Just, Yet Unjust

1.  In Ancient Israelite Religion, I read Abraham Malamat’s “A Forerunner of Biblical Prophecy: The Mari Documents.”  Mari was a city in Mesopotamia, and its documents date to the first half of the second millennium B.C.E. 

Some things that stand out to me in Malamat’s discussion of Mari prophecy:

Like the biblical prophets, the Mari prophets were concerned about social justice.  A prophetic passage exhorts the king, “When a wronged man or woman cries out to you, stand and let his/her case be judged” (36).  A letter offers a tangible example of the king executing justice, when he delivers a woman from kidnappers after her companion (at the instruction of the god Dagan) appeals to him for assistance.

Unlike the Bible, however, the Mari prophets usually don’t rebuke the king or the people; rather, they’re often nationalistic and optimistic.

Yet, not all prophets of Mari were professionals, so one can’t say that all of them were going with what benefitted their pocket-books when they made their prophecies.  There were professional prophets, and there were lay prophets. 

Malamat also makes this point about how Mari tested prophets, as opposed to biblical criteria for whether prophets are true or false: In contrast [to Mari], in Israel the prophetic word, whether accepted or rejected by the king or the people, is never subjected to corroboration by cultic means; it is simply vindicated by the test of fulfillment (47).  Mari’s techniques for verification included seeking omens through divination and “sending the hem of the garment and the lock of hair of the prophesier” (47).

2.  Last night and today, I read quite a few essays in Matitiahu Tsevat’s The Meaning of the Book of Job and Other Biblical Studies.  One essay I read was “God and the Gods in Assembly.”  In Psalms 58 and 82, God judges the gods who tolerate or favor the wicked.  Although many (perhaps even Jesus in John 8:34-35) have interpreted the “gods” as unjust human judges, Tsevat appears to see them as the actual gods of the nations.  After all, does not Deuteronomy 32:8ff. say that the Most High apportioned the Gentile nations to the gods, while reserving Israel for YHWH?

It’s interesting that Tsevat has this essay in his book, considering that his essay on Job says that God in his whirlwind speeches denies that he engages in just retribution (see Vegetarians Start to Eat Meat, God Discusses Justice with Job).  Essentially, Psalms 58 and 82 accuse the gods of the other nations of the same things that Job attributes to the true God: of tolerating (and thereby encouraging) wickedness.  The message of so much of the Bible, however, is that God judges the wicked.

Why’s the world as screwed up as it is?  Could it be that so many nations are ruled by unjust gods?  Apocalyptic literature makes this point.  The angel Michael, after all, had to contend with the princes of Persia and Greece in order to reach Daniel (Daniel 10:13, 20).  Are there unjust spiritual powers behind earthly rulers?

Could this have been Pat Robertson’s point about Haiti?  I’m not sure if the Haitian slaves believed they were making a deal with the devil, but (assuming the folklore is even true, which is disputed) could they have made one with an evil spiritual force?  Maybe God didn’t cause the earthquake.  In the Book of Job, after God allows Satan to do with Job as he pleases, a wind kills Job’s sons and daughters while they are eating and drinking (Job 1:18-19).  Can Satan cause natural disasters like tornadoes, perhaps even earthquakes?  When people make a deal with an evil spiritual force, are they inviting any mayhem that such a force may cause, for its twisted pleasure?  And that’s not to mention the factors behind Haiti’s poverty that clearly flow from injustice, the sorts of things that Psalms 58 and 82 criticize: political corruption, a mal-distribution of wealth, etc.

There’s a lot of discussion about whether or not Israel was more just than other ancient Near Eastern nations.  As we saw in (1), Mari had a concept of justice.  The idea of allowing the poor to glean is found in Egyptian sources.  Hammurapi talked about defending the poor from their oppressors.  Other ancient Near Eastern countries were more egalitarian than Israel in their inheritance laws, allowing women to inherit property, even when their father had sons.  Moving into Greece, Zeus was viewed as a god of justice. 

Yet, I read a good post by Lawson Stone yesterday, Day 308: Post Modern Bronze Age.  Here’s how he characterizes economic life under the great kings of the Late Bronze Age:

The end of the Bronze Age in the 13th century B.C. was arguably the most catastrophic event of antiquity. It was a perfect storm. The culture was highly urbanized, based on trade in luxury goods by wealthy ruling elites who controlled all the economic resources of the region primarily with the goal of extracting resources with little concern for local economies and cultures. It was a global culture as the 4 or 5 principal “Great Kings” of the Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BC) all maintained contact with each other and with their lackeys all over the eastern Mediterranean. These urbanites and the economy they depended on lived off of agricultural produce increasingly imported from subject nations, where it was raised by a shrinking peasant population forced to feed growing but non-producing urban bureaucratic centers with an increasing appetite for imported luxury goods but no concern for local economies, local cultures and local lives.  

In the midst of this imperialistic exploitation, “terrorists” such as the Shasu, the Apiru, and other bandits spread their mayhem.  Eventually, the oppressive societies weakened as the paper-tigers that they were.

Lawson Stone views the society that the Torah promoted as a refreshing contrast:

But the Old Testament’s vision of freehold agrarianism, local self-sustaining economies whose basic production serves the local needs, never exceeding the carrying capacity of the land, which is cherished and used kindly as a gift of God, a constrained and compassionate use of animals, limits on lending at interest, limitation of trade to surpluses, not staples, selection of leadership from persons most embodying the community’s core values, with families defended by a shared ethos of purity, integrity, memory and relatedness, all united under the concept of a covenant with one righteous and holy God to whose law even rulers and kings submit…these are arguably among the most transformative ideas about human civilization ever proposed.

Could Psalms 58 and 82 have a point that the gods ruling the other nations were unjust, oppressive, and exploitative, whereas the God of the Israelites was a God of compassion and humility?  Or were the kings of the Late Bronze Age betraying the principles of their religion, as the Bible accuses Israelite society of doing?  Or was their religion a rubber-stamp or a justification for oppression?  When that happens, maybe there’s not much of a difference between worshipping the true God falsely, and being guided by an unjust false god.   


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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