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The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible

         When used in conjunction with archaeological data and the literature of the ancient Near East, the social sciences can produce meaningful insights into the text and the society behind the text.


    There has been a long interest in the ethical message of the prophets. The “Social Gospel” of Walter Rauschenbusch, for example, was predicated in part on the basis of the keenness of the prophetic social critique. Ancient Near Eastern textual materials have broadened the picture by yielding prophetic texts, in particular from Mari and Assyria, which present prophets as bearers of warnings of divine judgment and promises of divine support for the king. Recent literary study of the book of Isaiah in its final canonical form has caused scholars to pause and reassess the gains and weaknesses of the genetic schemes and varied divisions posited for the book since the eighteenth and nineteenth-century identification of a Second Isaiah (originally chs. 40-66 but now restricted to 40-55). 

    One way out of this impasse has been provided by canonical criticism's insistence that we look at the final form of the text for guidance as to its theological import. Brevard Childs, for example, accents the resultant editorial unity of the Book of Isaiah that effectively subsumes the anonymous sixth century B.C. E. origins of Second Isaiah under the larger rubric of “a prophetic word of promise offered to Israel by the eighth-century prophet, Isaiah of Jerusalem.” Christopher Seitz has also forcefully argued that Isaiah 1-66 benefits from a unified reading, since the final text does indeed say something vital that is not picked up from the fragments. 

    Positively we might say that the writers and compilers of Isaiah 1-66 seek to understand the events of the exile within the categories and prophetic values passed on from pre-exilic times. Yet the philosophic and nationalistic wrestlings of this complex book press this heritage to develop new theological ideas, enabling the community of the exile to come to grips with its situation of dislocation. In offering reflections on the plight of the nation (i.e., its elite), the text broadens the scope of the one key Hebrew term ani (“poor, exploited”). The overall thrust of the text's message is that YHWH meets the chosen people in the midst of their suffering, affliction, and oppression. Just as YHWH sought out a people who were exploited in Egypt and led them out of that captivity, so YHWH seeks out those who are ensnared by circumstances beyond their control, exiles in foreign Babylon.


    Ostensibly, it would seem that we know more about Jeremiah and his social justice message than we do of any prophetic figure in the Hebrew Bible. Yet the editorial complexities and the variations between poetic and prose sections of the book of Jeremiah create interpretational challenges that are far more daunting than initial impressions might indicate. The fact that the Greek translation (LXX) of Jeremiah is roughly one-eighth shorter than the Hebrew text has led some to conclude that the LXX actually preserves an earlier version of the Book. In this discrepancy in length, we see some of the shifting sands of the Jeremiah traditions, for whereas Jeremiah is labeled a “prophet” in the LXX only four times, in the Hebrew text he is labeled a prophet thirty times. Clearly the traditioning process has moved well beyond our historical figure, increasingly imbuing him with a greater air of prophetic authority. 

    The Book of Jeremiah holds out the period of the Babylonian invasion as its ostensible context, even as the various sub-texts introduced by later compilers and editors make use of the invasion as a foil for agendas reflective of specific post-exilic contexts and later circumstances that are now impossible for us to reconstruct with any degree of certainty. 

    The social justice message of various sections of the book of Jeremiah is sharp and articulate. Bitter accusations were leveled at the fraudulent manner in which the elite acquired its wealth at the expense of the poor, whose legal claims the rich consistently violated. In making these pronouncements, the prophet invariably proclaims a word of judgment against the callous and impertinent elite. Jeremiah’s justice message subtly engages not merely the surface economic and political conditions of the time but also the underlying ideology that drove the royal system, namely, idol worship. 

    If we take these justice passages as our guide, we are led by these considerations to suggest that there are at least three major phases to the composition of the Book of Jeremiah: (1) an initial oracular phase with a vivid social critique dimension; (2) an intervening expansion with prose commentaries, parables, visions, and confessions, all of which temper this initial more radical vision; and (3) a “covenant” redaction which incorporates the prophetic critique and other materials into a Deuteronomic narrative tradition. We find in this process the hand of the former elite which has embraced, transmuted, and recast the earlier oracles for new political ends.


