Justice and the Underdog
Just Deserts and "Poetic Justice"
The English word "justice" relates to several roots in Hebrew:
Between them these roots express a range of semantic fields in English:
In general while ריב is fairly frequent in the prophets - though most frequently used in wisdom literature, דין is rare (only 7 occurrences of any form of the root). This gives a first hint that prophets are more concerned with justice than law. The frequency of צְדָקָה and מִשְׁפָּט is much higher in the prophets than anywhere else in the Bible. They are used as close synonyms - as word pairs in synonymous poetry, and together in the phrase "justice and righteousness" - suggesting that they relate to one concept. So, even when using forensic language, the prophets seem primarily to have justice in the broadest sense in view.
In the prophets this concern for justice (rather than more strictly legality) is most evident in what they say about the poor or oppressed. In any society some have an easier life while others are disadvantaged. In Ancient Israel widows, orphans and resident foreigners were without an effective voice in the city or tribe; while the poor could lack the economic means to survive. The prophets were particularly concerned with "justice" for these groups, and "righteousness" was less a case of keeping the rules than of assisting and protecting these disadvantaged people.
One particular feature of talk of justice in the prophets is especially marked - today we call it "poetic justice" - when the punishment or consequence "fits the crime". So in Amos 5:11-12 the accused have built fine properties with their ill-gotten gains, but will not enjoy inhabiting them nor consume their fruit. In 6:1ff. those who were first to enjoy the luxuries will be first carried into exile when disaster strikes (6:7), and those who were proud of their conquests of other nations (6:13) will suffer at the hands of a greater nation (6:14).
This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.