On Words: Justice, Law, Humanity

“Justice, Justice, you shall pursue,” Deuteronomy 16: 18-21:9 

The Bible beseeches us to seek “justice.” Yet we are taught, from a very young age, that the way society is held together is through the adherence to law. That it is law that keeps order, and protects people. We are taught that it is law that enables our rights. We learn that law is merely codified nature’s, or God’s, gift of inherent rights to it’s children. Law codifies these rights in such a way that no king, no overlord, can take them away.

However, it is interesting that the Bible, the very book society for eons believed was given to humanity by God,  tells the reader to seek “justice,” and not “law.” Law is seen as a fleeting thing. Something that can be manipulated. A process by which society can make a crime legal, or to deprive others of their humanity. An avenue by the powerful that can usurp the life blood of those less fortunate.

Justice is defined as “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.”

Law is defined as “the principles and regulations established in a community by some authority and applicable to its people, whether in the form of legislation or of custom and policies recognized and enforced by judicial decision.”


But society needs law. We need order. We need to understand right from wrong, and to dole out punishment, or reward. Society needs to function on a set of rules that benefits the whole of society. People need to know where they stand in relationship to others in this world.

Moreover, people have a right to protect what they build, earn, or create. They have a right to protect their families and their children’s future. For a society to last, those who live within the purview of a community need to understand how their present can be tied into the future. There is only one way to do this, and that is with law.

Law tells us something else as well. Law makes value judgements. It tells others what is not only expected of them, as far as actions are concerned, but it tells outsiders, how a particular society functions and what is important and valued in their world. It lets others know if they are welcome, or if they should be welcoming to a population. Law characterizes what a society considers moral, and ethical. It is the tenets by which a commonwealth is judged.

But it doesn’t mean that the law of a society produces justice. It doesn’t mean that the law is fair, honorable, or without prejudice. Law does not necessarily produce a society where all are valued, or all are given equal importance.

Law is part of societal growth. It is like a child. As the child grows, they learn right from wrong, to share, to be honest, to be kind, and considerate. A child learns the value of work. It learns the concept of empathy. But a child goes through some really awful growing pains.

As a small child, a person learns to share. Now it is not easy. But if you want friends, sharing is what you need to do. It is not necessarily simple to put others before yourself, but a child learns that there is a benefit to kindness. As we learn that there is a benefit when people within a community are interdependent.

The adolescent rebels and demands outcomes that they have not necessarily earned, but think it is their’s by right. This stage  is hard pressed, hard-fought and in some cases you must give no quarter. Adolescence is the stuff of stand-up comedians, but it is no laughing matter. A person’s path is established during these years. Once put upon a road, it is difficult, and in some cases, near impossible to change.

We learn that while we are still young, we may not be held totally accountable for our actions. Yet at the same time, some things that we do are simply irreversible. Unchangeable for better, or in some cases for worse. There truly are some things you can not undo. Communities understand that we are not responsible for the past actions of our ancestors, but it is our responsibility to try to assuage any ills caused by these actions and to try to reverse them to benefit the future.

Then adulthood emerges, where the person has developed a keen sense of themselves. They have a morality, and ethos that they wish to live by and one that benefits the world around them. They understand the interplay between persons and sees how interdependent we, as humans, truly are. Hopefully as adults, we work at our lives for the better. And hopefully, fully formed and developed countries see that they owe, not only themselves a better way of life, but that there is a rhythm to the world, and that she is a living breathing organism, that we need to protect.

But as yet,  there are many in this world, who do not see themselves as part of a growing developing civilization  simply called humanity. They see themselves as outside the chain of interplay. Someone who can control the world around them. They believe themselves above the rules and regulations and decide that they and they alone are the living embodiment of the future. That whatever they do, they are entitled to do it. They decide that sculptural-relief-of-hammurabiwhatever they do, they owe nothing and no one.

Yes society does have a name for these individuals, they are called sociopaths. They can be individuals, or entire nations. For they, even if they function within the norms of society, even if their actions leads to some betterment in society, the ethos involved is singularly anathema to humanity at-large.

Historically, our societal infancy begins around 5 thousand years ago in the area known as Mesopotamia. Hammurabi began by codifying law so that the “punishment fits the crime.” A unique and simple concept for its day.

Today, we acknowledge this forthrightness. But when the concept was introduced to the ancient world, this “justice” was revolutionary.  The idea that there should not simply be one punishment for misdeeds, or that all misdeeds are not equal, and that society cannot simply live at the whim of a king or overlord, changed ancient history. It held kings to rules that even the lowliest servant had to obey.

This is nowhere better illustrated than in the biblical story of King David. For David was punished for his sins as any man would have been punished, through the pain and sadness visited upon his children. We might not like the harshness of the punishments. We in the modern world, deride the idea, that our sins are visited unto our innocent children, an idea sadly however, that in some corners of the world is still believed to this day.