    The Book of Ezekiel sets itself up as a highly ornamented triptych: On one side, the notion of divine judgment dominates the oracles against Judah (chapters 4-24). On the other side, communal revivification dominates the oracles of renewal (chapters 33-39). These two side-panels of the prophetic text stand cheek-by-jowl with the centrally placed oracles against the nations (chapters 25-32). 

    The post-exilic context of the book was one in which the national questions were far from settled even as the temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem. Unlike the Book of Isaiah which presented its social vision as the underpinnings for a restoration that was only at its inception, the Book of Ezekiel offers a vision that would deepen the priestly institutions that had already been put into place during the early years of the restoration from exile. Hence the comfort with which the Book of Ezekiel blends prophetic language with a priestly view rooted in purity code terminology. Yet the urgency of the Book of Ezekiel would seem to indicate that, from the author’s perspective at least, all was not well in Jerusalem. That the temple-rebuilding project was only partly successful would seem to be indicated by the need for reforms, as evidenced by the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. 

    The use of mythic imagery in the book to create a political critique is noteworthy and follows a regular pattern throughout the book but especially in the oracles of judgment. There is consistent interest in pressing the old myths and received historical traditions into a higher level of critique, whether this critique invokes Eden, Sodom, the Exodus, Samaria, or figures such as Noah, Job, and Daniel. Finding new political import in the old myths permits the writer of Ezekiel to freshly ground a social critique, weaving the oracles against the nations into a theological framework that is razor sharp and incisive. 

    The voice of Ezekiel is a prophetic-priestly voice that has found a way to balance, on the one hand, claims for the restored temple and priestly authority with, on the other hand, a prophetic-styled social criticism. Yet unlike other parts of the prophetic tradition, the Book of Ezekiel has also found a mechanism to contain the abuses of the monarchy by bringing the “prince” into a reduced role vis-a-vis the temple, while still bearing the Davidic flag. As an urban program, Ezekiel’s social vision begins from the heart of Jerusalem, its temple, and works to transform the entire social order. 


    If Amos’s call was for justice to “well up like water” and for righteousness to roar like an “unfailing stream” (Amos 5:24), then the Book of the Twelve, the so-called “minor” prophets, can certainly be said to constitute the tributaries of that river of justice. Though spanning several centuries in terms of composition, editing, and transmission, when taken together these texts, which round out our study of the social ethics of the prophetic literature, attest to the continuing effort of key figures in Israel and Judah, and their followers, to raise hard questions about the social structures, religious practices, and ideological commitments of their society.

    More than this, however, we witness in the Book of the Twelve a growing self-awareness about the prophetic task. Where the individual oracles of an Hosea, Amos, Micah, or Haggai might be situated in particular historical circumstances, it is also clear that after the exile there is a developing consciousness that prophecy functions beyond its given historical moment. Prophecy becomes, in other words, a tradition that can be tapped to measure social praxis, long after the prophet’s words have been conveyed. 

    The stringing together of oracles from various time periods and the creation of oracle collections serves the purpose of continuing to raise the justice question. Each generation, in other words, seeks to redefine how it understands the call of Micah to “do what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In the ebb and flow of the waters of this righteous stream, namely the Book of the Twelve, we hear some provocative answers regarding how to live out that collective call to justice. 


    In the corpus of materials from Egypt and Mesopotamia, we find works of poetry akin to the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and the Book of Lamentations. Throughout the ancient Near East, the sacred poets composed texts that made appeals to the gods for divine assistance from the midst of suffering, offered thanks for the beneficent deeds of the gods, extolled the virtues of love, and praised the attributes of the gods. Significant portions of the biblical record carry on these poetic traditions, echoing the themes and the mythic elements common to the poetry of Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia, even as the biblical texts are indelibly stamped by the experience of the exile. Ancient Israel’s poetic imagination is alive with evocative texts which concretely raise questions of poverty, justice, gender, and divine presence. 

