Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Biblical justice

The bible’s social vision isn’t as simple as many think – this contradictory book can be as radical as it is repressive, writes Mike Marqusee

February 4, 2011
7 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


  share     tweet  

A body of antiquated dogma and myth, a source of repression, paean to patriarchy, bulwark of hierarchy. That’s how many would summarise the bible, and there are more than enough juicily quotable biblical passages to justify that view. But there’s much more to this book – or rather, this collection of texts by various hands – than either its detractors or devotees often suppose.

Take 1 Samuel, Chapter 8, where the elders of Israel come to the sage-judge Samuel and ask him to appoint a king ‘to govern us like all other nations’. Samuel, after consulting with God, warns them to be careful what they wish for. Under a king, their sons will be conscripted ‘for his chariots and his horsemen’ and made ‘to reap his harvest and to make his instruments of war’. Their daughters will be forced to work in the king’s kitchens. Their vineyards and olive groves will be seized and given to the king’s cronies. To support the army and bureaucracy they will be taxed to the tune of 10 per cent of everything they produce. Nonetheless the elders insist on having a king, to be ‘like all other nations’.

That the Jews should become like other nations (‘normalised’, with a territory, state and army of their own) was one of the earliest Zionist arguments. But here, at the founding of what many see as the first ‘Jewish state’, the biblical author raises troubling questions about the whole idea of statehood. In the work of the prophets, who were mostly critics of the monarchy, these questions would be amplified.

The Hebrew bible embraces contending voices and visions, even within a single text attributed to a single author. It incorporates ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ narratives, temple orthodoxy and subaltern dissent, laudatory regime chronicles and savage critiques of those regimes. Most of it was composed between 750-500 BCE by authors living in small, poor states in the isolated highlands west of the Jordan – a frontier region between the competing empires of the Nile and Mesopotamia. The strategic situation was perpetually vulnerable and state authority uncertain. Ironically, these weaknesses meant that there was more space for the clash of ideas and for self-critical perspectives than in the monolithic empires to the north, east and south.

Some prophets oppose all imperial entanglements; others urge tactical submission or collaboration. In parts of the bible, the great empires are depicted as brute instruments of God’s judgement. Their capacity for destruction is vividly evoked, but so is their ephemeral nature. In the fate of empires, biblical authors saw the possibility of an epochal overturning of hierarchies:

‘He humbles those who dwell on high, he lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust. Feet trample it down – the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor.’ (Isaiah 26:5-7)

The best of the prophets

Although the bible includes reams of ritual prescriptions, it also includes criticism of the emptiness and hypocrisy of ritual. Against the legalistic regime of the priests, the best of the prophets posited an ethical and spiritual religion, a credo of social conscience. In Isaiah 58:6-9, God makes clear what kind of worship he prefers:

‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, when you see the naked, to clothe them?’

Malachi denounces the ‘rulers of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right; who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with wickedness.’ Similarly, Micah comes ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin’. He resists the siren voices of the establishment: ‘I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’

‘Justice’ means above all justice for the poor and vulnerable. The greatest criminals, Isaiah argues, are those who ‘deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.’ New Labour may have been ‘intensely relaxed’ about the accumulation of great private wealth, but many of the biblical authors are anything but.

Isaiah (3:13-15) cries out: ‘What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ And Proverbs 28:11 archly observes: ‘The rich are wise in their own eyes; one who is poor and discerning sees how deluded they are.’

Amos excoriates traders for ‘skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales.’ Israel will be destroyed, he says, because: ‘They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.’ In particular, Amos warns that God will be ‘quick to testify’ against ‘those who defraud labourers of their wages… and deprive the foreigners among you of justice.’

Amos and other prophets influenced the later writers who drew up the social codes contained in the first five books of the bible. These include restrictions on the rich that would be regarded as intolerable by current economic orthodoxy. ‘If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.’ ‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.’ ‘Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.’

Contradictions

This social vision had its contradictions. Much of the Hebrew bible takes for granted the justice of collective punishment, extending even into unborn generations.

However, in the wake of the final destruction of the ancient Hebrew state and the deportation to Babylon, biblical authors stressed individual salvation and reshaped their God as a comforter in exile and distress (thus laying the basis for the New Testament).

The Book of Job, composed some decades after the exile, turns the justice debate on its head. Job is a just man who suffers injustice. In his complaint, the suffering of the innocent is laid at God’s feet. Job’s friends, who come as comforters but speak as defenders of orthodoxy, are appalled: ‘Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?’

Yes, Job insists, he does: ‘God has wronged me and drawn his net around me. Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice.’ Job refuses to compromise his ‘integrity’ by accepting that he is to blame. God’s response, ‘the voice out of the whirlwind’, is a poetic triumph, imagining the cosmos from a non-human perspective, and though it over-awes Job, it really answers none of his questions.

Like other biblical texts, Job is puzzling and open-ended. It demands interpretation, calls for a response, even if that response is a rejection of monotheism and its internal contradictions. The best of the bible writers leap across time and space to question us with intimacy and urgency. What they’d have to say about the deficit-chopping governments of Europe would probably get them pulled from the internet.

www.mikemarqusee.com

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


4