God’s justice more than fair
June 3 — Exodus 23:1-9; June 10 — Leviticus 19:9-18, 33-37By Regina Shands Stoltzfus
In Exodus 23, the formerly enslaved Israelites continue to remember the mighty act of salvation that God has performed on their behalf and receive concrete teachings concerning justice. This chapter comes on the heels of a series of commandments regulating worship and ceremonial life, and laws that protect those who have few legal and economic protections — aliens, widows, orphans and the poor.
Within the context of God’s shalom vision for all of creation, everyone receives justice. All are a part of the created order, which God has already declared good. Being identified as God’s people — the people through whom all peoples of the Earth would be blessed — requires careful attention. It requires treating others with justice. One should also expect to receive justice from others in the community. In this way, everyone had the possibility of living in God’s shalom.
It is not by accident that the laws enumerated in this chapter pay attention to enemies, in addition to the poor and the foreigners among them (23:3, 9). These categories represent the people who are the most marginalized and therefore vulnerable to further victimization. The law suggests that while justice should be meted out to everyone, the most vulnerable populations should receive an extra measure. The aim then, is not equality, but equity. A person should rise above what they think is the fair thing to do, according to human standards. One might think: “Hey, that’s my enemy’s donkey caught in the fence. Dirty scoundrel — serves him right!” or even a milder, “Whoops — looks like my enemy’s ox got loose again. Oh well, not my problem.” Under Yahweh’s system of justice, one helps even one’s enemies. Sometimes this will mean going out of our way (23:4-5).
Leviticus is concerned with the religious ritual and ethical purity of Israel. Chapters 17-26 are collectively known as the “Holiness Code.” The people of Israel are called by a holy God to be holy themselves (19:2). This holiness, however, extends beyond what happens within the context of worship or within the confines of one’s own household. Holiness is to permeate all of life and is integrated with teachings about justice. Holiness and justice are connected.
In Leviticus 19, commandments concerning care for the poor and care for the foreigner follow instructions on the proper way to keep Sabbath and offer sacrifice. Here again, attention is to be given to those who might simply go unnoticed, or who might, because of their marginalized identities, be deliberately victimized. In order that everyone might have food to eat, even the poor and the alien, purposely leave some of your harvest behind (19:9-10). This is justice. This is holiness.
These teachings on holiness and justice are formative instructions. God is forming a people through whom all of the world will be blessed. They are, then, to be a set apart, distinct people. The holiness codes focus on perpetual, visible signs of distinctiveness — what kinds of foods to eat, what types of fabric to wear, how to grow crops — as a way to indicate God’s presence permeating all of life. Caring for the poor and alien are practices that also form a justice ethic that permeates all of life.
Furthermore, the people of Israel have also been formed by their own collective experience of being the poor, the alienated, the enslaved. This knowledge should also be instructive to them. They know oppression and its dehumanizing, devastating consequences, and the Lord their God brought them out (19:34). As holy people called by a holy God, they are to love the foreigners, the aliens among them — even as they love themselves (19:34).
Regina Shands Stoltzfus lives in Elkhart, Ind., and teaches peace studies and Bible at Goshen College.
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