Social Justice in Ancient Israel

With Tim Harmon

Social justice: politicians talk about it, protesters protest about it, and Christians put on conferences about it. What does it all mean? Well, for starters, our parents were right: life is not fair…and less fair for some than for others. Indeed, it seems that we can no more escape inequality than we can death or taxes.

In Scripture, God is consistently portrayed as aligning himself with those facing inequity (Ps. 140:12). God’s character is reflected in the Old Testament’s prescriptions for a just society, wherein four categories emerge as representative of those specially subject to mistreatment, and thus particularly in need of protection: the poor, the orphan, the alien, and the widow (Zech. 7:10).

The Poor

Numerous biblical texts deal with customs and traditions designed to help the economically vulnerable in society, whether by way of empowering them to fend for themselves and improve their status, or through providing means of protection from unscrupulous employers. The poor were: allowed to glean the land (Lev. 19:10), to be treated the same as the rich in a court of law (Ex. 23:3), not to have undue hardship placed upon them because of their status (Deut. 24:12), and to be treated with charity and compassion (Deut. 15:7). The Israelite was encouraged to be generous to the poor (Deut. 15:11). For example, he was to lend money without interest, even if a person had nothing but the coat on his back (Ex. 22:24-26). The poor enjoyed special protection from God (1 Sam. 2:8), and those who protected them were considered godly (Ez. 18:17), while the wicked oppressed them (Psa. 10:2).

The Orphan

Children who lost their fathers were marked as orphans, and while available for adoption, were often left to fend for themselves. The law tried to protect and provide in some fashion for orphans, along with others in similar circumstances. In a righteous society, gleaning rights and the expected graciousness of the people contributed to the needs of orphans. Furthermore, we find that the Lord himself testifies to being the guardian, protector, and patron of the fatherless (Deut. 10:18).

The Alien

The alien was one who had left his homeland and had sought refuge in Israel. Settling there, he adopted the customs and the religion of the land, though he could not own land, and was frequently in the service of a local Israelite. Aliens were afforded many of the same privileges as Israelites: the right of gleaning (Lev. 23:22), the Sabbatical year (Lev. 25:6), access to cities of refuge (Num. 35:15), and participation in the offering of sacrifices. If an alien was circumcised, he was even allowed to participate in the religious feasts (Exod. 12:48). Like the Israelites, he was expected to abstain from idolatry (Lev. 20:2), blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), and other religious offenses (Lev. 17:10). Considering that the Israelites themselves had once been aliens in Egypt, aliens were looked upon favorably in Israel (Deut. 26:6-9).

The Widow

Widowhood could be quite difficult in ancient Israel, as the book of Ruth attests. While customary for a woman to receive a dowry from her family when she married, not all could afford this. Due to economic hardship, it was not unusual for a father to sell his daughter as a servant so that her new master could marry her off when she came of age. If she married, and her husband died, any property of her husband would go to the male children, and legally she would have no financial recourse. Even if she did receive a dowry, it might not be enough to last her entire life. As such, wills in the Ancient Near East frequently gave the mother the right to stay in the house of the husband as long as she lived, with the children being instructed to provide for her, if they were able. The Bible severely warns against not caring for widows (Ex. 22:22-24).


God’s people have historically taken the lead in addressing matters of social justice, from rescuing and raising abandoned children in 1st century Palestine, to working to address human trafficking today. This is apropos, for to be a Christian is to recognize one’s self as among the needy (Matt. 5:3), and therefore our empathy ought to abound.

While longing for justice in this world, we find that we cannot bear the judgment that our own sin deserves, and thus are in need of mercy. It is at the cross that justice and mercy meet: because Christ took on the just penalty for our sin (1 Pet. 2:24), we now know mercy (1 Pet. 2:10).

And so, the categories of the poor, the orphan, the alien, and the widow take on added significance for us as believers:

  • We were once poor – yet due to Christ’s poverty, we have been made rich (2 Cor. 8:9).
  • We were once children of wrath – yet because God the Father did not spare His own Son, we have been adopted His family (Eph. 1:5; 2:3; Rom. 8:32).
  • We are aliens and strangers in this world – yet because Christ descended from his heavenly home, we can look forward to the home that he is preparing for us (Jn. 3:13; 14:3; 1 Pet. 2:11; Phil. 3:20).
  • We are betrothed to Christ, awaiting the consummation of an eternal union to a husband whom death cannot take away from us (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-9; 21:1-4).

Tim Harmon is finishing his M.A. in Biblical-Theological Studies and will begin work on the Th.M. at Western Seminary in the spring. Tim also serves as the Graduate Assistant to Dr. Jan Verbruggen at Western Seminary.

About Jan Verbruggen

Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He originally came from Belgium, where he taught for 6 years at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee and ministered as a pastor for 3 years. He has published a number of articles in Dutch at various magazines and journals in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan Verbruggen serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland Oregon. His most recent publication is "Deuteronomium" (commentary on Deuteronomy in Dutch), Groen, Heerenveen, 2008.