A series exploring the theme of justice in the biblical narrative and its implications for the church.
The Abrahamic Innovation
Historian Thomas Cahill has pointed out that “to appreciate the Bible properly, we cannot begin with it.”1
I think he’s on to something. It’s too easy to take for granted the way we think about reality and even how we feel about the world. It’s helpful to take a step back and think about where our most basic assumptions come from in order to better appreciate the significant contributions of the biblical worldview.
The backdrop in which the biblical narrative unfolds is a world of primitive paganism in which our present views of time, history, and the value of the individual would be completely alien. In the ancient world of Mesopotamia2, ‘the cradle of civilization’, reality was understood in connection with the Great Wheel, which is why we keep finding figures of wheels in the early art and tablets discovered in the area.
This ‘Wheel’ represented the idea that everything in life operates in cycles: the phases of the moon, the changing of the seasons, the cycle of a woman’s body. In this endless cycle, life was rigged. What has been, will be once again. And again and again. Life goes nowhere beyond, just the next revolution of the wheel.
Justice and righteousness form the very framework of the biblical worldview.
It was a world with bleak implications: if life is just a predetermined cycle regulated by the gods, then there’s no such thing as history, and no such thing as future. Just a vicious cycle. There’s no significance in the individual and personal decisions have no meaningful effect in real time. There’s no concept of moving forward, no sense of journey. We’re just stuck in the wheel of life and death.
That’s the backdrop where the biblical narrative takes place.
It’s in this context that the Hebrews are introduced to the world. They are the people that would eventually change everything. I mean everything. The way we think and the way we feel.
The story begins with Abraham sometime in the second millennium B.C. He is the founder of Hebrew culture and one of the central figures in the Bible. And from the onset, Abraham is a game changer. He is called, by Yahweh, out of his familiar world and into a mysterious journey of discovery. “Abraham went”3 is actually a revolutionary move. Cahill refers to that phrase as “two of the boldest words in all literature.”4
They signal a complete departure from everything.
He’s about to step out of the cycle. He’s about to make decisions that will actually impact future generations, because time is linear, not cyclical. The future is real. And that means the individual matters in a new way.
“Since time is no longer cyclical but one-way and irreversible, personal history is now possible and an individual life can have value. This new value is at first hardly understood; but already in the earliest accounts of Abraham and his family we come upon the carefully composed genealogies of ordinary people, something it would never have occurred to Sumerians to write down, because they accorded no importance to individual memories. And without the individual, neither time nor history is possible.”5
That’s the innovation that Western Civilization has benefitted from. We owe it to Abraham and his descendants. The Jews, and really God through the Jews, gifted the world with this new vision of the value of the individual.
That’s where the biblical story of God’s people begins. And it’s an awesome introduction.
And the implications for social justice are real. We’re not left with a few isolated passages that encourage us to promote social justice and uphold human rights. Justice and righteousness form the very framework of the biblical worldview. This new vision for humanity has affected how we view reality and how we feel about the world.
Abraham: Father of Righteousness and Justice
It was Abraham that received the original covenant, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). In fact, God often refers to Himself as “the God of Abraham,” making him a reference point when introducing Himself to succeeding generations. Even in New Testament times, the early Christians traced their history back to Abraham.6
His role is critical in the development of biblical history.
God called Abraham “out of” his country, his family, and his father’s house (Genesis 12:1). This “calling out” is significant. Our common word for ‘church’ is from the Greek ecclesia, meaning “called out ones.” So the church is comprised of people who have been “called out.” In Abraham, we have the embodiment, in embryo, for what would become “the church.”
So whatever we find in the calling of Abraham is significant in helping us understand the essence of what the church is all about. So what was Abraham “called out” to do?
“For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19, ESV).
Again, it’s about “righteousness and justice.” There is a clear connection between the call of Abraham and God’s passion for justice. He was called to spearhead a justice movement in the world! And from Abraham’s seed comes the people of Israel. God called Israel into existence to have a strategic way to model “righteousness and justice” on earth, finding ultimate embodiment and expression in Jesus Christ.
It was God’s intention that the surrounding nations would catch a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven through their exposure to His people on earth. They had the oracles of God; the special revelation regarding the origin, purpose and destiny of the human race. This revelation would pave humanity’s way back to the right ordering of the world. Back to God’s vision for what life on earth was intended to be like.
Israel was to be a prototype, not only of how humans should relate to God, but also how humans should relate to one another. That’s what “righteousness and justice” is all about. They were to protect and uphold the rights of all human beings because they were created in God’s own image, and hence possess inherent value. They were to be the original human rights activists; people on a passionate campaign against human oppression and exploitation.
Inheritors of the Promise
We are the heirs of God’s covenant blessings to Abraham. We are privileged with inheriting those promises.7
As we see in Peter’s sermon:
“You are the heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, “Through your offspring all the peoples on earth will be blessed” (Acts 3:25, NIV).
Those original words, “In you all nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), are passed down from generation to generation to remind us of our purpose as God’s people.
Since Abraham is the church in embryo, then in order for us to cash in on the promise, we’ll need to accept the same conditions. We’ll need to understand that having the faith of father Abraham involves standing for “righteousness and justice.” It means not only giving a correct representation of how we should relate to God, but also how we should relate to our fellow human beings.
It means embracing a biblical view of social justice that acknowledges—not merely in theory, but in practice—that people are created in God’s image and are, therefore, infinitely valuable.
The promise continues to echo in our day. I can feel it vibrating in my soul.
Our acknowledgment of that reality must be expressed clearly by reflecting God’s passion for justice. By relieving the emotional upheaval in His gut. By stepping out of our safe bubble and allowing our hearts to be broken from contact with the suffering of the world.
With the victims of oppression.
With the helpless that are exploited.
With the vulnerable who are violated.
That’s the church according to the Old Testament.
The promise that the whole world would be blessed through Abraham continues to echo in our day. I can feel it vibrating in my soul.
It continues to remind me of my purpose. It confronts me with a vision of my own potential. It challenges me with the message that the world lacks my unique contribution.
But how will I respond to the condition of the promise?
How will you respond?
The church’s place in this world hinges on that.
- The Gifts of the Jews, p. 8
- Mesopotamia means, “land between rivers”, referring to the Tigris and the Euphrates. Modern day Iraq, Syria, southern Turkey.
- Genesis 12:4
- The Gifts of the Jews, p. 63
- The Gifts of the Jews, p. 94
- Acts 7:2-8; 3.25
- This concept comes up regularly in the New Testament. Paul tells us that the inheritors of the blessings are those “who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had (Romans 4:12). And again in Galatians 3:7: “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.”