    The psalter’s celebration of God’s continued rule permitted both the mourning of failed institutions as well as the anticipation of a reinvigorated reign of God in Zion. This cultic consciousness encouraged the examination of such issues as personal and communal dislocation, the acquisition of wealth, and solidarity with the poor. The retention of a royal trajectory in the Psalms, within the post-exilic context, functioned to underscore the need for a corporate embodiment of justice, as opposed to the pietistic isolation of individual believers. 

    Similarly, the Song of Songs is reflective of the royal stamp that cast its shadow over the psalter. Yet the preservation and reuse of royal “love poetry” in the post-exilic setting speaks to the desire to have the community celebrate the whole of life, albeit within an androcentric framework. 

    Finally, the Book of Lamentations explores the liminal character of so much of Israel’s cultic imagination, jarred as it was by bitter loss and dislocating destruction, though not without great gains: For at the very edge of the abyss the community finds the courage to fiercely interrogate the God of Judgment. 


    Does a divine hand shape the ebb and flow of justice in the world? Does the punishment fit the crime on life’s stage of ethical decision-making? Can the poor ever hope for a fair shake this side of the grave? Sharing a deep kinship with the educational traditions of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ancient Israelites also produced texts that we label “wisdom texts” to address such questions. In the Hebrew Bible, three such works command our attention, namely Proverbs, Job, and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). Proverbs most closely resembles the collections of sentences and exhortations that are most well known from Egypt, texts which cull insight from an array of human deeds, desires, and distractions. On the other hand, the works of Job and Qohelet, discussed in the next section, represent a variant literary type, the dispute text, known especially from Mesopotamia, in which common wisdom themes are subjected to further examination: The text of Job represents a disputation regarding the justice of God's judgments, while the book of Qohelet carefully scrutinizes the utility of wisdom in a world of unpredictability and death. 

    While others have tried to place Proverbs in a folkish or familial context, I would argue that, following kindred Egyptian and Mesopotamian wisdom texts, the text of Proverbs strongly reflects the amalgamated wisdom teaching predominant among the educated elite of ancient society. 

    To the wise, the poor are insignificant elements in the social order from which nothing can be taken, except perhaps “insight.” In its instructional use of “poverty,” however, the wisdom literature appears to reveal an ambivalence in its attitude toward the poor, at times elevating them and at times disdaining them. But in this, the wisdom text is only concerned to make the student aware of the need to limit one's enjoyment of wealth, and for this purpose references to poverty constitute a useful teaching device. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the wisdom teachers took vows of poverty! Poverty is called upon for its heuristic value, enabling the student to grasp the proper attitude toward wealth and wisdom. There is no attempt to elevate the condition of the poor or to treat poverty as a desirable existence. Neither is there any awareness that, in fact, the urban population was making great gains from its exploitation of the poor.

    We may ask why the wisdom creed requires this view of poverty to establish its ideas. It would seem that this particular understanding of the poor was useful for protecting the creed's views of wealth and status. Thus, when Proverbs labels the poor as lazy, lacking in diligence, morally obtuse, and socially inferior, the text has defined the poor as a negative force in the body politic, thereby legitimating wisdom’s claims regarding social actors and processes in the social order. Any other kind of poverty would require a reassessment of this doctrine. 


    Given the orientation of Proverbs, the books of Job and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) deserve separate treatment. This is true for two reasons. In part, these books should not be lumped in with Proverbs because their rhetoric is quite different. We note, for example, that Job’s choice of a dialogue format is obviously different than Proverbs instructional or sentential style. Likewise, Qohelet reads like the skeptical and caustic philosophic musings of a king. Moreover, this difference in literary style is of interest precisely because the diverging discourses of Job and Qohelet frame social visions that contrast sharply with the views we have seen in Proverbs. 

