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Justice in Job

May 21, 2012
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The book of Job is primarily composed of an extended court case.  Within the book defenses (and prosecutions) are presented for both Job and God.  Because of this it seems worth asking some questions about what justice looks like within the book of Job.

The first task is to take note of some important terms.  English translations render the key verses in a number of different ways but two Hebrew words underlie most of the discussion of justice in Job: mishpat (משפת) and tsadaq (צדק).  Mishpat is a participle of the verb shaphat (שפת) “to judge” and refers to a number of different parts of a legal case including the case, the verdict, the thing due to someone if their case were taken to court, and the idea of just settlement of disputes.  Tsadaq is normally translated “righteous” or “justified” but both of these words have lots of New Testament freight on them.  However, they both contain seeds of early ideas that are more useful – “righteous” is someone in the right, “justified” is someone who has been found to be just or who has justice on their side.  (It’s easy enough to see how these terms could move from the courtroom to the New Testament, but it should be remembered that in Job the New Testament context is lacking.)  The important thing here is that tsadaq and mishpat go together.  Job 37:23 and Job 40:8 actually use them as parallels (as do other Old Testament passages).  Specifically, a person who is tsadaq will always be on the right side of mishpat.  If they are defending in a case they will be found innocent.  If they are prosecuting they will be found to have been wronged and be recompensed.  If they are the judge they will issue mishpat that are unbiased by bribes and are true to the real situation.  Tsadaq is effectively the character of the person who is in the right while mishpat is the putting to rights of a situation.

Now, neither of these words clearly means “justice”.  Mishpat comes closest.  Job 8:3, 34:12, and 37:23 all ask if God will do violence to pervert/bend mishpat.  There’s no specific mishpat in mind and so here we are probably talking about the abstract mishpat, the idea of legally settling cases in a just fashion.  Other examples include 32:9 where the elders might not understand either wisdom or mishpat, 34:17 where a ruler should not hate mishpat, and 35:2 where mishpat is appealed to when no judgment has been rendered.  All of these cases seem to require an abstract usage of mishpat that would approach our English term “justice” (although mishpat is not simply our English word justice).  However, 8:3, 37:23, and 35:2 all also refer to tsadaq (or tsedeq “what is right” in 8:3, a closely-related word1) and so tsadaq is also important to an idea of justice.

Terms aside, what does being tsadaq or executing mishpat look like in Job?  There are two major areas in which we can examine this: the complaint against Job and the complaint against God.  I will examine the complaint against God first as I believe the complaint against Job, a human, will be more useful for us humans to directly use in our lives.

The complaint against God takes two main forms.  First, Job complains that God is unjust as a judge for condemning him.  Second, Job eventually claims that God does not act to root out wickedness (or at least not quickly), something he is called to task for by Elihu (I am assuming here that you have read my much more detailed explanation of the narrative of Job and I will therefore not be repeating the support for these claims in this article).  Both of these are ideas about what it looks like to judge justly.  Both of these are also rather straightforward: a just judge should not condemn the innocent, a theme none of us should be surprised by.  However, the idea that a just judge should not be slow to bring about justice is perhaps a bit more foreign.  This idea, that those with the power to bring about justice are under some sort of obligation to do so, is one that we will see again in the cases for and against Job.

The case against Job gets into specifics in Chapters 22 and 29-31.  In Chapter 22 Eliphaz accuses Job.  Despite the falsity of the accusations it seems reasonable to believe that if Job had actually done these things he would have done evil.  The things Eliphaz lists are: demanding items to secure loans from his relatives for no reason, reducing people to poverty, and refusing the help those in need (despite Job’s great resources).  In Chapters 29-31 Job lays out a long string of good things he has done and evil things he has avoided doing.  The good things Job lists are all instances in which he used his power to help those in need: the poor, the widow, the dying, the orphaned, and the oppressed.   Job’s list of evils are: looking at/considering a young woman2, deceit, covetousness, eating what others have sown, seduction and adultery, refusing to respond to the complaints of one’s servants/slaves3 in order to set things right, refusing to help those in need, using his influence to win disputes against those with no influence, trusting in wealth, worshipping the sun and moon, rejoicing over an enemy’s misfortune, cursing someone’s life, failing to offer hospitality to strangers and travelers, hiding sin, and stripping the land of crops without paying and breaking the spirits of those who dwell in it (both of which may relate to Job’s status as a man who probably had many tenant farmers on his property whom he could easily have cheated).

All of these evil actions can be grouped into four broad categories.  The first of these are evils that take place internally: covetousness, trusting in wealth, rejoicing in the misfortune of one’s enemies, worshipping the sun and moon, and probably looking at young women (since this is probably supposed to be part of the discussion of covetousness and adultery).  I would actually link these to Job’s explanation of why denying his workers’ complaints would be wrong.  In that section Job explains that God formed both himself and his workers and so on the basis of the created equality it would be wrong for him to ignore their complaints.  The reason I link this with the list of internal wrongs is that it is a place where an internal state results in an external right or wrong.  All of the internal wrongs Job lists are like this.  Covetousness would lead to deceit, theft, or adultery.  Both trusting in wealth and worshipping the sun or moon seem to involve breaking faith with God and, therefore, faithfulness to his ways.  Rejoicing in the misfortune of others is linked in the text to cursing their lives – one follows the other as if it is a natural extension of the idea.  Now, Christians have a long history of believing that one’s internal state is important but it always bears remembering (as Job seems to) that internal states have outward consequences.

