhere else in the ringing proclamations of the prophets.

The prophets believed that every human being, simply by virtue of his or her humanity, is a child of God and therefore in possession of rights that even kings must respect.


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