The Bible and the Land – 5  The Land and Justice

The Bible and the Land – 5 The Land and Justice

The Land and Justice

By Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac

Justice matters to God! I am amazed how often this concept is missing in many Christian theology and mission books. It is missing from the teaching and preaching of the church, and this is indeed sad!

The Bible speaks a lot about justice. I mean a lot. And the theology of the land is a good place to start. No other sin in the OT was tied more directly with being expelled from the land than the sin of socio-economic injustice. Justice is emphasized in almost all the traditions. In Genesis 18:19, God says about Abraham:

For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.

Abraham was chosen for this reason: doing righteousness and justice, and this would bring the promise to fulfilment. In Deut. 16:19-20, justice is again portrayed as a prerequisite to staying in the land:

You shall not pervert justice… Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

The first five books in the Bible have a lot to say about the poor, the stranger, the sojourner, the widow, and orphan.[1] They are redefined, according to Brueggemann, as “brothers and sisters”. “It is one of the tasks that goes with covenanted land and keeps the land as covenanted reality: those who seem to have no claim must be honored and cared for”.[2] This is because land is not “for self-security but for the brother and sister”.[3]

Yet it was the “classical” prophets who elevated this issue above probably all other considerations and related it directly to the exile. As Chris Wright says, “The prophets simply would not allow Israel to get away with claiming the blessing and protection of the covenant relationship for their society while trampling on the socio-economic demands of that relationship.”[4]

Amos is noticeable for his emphasizing social justice. His call to “let justice roll down like waters” (5:24) is followed by a warning of exile; “and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus” (5:27).[5] Jeremiah makes a similar point:

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever (Jer. 7:5-7).[6]

Jeremiah compared in chapter twenty-two the reigns of two kings of Israel: Josiah, who was just, and Jehoiakim, who abused his power. For Jeremiah, the overall wellness of the kingdom has to do with justice. If there is justice, all will go well. “Joshiah,”declared Jeremiah, “judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well.” Then he adds something extremely important: “Is not this to know me?” (22:16)

Did you get this? Knowing God and doing justice are the same thing! They are inherently related. You cannot claim to know God while not caring for the poor! It is that simple! This is why in Jeremiah 9:23-24 we read:

“Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

Again, knowing God and having a conscience for justice cannot be separated! It is that simple. (How in many systematic theology books mention justice as a character of God in addition to omnipresence and omnipotence, etc.?)

Justice matters! It matters to God! It mattered in biblical times and it matters today. It is in fact a central theme in the Bible. Yet sadly, and in a strange way, justice is a missing component from the mission, teaching, theology and ministry of most churches and mission agencies. It is time to pause and ask deep and serious questions about how we understand the Bible and mission, and why we have ignored justice!


[1] See for example Ex. 22:21-24, 23:6, 9; Deut. 10:19; 15:7-11; 24:19-22.

[2] Brueggemann, Walter, 2002, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, p. 61.

[3] Ibid., p. 73.

[4] C.J.H. Wright, 2004, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Inter-Varsity Press, Illinois, 2004, p. 98

[5] See also Amos 6:6-7.

[6] See also Jer. 7:8-15; 21:12-14; 22:3-5; Isa. 5:12-13; Ezek. 16:49.