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Lesson 3: Justice and Mercy in the Old Testament: Part 1 *

Introduction: Did you ever consider the "rule of law" as a program to benefit the poor? To refresh your recollection, the term "rule of law" means that people live under established laws, not under the constantly changing moods and commands of a ruler. I recently watched a documentary which said that the best way to help the poor in less developed countries is not to send them constant aid, but rather to help them with the tools to make a living. These tools include living under the rule of law, which treats the poor and the rich equally. Let's jump into our study and see what the Bible teaches us on this subject!

  1. Justice

    1. Read Exodus 23:2. Why does the Bible warn about the crowd in connection with perverting justice? (A documentary I saw this week showed that cheating greatly increased when it appeared others were doing it.)

    2. Read Exodus 23:3. Why not? (As I mentioned in the introduction, another documentary I saw this week argued that most foreign aid was not intelligently given because it assumed that the people receiving aid were helpless. Favoring the poor man is not justice, and it assumes that he needs the scales tilted in his favor because he is inferior.)

      1. Have you previously considered that favoring the poor showed a bias against them? That seems counterintuitive!

      2. Notice the context: "in his lawsuit." Does that make a difference in the prohibition on favoring the poor? (I think so. This is a formal dispute that needs to be settled, and whether you are poor or not is irrelevant to the merits.)

    3. Read Exodus 23:4-5. What other motive might wrongly affect our judgment? (Revenge. We don't like someone so we don't give the aid we might otherwise give.)

    4. Read Exodus 23:6. Now we are told not to deny justice to the poor! Why would we do that? (Because they cannot help us. The approach to the poor should be even-handed. Not favoring them and not disfavoring them in lawsuits.)

    5. Read Exodus 23:7. How serious a problem is this? (God says He will not acquit us! This sounds like we lose eternal life.)

    6. Read Exodus 23:8. If you asked me whether a righteous person would ever take a bribe, I would say, "no." What does this text suggest? (It suggests that they would take a bribe, and it would affect their judgment.)

    7. Read Exodus 23:9. The Western world is teeming with aliens. What is the Christian's duty towards them? (This text seems rather limited - don't oppress them.)

      1. Consider the historical reference in this text. How did the Egyptians treat God's people? (They enslaved them.)

  2. The Sabbath and Justice

    1. Read Exodus 23:10-11. Does this favor the poor? (Not really. Letting the land stand fallow every seventh year allowed it to produce better crops in other years. That was the goal - to make the farmer's land more productive. A byproduct was aid to the poor. Even though the farmer did not do any work on the land, some crops grew naturally.)

      1. Is this a hand-out to the poor? (The poor had to harvest the food themselves. They, however, were able to benefit from the farmer's land.)

      2. Do you think the farmer policed his land to be sure only the poor collected food? (It appears that people decided if they qualified.)

    2. Read Exodus 23:12. What is the goal of the Sabbath according to this text? (To refresh our animals and our helpers.)

      1. Do you look at the Sabbath as a day to get refreshed?

    3. Read Amos 8:4-5. What are these people supposedly doing right? (They at least superficially keep the Sabbath. But, they are hoping it will over soon so that they can get back to work.)

      1. Are these people refreshed by the Sabbath?

      2. What are these people doing that is unjust towards the poor? (They are cheating. They give the poor less than what they paid for.)

      3. Why do we find references to the Sabbath and cheating the poor together? (God wants us to see our hypocrisy. We think we are keeping the Sabbath, but in reality our lives are corrupt.)

    4. Read Amos 8:6. How else can we deal unjustly with the poor? ( Amos 8:5 refers to "boosting the price" and this verse seems to refer to paying the poor too little for their services. We should pay the poor what they are worth.)

    5. Read Isaiah 1:13. Again we see a reference to the Sabbath and worship. How can God call offerings "meaningless?" How could our worship ever be "detestable" to God? (Read Isaiah 1:16-17. Worshiping God is no substitute for treating the poor and weak with justice. Isaiah 1:13 says the offerings and incense are "detestable." God does not want us giving Him what we stole from the poor.)

    6. Lately, I've been at meetings and read articles about the issue of justice for the poor in the courts of the United States. The main problem is that the poor cannot afford a lawyer, and they are often in court against the rich who can afford a lawyer. How would the Bible suggest that we fix this problem? (The texts we read say that the judge should treat the poor and the rich alike. The poor should not be favored or disfavored.)

      1. What about supplying the poor with a lawyer?

        1. If you pay for a lawyer for the poor, but not for the rich, is that favoring the poor?

      2. If a judge is not supposed to favor the poor, to what does the language ( Isaiah 1:17) "defend the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow" refer? (This places an obligation on lawyers and those who provide the funding for lawyers.)

        1. We discussed false assumptions about the poor. Is the Bible suggesting that widows and the fatherless are helpless? (Yes. Note that the society involved is a big factor. Widows lacked legal rights.)

    7. Read Leviticus 25:8-12. This is a "Super Sabbath!" Every 49 years is followed by the "Jubilee" 50th year. Everyone has to return home. How do they all eat? (Read Leviticus 25:20-22. They are not to engage in formal sowing and reaping. Instead, God blesses them with an abundant crop in the sixth year.)

    8. Read Leviticus 25:25-28. What else happens during the year of Jubilee? (Everyone gets their property back. This explains how everyone can return home.)

      1. Is this consistent with the rule of law? (Yes, because all know the rules.)

      2. Read Leviticus 25:23-24. What is the basis for this rule? (God owns all the property, and since we are mere tenants, we follow His rule.)

      3. Does this "return of property" rule favor the poor? (I don't think so. Since the rule is known, people would only pay the value of a 49 year lease for a piece of property.)

    9. Read Leviticus 25:29-30. Why is this rule different? (Open land would be farmed, thus the Jubilee return allowed people to retain the ability to work and feed themselves. Homes in walled cities are a logically different matter.)

    10. Read Leviticus 25:39-43. What else happens during the year of Jubilee? (Human debt is forgiven. This gives people a second chance.)

    11. Read Leviticus 25:35-37. Does this favor the poor? (Yes, in that they pay no interest and get the food at cost.)

      1. Re-read Leviticus 25:35. What is the condition for this kind of help? (The person is "unable to support himself." Those who cannot work are to be helped, but this does not suggest a handout. It suggests help.)

    12. What we have read about the Sabbath is something we can easily do now. But, how could we apply the Jubilee rules? (While this is an entirely different system of laws then we have in the United States, we certainly have some similar concepts. For example, people are freed from debt through bankruptcy. While their land is not returned to them, "homestead" laws protect family farms to some extent.)

    13. Friend, consider how the principles of Old Testament justice might apply in your life. What can you do to reflect God's sense of justice and mercy?

  3. Next week: Justice and Mercy in the Old Testament: Part 2.
* Copr. 2016, Bruce N. Cameron, J.D. All scripture references are to the New International Version (NIV), copr. 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, unless otherwise noted. Quotations from the NIV are used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Suggested answers are found within parentheses. The lesson assumes the teacher uses a blackboard or some other visual aid.

© 2021 Bruce N. Cameron, J.D.
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