    The uniqueness of the core of the Book of Job lies in its combination of two literary forms, the dialogue and complaint genres. This brilliant move allows the writer to consider the sufferer’s plight both as a communal issue and a theological problem. That the complaint form can find a resolution through dreams and visions likewise provides the author with a productive framework which can seek some sort of termination to the sufferer’s dilemma. This combination, therefore, allows the writer of the Book of Job to make progress on the question of suffering. Were this not the case, the Book of Job would simply represent a variation on old genre schemes. Instead, the Book of Job moves the justice discussion forward to a new level of insight. 

    Against the standard wisdom tradition reflected in Proverbs, the Book of Job counters the essential wisdom teachings concerning the causes of poverty. Job, in this sense, represents a direct assault on the wisdom creed. Step-by-step through this dialogue with self, friends, and even God, Job is empowered to articulate his grief, to be open to his brokenness, to see in that brokenness a window into the world of the oppressed, and to encounter the whirlwind of the divine. Countering Proverbs emphasis on the lazy poor, Job sees only their unjust exploitation. In this articulation of grief, the Book of Job also goes beyond prophetic language, for where the prophets were far too confident about God’s readiness to judge society, the writer of the dialogues of Job lays bare the sufferer’s resentment at God’s inaction in the face of massive injustices. Ultimately, however, the book, especially in its final form, draws on prophetic language to recover the vocabulary of lament, thereby constructing a deeper social vision. This theological quest does not necessarily lead to philosophic answers or clarity so much as it does to commitment and protest.

    While scholars rightly debate the central message of Qohelet, this enigmatic work is at the very least focused on skepticism about the utility of wisdom. As such, this work, like the Book of Job, challenges a fundamental tenet of the wisdom tradition. However, whereas the writer of Job successfully undermined the standard view of rewards and punishment, the net effect of Qohelet’s probing of wisdom’s value would seem to tend toward a more chastened view of wisdom itself, while nevertheless embracing the path of wisdom for guiding one’s behavior.

    It is extremely difficult to know how to assess the writing of Qohelet. The text clearly stands within the wisdom tradition but seems to focus on the dark side of this style of reflection. The poor are victims of the vast system of futility which the writer of Qohelet sees at work undermining the best of human plans and deeds. This awareness is strong but does not lead to the radical solidarity with the poor expressed so strikingly in the philosophic probings of the Book of Job. 

    Not being galvanized by this commitment to the poor, the writer of Qohelet notes their situation, taking refuge in what few goods and pleasures a more tempered wisdom might bring. Thus, if we seek a breakthrough on the question of justice, we must look to the Book of Job, rather than the skeptical efforts of Qohelet, for the richer insights.


    In dissecting the various layers and strands of the biblical record, we have tried to remain cognizant of the entire canon with its wider trajectories and visions. As we take in the broader sweep, we encounter the moral capital of the biblical tradition; i.e., the tradition’s capacity for expansion and accretion which result from the fact that subsequent generations have culled fresh insights and added new readings to the social-political dimensions of the text. It is this flexibility of the biblical tradition, this ability to draw the biblical record into dialogue with the present, that not only illumines our understanding of the political depths of the biblical materials but also urges us to unpack the ethical depths of the current political moment. 

    Biblical polyvalence remains ancient Israel’s lasting legacy to the moral imagination. The flexibility of the traditions, on the one hand, and their inevitable stubbornness, on the other, work to present us with one of the most interesting case studies of ethical thought from the ancient world. More than a case study, however, this ancient dialogue continues to have a place wherever thinking people and people of faith wish to wrestle with the moral imperative to build a better world. We have much to learn. The ancient Israelites have much to teach. Where the biblical social visions are concerned, we are called to bring the text’s rich insights to bear on our continued efforts to establish a more just society. This is the burden of Torah study but also its joy. 

J. David Pleins is a distinguished Professor at Santa Clara University, Department of Religious Studies 

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