Last week we saw Dr. Timothy Keller, founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian churches in New York City, defined helping the poor as a matter of justice and not mercy.
Catholics and the evangelical left place great weight on the fact that the Hebrew word for justice, transliterated as mishpat. “Now these are the judgments [mishpat] which you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1) and Moses goes on to list criminal activity.
When a theologian begins to slice and dice words in the original language you should grab your wallet; you’re about to get robbed. Greek tends to be a precise language compared to others, but even Greek words have multiple meanings so that speakers relied on the context to fit the appropriate meaning in place. Ancient Hebrew was a more ambiguous tongue, much like modern Arabic. Biblical writers often took advantage of the ambiguity to make puns in the same way that puns work in English.
The Hebrew mishpat can mean judgment, justice, ordinance, decision, right, privilege, proper, or custom according to a Hebrew lexicon. It’s often translated as krisis in the Greek version of the Old Testament, as Keller mentioned, which meant decision or crisis, according to the Dictionary of New Testament Theology. A closely related word, krima, meant dispute, decision, verdict, or judgment. Mishpat was also translated as dikaiosune, which means righteousness. As usual, we’re left with the context to determine the appropriate meaning of mishpat.
The proper context is that courts of Israel did not adjudicate religious or moral laws. They left religious law to the priests and enforcement of moral law to families and God. Joseph Lifshitz wrote in his book Judaism, Law and the Free Market: an Analysis that giving to the poor was not a legal obligation:
For this reason, the Sages defined charity foremost as a moral principle, not a juridical one. Thus, they admonished those who would take money from others in order to give it to the poor: ‘Better is he who gives a smaller amount of his own charity than one who steals from others to give a large amount of charity.’
All the limitations placed by Jewish religious law on property rights are of a moral nature – they have no legal or monetary standing, and there is nothing in them that changes the legal definition of property rights. Hence, any interpretation that claims the existence of distributive justice in Jewish law as separate from the individual’s religious identity, and defines individual obligations in legal terms and not in moral ones, must be merely a reduction of Jewish Law’s theological principles to an anachronistic political position, and in doing so, also distorts the judicial principle.
Also, a passage from the ancient Jewish book Ethics of the Fathers quoted in Brad H. Young’s Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus illustrate the limited nature of the Israeli courts:
(5:11) Seven kinds of punishment enter into the world on account of seven major transgressions. When some people give their tithes and others do not, then famine ensues from drought. Some people suffer hunger while others are full. When they all decide not to give tithes at all, a famine ensues from civil disorder and drought. If they resolve not to give the dough-cake (Numbers 15:20), a deadly famine comes. So a pestilence may come into the world to fulfill those death penalties threatened in the Torah which is not given over to human court systems, and for the breaking of the laws regarding the produce of the seventh year. (Leviticus 25:1-7) [Emphasis added]
If the courts didn’t enforce the poor laws, what do the prophets mean when they demand that the Israelis enforce justice for the poor? Under the monarchy, princes bribed judges to steal land from the poor and give it to the princes. The book of Judges does not record those crimes in the administration of the judges. They happened only under the kings. God warned Israel in I Samuel 8 that such perversions of justice would happen when he described the evil that kings would inflict on the people. And they did.
When the Bible uses mishpat in reference to the poor, it means that either a crime has been committed and the criminal needs to be punished, or if there is no crime, it carries the sense that the Godly person will do the righteous thing voluntarily and help the poor. Keller and the Christian left are wrong to conflate the two meanings and insist that the government must alleviate all poverty.
Bribery, perversion of justice and theft are legal matters that God created governments to punish (Romans 13). If people are committing those crimes today, then obviously the government needs to punish them. The poor in the US today rarely suffer from such crimes. We can never achieve perfection because evil people will always exist, but those are not issues the poor in the US face.
Keller contradicts himself when he argues that the “Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.” If that is true, then why insist that the Old Testament usage of mishpat is relevant today? Would he argue that the Ten Commandments do not apply “for every time, place and culture?” Yet, “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not covet” are part of the constitution God gave Israel to form its government.
That government had no human executive and no executive branch with regulatory agencies or policemen. It had no legislature to fabricate new laws. It had no taxes and no tax collectors. Israeli citizens voluntarily brought their tithes to the tabernacle for the support of the priesthood and to provide relief to the poor.
The only governmental institutions God gave Israel were courts and they adjudicated only the civil laws, not the ordinances relating to charity for the poor. In short, Israel had no governmental agencies with which to enforce the poor laws.
The Bible is packed with encouragements to Godly people to voluntarily help the poor, but it never commands the government to force people to give. The New Testament continues that theme by asking Christians to be cheerful givers, which can’t happen if the state takes your wealth by force and threatens you with jail time if you refuse.
The great saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that criminalizing every sin would make life unbearable. Yet the Christian left, evangelical and Catholic, want to criminalize the sin of stinginess by using the state to force people to give to the poor.
Giving to the poor is charity and mercy, not legal justice.