Feast upon the Word Blog

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NT Lesson #15: “Judge righteous[/just] judgment” (John 7:24)

Posted by Robert C. on April 22, 2007

I feel a bit irresponsible having focused so much on justice in last week’s lesson when it wasn’t even a term used in the passage. So in an effort to justify the discussion from the previous lesson, I’m going to take up John 7:24, which George R. Beasley-Murry in his Word Biblical Commentary volume translates as follows:

Stop judging according to appearances, but let your judgment ever be just.

Notice that the JST changes “appearances” to “traditions.” That itself is a very interesting change that I’d be interested in hearing thoughts on. But, in accordance with the desire several people expressed in the previous discussion to learn more about Old Testament connotations of the word justice (tsdq), I would like to focus my remarks here on some key Old Testament passages on “judging justly/righteously.”  First, consider Deut 16:18ff:

18 You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. 19 You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.  (NRSV, emphasis mine)

In John 7:24, it seems Jesus may be alluding to this passage as he is explaining why he should not be condemned for healing on the Sabbath (John 7:23). We might thus infer that the Jews are distorting justice in their condemnation precisely in a way that Deut 16:19 warned not to.

Also in the previous thread, robf linked to a page on tsdq that talked about a close affinity between charity and justice. I ignorantly said I hadn’t heard of this connotation—now I’d like to retract that statement. In looking up this word in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), I found some passages that use the term tsdq (the TWOT says there does not seem to be a difference between the masculine and feminine forms of this Hebrew word) in a way that make it sound very similar to the concepts of charity and mercy. Many of these came from Job (e.g. 29:12-15; 31:13, 24-25, 31-32). However, I want to take up Deut 24:10-13 (after all, I quoted Deuteronomy above, and Jesus seemed fond of quoting Deuteronomy—remember the temptations in the wilderness?—although my primary motivation is a cry for help because this is a very difficult passage for me to understand):

10 When you make any kind of loan to your neighbor, you may not go into his house to claim what he is offering as security. 11 You must stand outside and the person to whom you are making the loan will bring out to you what he is offering as security. 12 If the person is poor you may not use what he gives you as security for a covering. 13 You must by all means return to him at sunset the item he gave you as security so that he may sleep in his outer garment and bless you for it; it will be considered a just deed by the Lord your God. (NET; emphasis mine)

As I said parenthetically above, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. So let me simply quote Duane L. Christensen’s explanation of this passage in his Word Biblical Commentary volume on Deuteronomy, since I think he nicely describes one way we might think about the link between justice, charity, and the law as addressed in Deut 24:

The older version of the law on taking and holding distrained property in Exod 22:25–27 makes no mention of not entering the house of the debtor to take what he has pledged in security. If the debtor is poor, the article pledged (usually an item of clothing) must be returned that same day, before sundown, “for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep?” (Exod 22:26). Deuteronomy adds an injunction that prohibits the creditor from entering the debtor’s home to remove the pledge. As shown in the discussion above, this addition plays a substantive role in shaping the narrative stories in Gen 24 and 15, which reflect the wording of this law.

As Matthew Henry put it long ago, the law in Deuteronomy forbids the taking of anything for a pledge “by want of which a man was in danger of being undone. Consonant to this is the ancient common law of England, which provides, That no man can be distrained of the utensils or instruments of his trade or profession, as the axe of a carpenter, or the books of a scholar, or beasts belonging to the plough, as long as there are other beasts, of which distress may be made” (Exposition of the Old and New Testament [1828] 668).

The law concludes with the remark that the debtor “shall bless you, and it shall be counted for righteousness for you before YHWH your God” (v 13), when you refrain from withholding distrained property. Even within the covenant community, where God’s blessing is bestowed, there will still be those who are disadvantaged and poor. It is our responsibility, under God, to alleviate their hardship.

I think that it is this charity-aspect of justice that Jesus seems to be referring to in John 7:24, an aspect of justice that we don’t normally think about. In this sense, perhaps we are fortunate that the KJV translators chose the term “righteous” instead of “just” in describing “righteous[/just] judgment,” since we tend to think of charity and righteousness as terms that are much closer in meaning and connotation than the terms justice and charity (even though the terms are the same in Hebrew and Greek).

(Bonus for anyone who can help me think about what all of this implies for how we might understand the significance of the JST for Matt 7:2, “judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged”….)

One Response to “NT Lesson #15: “Judge righteous[/just] judgment” (John 7:24)”

  1. Robert C. said

    (Sorry to anyone who read this before I fixed all the typos—I was in a hurry when I posted it this morning….)

    Joe strongly recommended a chapter on Isaiah in Old Testament Theology, vol. 2 by Gerhard von Rad—it’s fantastice! Starting at the bottom of p. 169, he says, “[The annointed one’s] principal office is that of arbiter, in which he cares particularly for those whose legal standing is weak. . . . Isaiah retgaqrds the annointed one’s commission as consisting pre-eminently in the establishment of the divine justice on earth.” Von Rad doesn’t really elaborate, but this passage struck me—studying this notion about establishing divine justice in Isaiah would, I think, be a great place to look for a better Old Testament understanding of justice….

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