This blog post will focus on the topic of justice. Justice is a large topic. However, it is sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. I look at the injustice set against the Hebrews by Egypt. Pharoah commits genocide against the Hebrews by ordering the killing of their male babies. However, there’s a story in Exodus 1:15-21 about midwives who covertly disobey the pharaoh’s orders. Shiphrah and Puah lie to the pharaoh and are later rewarded by God for their courage. These midwives disobey the orders of the most powerful person in their corner of the world. I love how these women take matters into their own hands and use their agency to save the lives of so many babies.
Contrast this with Moses, who responds to injustice in a different way. Moses sees the injustice of one of a fellow Hebrew slave being whipped mercilessly by an Egypt overseer. His first response is to use violence and kill the overseer. Even though we can all understand how Moses feels, his form of vigilante violence only begot more violence and fear. Moses ended up running away and actually made things worse for the Hebrew slaves. In an earlier blog post, I discussed the revenge killing of Simeon and Levi. They took justice into their own hands. God nor their father affirmed their actions. Justice belongs to God and not to humans. Violence is never the proper response to injustice. This is complicated because some would say God uses violence to respond to injustice. I think in theory this all makes sense. How does this work in the real world? I can’t speak for deeply oppressed people around the world who have no hope for any transformative recourse. I have privileges that they don’t have. God is the true purveyor of justice and I must discern the ways I can be the hands and feet of God in the work for justice in this world.
Earlier I also mentioned the laws of Israel that mandated justice for the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners. God through his laws has thoroughly made it clear that he has a strong sense of looking after the oppressed and marginalized. However, Israel starts to be disobedient to God’s call for justice. They oppress the poor and the downtrodden. As they do this, prophets come and rebuke them for their life of injustice which is contrary to God’s will. Jeremiah calls for Israel to come back to God and that destruction is coming their way. Amos emphatically calls out the people of Israel for the ways they have oppressed the marginalized and have become perpetrators of injustice. This theme of living out justice is important for God. He is calling his chosen people to live out in such a way that is an example to other nations. However, this did not materialize. Eventually, these oracles and prophecies against Israel came true and they would lose their land to their enemies.
We read an article in class by Jewish scholar Jon Levenson. He critiques George Pixley and other liberation theologists who see the story of the exodus as a story of human freedom. Levenson critiques our modern notions of freedom and asserts that when the Israelites are freed from Egypt, they are not free in the sense that we think about it. The Israelites are free to be slaves of God. Their freedom is living in the will and plans of Yahweh. That is a very different concept of liberation. We may look at some of these Old Testament stories as stories of justice. However, we may need to examine our modern eyes to see if we are missing the true cultural context of the people of Israel. God’s justice in the Old Testament may look different from our Englightenment influenced definitions of justice and freedom.
Today, I will be blogging about the next topic in my class which is identity and ethnicity. This topic has a special place in my heart because it’s something that I have thought about deeply throughout my life. As an Asian American who is a child of immigrants from South Korea, my ethnic identity has been a huge part of who I am. I’ve always felt connected to the story of the Israelites. Moses has been someone I really resonated with as he is also someone trying to find his identity. The theme of identity and ethnicity is sprinkled all over the Old Testament.
God chooses the Israelites to be his people. He makes a covenant with Abraham and which ensured that his descendants would become God’s chosen people. It’s interesting how God develops their identity. In one way, he tries to set them apart from their neighbors. They are told not to intermix and intermarry with foreigners. They are not to adapt the practices of foreigners. God is trying to develop an identity for his chosen people. This is a people without a homeland. The temptation is to assimilate with another culture. However, God has made the boundaries clear. His people are to reflect the holiness and purity of their God. However, on the other hand, God also gives clear commandments to be hospitable and generous to the foreigner and immigrant. So it wasn’t as if the Israelites didn’t welcome those from outside of their community. There are numerous stories of foreigners playing a large part in the story of Israel. Rahab hides the soldiers of Israel inside of Jericho. She is a foreigner that knows the power of their God. She wants to be a part of what they have. So she is included into their community. Ruth stays loyal to her Jewish mother even when her husband dies. Both Rahab and Ruth are part of the lineage of Jesus. These two foreign women are used by God to bless and push forward the people of Israel. The identity of Israel has an exclusive nature and yet there are many instances of hospitality and dependence on the foreigner and immigrant.
I relate to the story of Moses because he is born into a culture that is not his own. He is a Hebrew born in the land of Egypt. Not only that, he’s in the halls of power in the Pharaoh’s palace. He learns the customs of the Egyptians and is separated from his own people. He runs away after he is rejected by his own people and assimilates into another culture. He intermarries and becomes part of the Midianite people. However, God calls him back to save his people. Moses is hesitant because he doesn’t know if his people will accept him. As an Asian American growing up in the United States, I know what it means to navigate in a society that isn’t familiar to you. I lived in diverse places in my life. However, I always knew that the dominant culture was white. White was what was right and proper. There were times I wish my name was more “American”. I wished that my last name sounded more “American” like “Wilson”. Then I would feel like I’d fit in more. While I felt that, I didn’t always feel like I fit in with my own people. I didn’t always feel “Korean” or “Asian” enough. I felt the pull of two different cultures. It wasn’t until college that God opened my eyes to my identity and to know who I really was made to be. I was an Asian American made in God’s image. Once I knew my identity in who I was in Christ, I was able to reach out and truly love both people in my own culture and people outside of my culture. God is building the identity of Moses. He needs to regain his identity in who he’s made to be. Even as he goes back to save his people, he is slowly learning to connect to his Hebrew roots. His fears start to fall away and he is empowered to lead this people group that have just been released from the bonds of slavery. The ethnic identity of Israel and Moses is important and not just something incidental. Their primary identity is in Yahweh. However, their identity as Israelites were connected deeply to who they were in and in the covenant they had with God.
On another note, we read an article in class written by Gale Yee on the story of Ruth. Yee looks at the story of Ruth through the lens of an Asian American woman. She turns the Ruth story on its head. She sees Ruth as an exploited foreigner. Her mother-in-law Naomi has complete control over her. Her sister-in-law Orpah decides not to go with Naomi. Usually, Orpah is seen as the bad daughter-in-law. However, for Yee, Orpah is a courageous woman who asserts her freedom. It is Ruth who gives up her freedom to be under the control of Naomi. Even the love story between Boaz and Ruth is looked at in a negative way. Ruth is seen as a foreigner exploited by Boaz and Naomi for financial gain. As an Asian American who is the son of immigrants, I could resonate with some of Yee’s points. I don’t now if I totally agree with all that she says, but I was fascinated by her viewpoint. We need more diverse voices to speak into these Old Testament stories. The story of identity and ethnicity is illuminated when more people of color and women have an equal voice in the conversation. I hope that space will be made for these prophetic voices at the table of biblical scholarship and theology.