The second category of wrongs is what we might call active evil.  Reducing people to poverty, demanding securities for no reason, seducing your neighbor’s wife, eating what others have sown, deceit, and cursing someone’s life all require someone to specifically go out and act to cause another harm.  All of these can be avoided by sitting quietly at home and being inoffensive.  As such, these are the least interesting of the notes the book of Job makes about justice as they should be already obvious to most people.

The third category of wrongs is one in which Job is thrust into a situation where he must act one way or another.  For instance, when his servants or slaves make a complaint he must either act or deliberately choose to ignore it.  This category also includes refusing the help those who come to him for aid, using influence to win disputes, and stripping the land bare without payment (if this is about interacting with tenant farmers whom Job must choose to pay fairly or not).  Notably, these are all cases where Job could probably argue that these injustices are legal.  There is no legal reason that Job needs to rectify a situation his servant complains about because the person can find a better job and a slave has no right to complain.  A tenant farmer, similarly, has a pre-existing deal.  If that deal is predatory, then so be it – it is not forced in a technical sense.  (I believe this also is involved when Eliphaz accuses Job of reducing people to poverty, something that is done perfectly legally in every society.)  Job is also not legally required to respond to requests for help.  Only in the case of Job using influence to win court cases is there a reason to believe his actions might be illegal but even there it might not be so.  The American legal system considers it perfectly legal that some people can afford top-notch teams of attorneys while others are represented by overworked public defenders.  Job’s influence could be of the same nature, the simple fact that Job would know what to say to those who judged his case because he knew them personally.

The fourth category of wrongs is further in the same direction.  These are not cases in which Job might go out and actively do evil or cases in which Job might be thrown into a situation where he would take the wrong route.  These are cases in which the evil Job denies doing is one where the evil is in the not doing: not seeking out and aiding the poor and allowing travelling strangers to sleep in the streets without being fed.  These are not cases (at least from the text) in which Job is asked to help (although there are also places where Job or Eliphaz discusses what Job would do when asked to help the needy) but rather cases in which Job says it would have been wrong of him not to offer aid unprompted.

The third and fourth categories of wrongs are very interesting.  They involve a sense that justice is not composed of not doing wrong but also of actively doing right.  We might term this passive and active virtue – is virtue primarily a matter of not doing what is wrong or of doing what is right?  Job seems to think that righteousness requires both, something that our society is increasingly losing a sense of as we attempt to create a system in which one must only avoid doing deliberate harm.  For Job, leaving someone alone can sometimes be a vice not a virtue.

Interestingly, Job’s power in all of this is not seen as a bad thing.  Instead of giving up power, Job seems to believe he should use his great power to aid those less fortunate.  Given the discomfort some modern people feel with the very idea of power, I find it worth noting that here Job is emulating God Who is also using His power to aid the less-fortunate.  The parallels between God as judge in Job and Job’s own use of power are strong enough to suggest that the book of Job has some things to say about the proper exercise of power, both political and economic.  If you are reading this article you probably (although not certainly) have some of at least one of those forms of power and the book of Job thinks you (and I) are doing something evil if you are not using that power to aid those who are less fortunate.

In summary, the book of Job presents an idea not necessarily of justice in our modern Western sense but certainly of righteousness, of living on the right side of justice.  In this idea we see that those who are powerful (judges, the wealthy, the influential) are not supposed to merely avoid actively breaking the law but are supposed to use their power to benefit others.  They are supposed to avoid harsh-but-legal arrangements with the less powerful.  They are supposed to go out of their way to aid others.  Moreover, righteousness is a character state maintained by correct thoughts and attitudes, not merely outward conformance.  Indeed, the book of Job seems to suggest that outward conformance is impossible without these correct thoughts and attitudes.


[1] In Hebrew consonants are stable across related forms (with some exceptions) while vowels mark the changes between forms.  So tsadaq and tsedeq which differ only in internal vowels are both forms of the same root and so we should expect that they would function in in a similar manner (although this is also not guaranteed).

[2] The Hebrew word here is not the normal one for seeing or looking at something but a word that normally means “understand” or “discern”.  When applied to seeing actions it appears to mean something like “examine carefully” or “look at in order to understand”.  Job 11:11 draws this contrast clearly where God sees (the normal word) sin without examining (the word we have been discussing).  In this case seeing implies something easy and obvious while the other word implies a more careful looking.  What this means in the case of a man examining a young woman is somewhat questionable but sounds far less harmless than “look at” and the presence shortly thereafter of talk of one’s heart being led by one’s eyes and then adultery is probably meaningful.  For other uses of this word in the sense of “examine” or “pay careful attention to” in Job see 32:12 and 37:14.

[3] Hebrew uses one word meaning “ones who serve” for both free servants and owned slaves.

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