As I prepared my message on the prophet Amos this past weekend at Eastbrook, I read widely and returned to some material I had read years before. Here is an insightful piece form Nicholas Wolterstorff‘s fantastic book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.
A striking feature of how the Old Testament writers talk about justice is the frequency with which they connect justice, both primary and rectifying, with the treatment of widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor. Alike in the presentation of the original legal code, in the accusations by the prophets of violations of the code, and in the complaints of the psalmist about violations, some or all of the members of this quartet regularly get special attention when justice, mishpat, is under discussion.
In Deuteronomy 24:17 Moses enjoins the people, “You shall not deprive the resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (cf. Exodus 22:21-22). In Deuteronomy 27:19 the priests call out, in a ritualized cursing cermony, “Cursed by anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice,” to which the people say, “Amen.” In Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah of Jerusalem says:
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
And in 10:1-2 (a passage already quoted) he excoriates those
who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statues,
to turn aside the needy from justice,
and to robe the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
The theme is too pervasive in these writings, and too familiar by now to most readers, to need further elaboration.
The widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished were the bottom ones, the low ones, the lowly. That is how Israel’s writers spoke of them. Given their position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they were especially vulnerable to being treated with injustice. They were downtrodden, as our older English translations nicely put it. The rich and the powerful put them down, tread on them, trampled them. Rendering justice to them is often described as “lifting them up.”
The prophets and the psalmist do not argue the case that alleviating the plight of the lowly is required by justice. They assume it. When they speak of God’s justice, when they enjoin their hearers to practice justice, when they complain to God about the absence of justice, they take for granted that justice requires alleviating the plight of the lowly. They save their breath for urging their readers to actually practice justice to the quartet of the vulnerable low ones.
[Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 75-76.]