Weekly Edgework #70 - October 31, 2005

Justice Derailed

…the language on which both Judaism and Christianity depends is Hebrew, and Hebrew is endlessly imprecise and unclear. There’s an openness to the language because it lacks connecting words: “it points and opens and suggests, but it does not conclude and define.” You have to infer meaning. (Reimagining Christianity, by Alan Jones, p.85)

I am not a Hebrew scholar. But I have studied enough Hebrew to know that to the modern mind it is frustratingly open, allowing for various levels of meaning and interpretation. The problem students of Hebrew encounter is that only main words are used, leaving the reader or hearer to infer what the connecting words are from the context of what is being discussed. Original written Hebrew has no vowels, no spaces between words and no punctuation. And one Hebrew word frequently can be translated in various ways, depending on the context. This, in contrast to the greater precision of the Greek language of the New Testament and modern-day English.

Of course the nature of the Hebrew language has given rise to a lot of controversy when translations have been attempted, first into the Greek of New Testament times, and later into languages around the world. Understanding the ambiguities of the Hebrew language creates a great deal of discomfort for those who think they have a handle on the precise meaning of certain biblical texts. So one way people have found to shore up certainty of meaning is to declare a particular English translation as the “God-breathed and precise translation” of God’s intended revelation to humankind. For many older evangelicals, this has been the King James Version (KJV) of 1611 A.D., although the fact is that it too has gone through numerous “versions” attended with much controversy.

Of course I grew up with the KJV. I simply accepted it as the definitive Word of God and to this day most of the scripture passages I know for memory are from this translation. As I look back over more than four decades filled with controversy over new translations of the Bible, I realize that I have lived through dynamics similar to those of the first half-century after the first KJV of the Bible was published. Frequent corrections and revisions were always met with protests that the “pure” Word of God was being adulterated. It seems that people always feel a need to get the Word of God nailed down with a precision that the original language simply can not provide, and then call that the true voice of God.

All this is a backdrop to a recent discovery I made at how the concept of “justice” in the biblical text got derailed along the way. I have frequently wondered why Bible-believing evangelicals have often been insensitive to injustices happening in the world. I have even noticed at times that to raise the notion of “biblical justice” as a vision to strive for in our world is to be branded as suspect – a liberal, perhaps, who is trying to read something into the Bible which just isn’t there. And if it is there, it certainly would not be something central to God’s revelation!

I gained some insight on this score from a paper presented by Frank E. Gaebelein, and printed in the book, Living More Simply, edited by Ron Sider. He too was mystified as to why, especially older evangelicals, insisted that the Bible has almost nothing to say about justice. I will quote his response at length below.

So I investigated the use of the word “justice” and found that in the KJV “mishpat,” the Hebrew word used far more than any other word for “justice,” is translated “judgment” 294 times and “justice” only once. In over 90 of those 294 times, “mishpat” means “justice” and is so translated in newer versions. Thus for the reader of the KJV, Psalm106:3, “Blessed are they who maintain justice” (NIV), is “Blessed are they that keep judgment”; Isaiah30:18, “The Lord is a God of justice,” is “The Lord is a God of judgment”; and Amos’s magnificent imperative, “Let justice roll down like waters” (5:24), is narrowed to “Let judgment run down as waters.” The same is true in scores and scores of passages.
(Though two other Hebrew words for “justice” (tsedeq and tsedaqah) are translated “justice” a total of 25 times in the KJV, that hardly offsets the loss occasioned by the KJV use of “judgment” where “justice” is meant.)
Obviously, the KJV use of “judgment” for “justice” has for many readers obscured the totality of the Old Testament emphasis on justice, an emphasis vitally linked to the need for a simple lifestyle. (p. 29)

Given the imprecision of the Hebrew language as we have noted above, we should perhaps not be too disturbed at this error in the KJV as seen from our contemporary perspective. I can even allow some slack for the KJV translators knowing that the concepts of justice and judgment are obviously related to some degree. One could argue that proper judgments must be made if there is to be justice. But most frequently the concept of judgment in the Old Testament has a punitive dimension to it. Judgment comes because of the sins of the people.

With this new information I think I have found the answer to, not one, but two questions. Why the insensitivity to the concept of “justice” among older evangelicals reading mostly the KJV? It simply doesn’t appear in their version of the Bible as a central concept. In its place they find “judgment” as the key interpretive principle, especially in the prophetic writings. God will surely judge people for their wickedness. Granted, this thread is also present in the text, but never as the thing that God desires. He desires justice and righteousness and so should we. Judgment is never proclaimed as a divine desire, but justice is.

And that answers my second question: Why the harsh tone of judgmentalism that so often accompanies older evangelicals? Because that is what they read, erroneously translated, in their authorized versions of the Bible. Being biblical then means imitating the notion of judgment as they see it all over their biblical text.

Many of us are still in the process of translating “mishpat” correctly as “justice” instead of “judgment,” both in our Bibles and in our lives.