Social justice in the Torah

Peter Leithart’s column at First Things tries to put the concept of social justice in a biblical framework. Leithart’s a great person to do this because he’s immersed himself in the study of the Bible and is in touch with the broad Christian theological tradition. With “social justice,” and related phrases, on so many evangelical lips and fingertips these days, what does it mean? The Old Testament prophets are probably the most obvious source for Christian thought about social justice; indeed, politically liberal Christian voices (and others) often style challenges to real or perceived social injustice as “prophetic.” Leithart’s main concern seems to be showing that the social justice is rooted in the Mosaic Law.

His two key sub-points are that caring for the poor is not a charitable obligation in the Law, but rather a matter of “righteousness or justice” and that the festivals where often occasions for sharing with those who did not have resources.

Here are some key paragraphs:

That connection with the institutions and practices of Torah is fundamental to grasping what the Bible tells us about justice and poverty—fundamental, and neglected. Unless prophetic rhetoric is anchored in Torah, it floats free, gets transformed by modern statist idolatry, and comes out ready to be co-opted in support of the latest federal entitlement. When the Torah-prophet nexus is neglected or minimized, ‘justice for the poor’ tends to be reinterpreted as ‘the state will save us.’ Thus, in a quasi-creedal statement, Jim Wallis made support of Obamacare a litmus test of justice for the sick.

Israel’s prophets say nothing new but reiterate the demands of Torah. When Isaiah condemns Israelite landowners for “devouring the vineyard” and taking the “plunder of the poor” (Isaiah 3:14), for instance, he is alluding to gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Landowners are forbidden to harvest the corners of their fields, pick up dropped stalks of grain, beat olives from trees a second time, or strip the vines of all grapes. The remnant of grain, olives, and grapes is for the poor, who are permitted to harvest the corners and follow the harvesters. What Baker calls “scrumping” allows anyone to eat his fill of grain or grapes (Deuteronomy 23:24-25). Hebrew farmers are not allowed to maximize efficiency or to squeeze out the last bit of the harvest. Torah has built-in yield inefficiencies, as a gift to the poor.

At the same time, the right to glean and scrump does not dissolve the claims of owners. Gleaners are not permitted to enter a field before harvest begins; they take the leftovers. Nor are they simply given a handout. Gleaning is as back-breaking as harvesting, maybe more so. Scrumping allows the landless and hungry to share in the abundance of a harvest, but the landowners’ profit is protected, since scrumping is strictly limited. When the prophets attack greedy landowners for stripping the vineyard, they have in mind specific practices: The right of widowed Ruth to glean Boaz’s field, the right of a hungry man to scrump from a vineyard.

He concludes:

Obviously, Torah is designed for an agrarian society and the prophets’ tirades are directed at agrarian abuses. Still, it would be healthy for evangelicals to devote a good portion of their considerable zeal and energy to exploring creative ways to enact the justice of Torah in the twenty-first century. Welcome and biblical as it is, evangelical rhetoric of ‘justice for the poor’ will collapse into vacuity unless it is linked to political, legal, and economic institutions and practices that actually protect the poor and do justice to everyone. Worse still, evangelicals may end up giving aid and comfort to a bloated, and broke, welfare state.



  1. Aside from whether it is a good idea, if there’s a law that you must not harvest the corners of your field, then that does make it a matter of legal justice rather than charity. Presumably, whoever first comes would be entitled to that food by law and if you did harvest it then some compensation would be due to the first comer. Do you think there was actual punishment for a total harvest?

    It occurs to me that God can command us to be charitable and it still be charity because He is not coercive, but the state cannot because it is. Thus, we would not be righteous by being uncharitable but we could nevertheless be legal. So justice can either be measured by God’s law or by the state’s law — two different standards that are easy to confuse since they overlap in places.

    What do you think are some modern examples of “political, legal, and economic institutions and practices that actually protect the poor and do justice to everyone” without “giving aid and comfort to a bloated, and broke, welfare state.”? I’m not quite sure where Leithart is going with this.

  2. My knowledge of biblical law is not very good. As far as I could tell, the relevant passages about leaving parts of the field are Lev. 19:9-10 and 23:22, and Deut. 24:19-22. No punishments are mentioned in those texts. Adopting Doug Wilson’s way of reading the law, I think that a total harvest would be in the category of a sin that does not have a criminal punishment, but there may be other ways of reading biblical law.

    That’s a good distinction in your second paragraph between God’s command to be charitable and the charity-negating command of the state to be charitable. I think that it’s important to distinguish between sins and sinful crimes (that should be punished by the state), as you do. A lack of charity should not be punished by the state. And while we’re distinguishing things, we could probably create the category of sinless crimes, like refusing to burn incense in front of Caesar’s image or refusing to cooperate with the Holocaust.

    In his last paragraph, I can’t say for sure what Leithart is referring to. I would have in mind paring back some laws and regulations that might make it difficult for people of modest means to start a business, helping the poor to gain skills and resources to earn a living for themselves, and things like that. Often the call for social justice comes from left of center and advocates more and better-funded welfare state programs, and I think that Leithart is opposed to that.

  3. I likewise suspect there would be no criminal (or civil?) punishment for reaping the corners. If so, I wonder if that should be indicative of whether similar commands belong in government.

    Good observation regarding the sinless crimes. I think jury nullification would fit there, too, i.e. being judged guiltless by a jury even if you were guilty under the law.

    Thanks for theorizing about Leithart for me; that does help me read into him a bit better. I still wish he were more explicit, though. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s