We in the present era, believe that each person’s faults, and choices are theirs, and theirs alone. That the punishment is theirs, and theirs alone. To punish the innocent is anathema in our way of thinking. But in the days of Ancient Israel, it was a lesson that society needed to be taught. That to do right will visit joy and happiness upon your offspring, family and compatriots. And in the reverse, evil that you do, is equally visited upon those you love as well.

But then that begs the ultimate question, if God is love and justice, where was God’s justice when he punished David and Bathsheba by allowing their newborn son to die? Where was God’s justice  in allowing events to spiral so out of control that circumstances would turn David’s so beloved Absalom’s heart against his father? Where is the justice in punishing the innocent? Where is the justice in allowing an injustice?

Absalom defended his sister by killing her rapist,  their half-brother.

David, trying to save Absalom, instead of executing him for his deed, banished him from Jerusalem.

Absalom felt abandoned by David. He felt that is father should have stood by his side in defending his sister. Absalom didn’t want to understand that David had defied the prophet Nathan, who had demanded an “eye for an eye.”

Absalom , angered by his father’s rejection, started a revolt against David.

Absalom was killed in the revolt.

David never really got over Absalom’s death. While it is written that David never sinned again, and forever only honored God, the question you need to ask yourself is, was it that David didn’t want to sin, or did Absalom’s death obliterate his spirit? The spirit that God, through the prophet Nathan tried to curtail? And why would God want to curtail his anointed on Earth? Wasn’t it that spirit that made David strong enough to become King? How was he supposed to keep Israel safe, if he no longer had the strength of spirit?

Yes, our society would have found a different equation for justice in these circumstances. But in reality, take a look at the stories of some of the worst in our society. Do their children truly get away unscathed? Or do they somehow, suffer in different indirect ways because of the actions of a parent, a sibling, or a child? Families can suffer through the generations because of the misdeeds of a single member. Where is justice when those who may be harmed the most from an actions are those not yet even born?

Perhaps, the story of King David, while based upon the actual events around the life of a David that once ruled the ancient kingdom of Israel, is more allegory than real. Mayhap’s it was written for people who learned through examples, rather than strict law. Illustrating an outcome with which a person can identify, still goes farther than simply, “because I said so,” response to the question”why,” even to this day.

Why do we need allegories instead of straight truth. It simply could be that in the scheme of the universe we, the human race, are still in our  developmental infancy. Have we not even reached the obnoxious, eye-rolling, emotional upheaval of  human adolescence? How far are we really, as a community, from the period of societal adulthood?

There are many ideas today of what constitutes, or constituted justice. What  defined justice during the reign of David is very different from what defines justice today. Yet the Bible, while so cavalierly handing out consequences that we would consider cruel and unusual in our society today, also tells us to care for the sick, the infirm, the old, and the very young. We are commanded to be kind to animals, to respect nature, and honor the world around us. Issues, that we as a society still deal with today. It is as if there are many competing voices in the Bible. Each faction trying to teach the world what rules, laws, and understandings are important for a healthy thriving community.

More than two millenia ago, in answer to the question about the precepts of the Torah, Rabbi Hillel once said,”that the Torah teaches us to treat others as we ourselves wold wish to be treated.” Today many call that law the Golden Rule. Yet the news of the day leaves you knowing  that humanity still has quite the ways to go, in that department.

It still appears that the factions found in the Bible still seem not to be able to agree on which path society needs to take. Yet the concept of justice as the ultimate in a society is still the goal that needs to be reached. Maybe those who wrote the Bible, were wise enough to know that society would change, and its idea of justice would change with it. Perhaps those that wrote the Bible understood that justice would grow, and develop, as society grew with its proper understanding of right from wrong.

One thing that  those who wrote the Bible knew, was that law can be used for good or for evil. It is why basic law is spelled out very clearly. With the Ten Commandments there are no if, ands, or buts. The Biblical authors  knew that humans control the law. If humans are good, then the law is good. If humans are evil, then they codify their evil as good law. Humans can make of law what they will.

804px-blake_jacobsladderBut justice, justice is something to be strived to accomplish. That justice is a positive force no matter the make up of those in power or those writing the laws. In seeking justice, it is our actual attempt at climbing the angel’s ladder to try to meet God’s expectations. And for some reason, some extremely human reason,  we work and work at it, until we get it right.

Interestingly justice is considered the ultimate human achievement throughout the world:

It is why Hindu’s are reborn.

It is why Buddhists seek nirvana.

Christians and Moslems are punished with Hell for violating its precepts.

Jews are punished through their children, and with leaving a legacy of shame.

The problem that we as human beings have however, is that we cannot always agree on what is truly just. It seems the Bible’s factions have followed us into the modern era.

Perhaps that is why there is so much injustice in this world. Not because we are being punished by an omnipotent being for the sins of Eve and Adam eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but because we ourselves, lack an understanding of what justice truly means not simply in the abstract, but in the absolute.

About Elise "Ronan"

#JewishandProud ...
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3 Responses to On Words: Justice, Law, Humanity

  1. Pingback: On Words: Fasting | journaling on paper

  2. Pingback: On Words: Honor | journaling on paper

  3. Pingback: On Words: From the river to the sea… | Journaling on Paper

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