The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Human Rights
Mark G. Brett
Modern and Ancient Settings for Reading the Bible
There is no straight line that can be drawn from ancient biblical texts to the modern language of human rights. In fact, it has been suggested by some theologians that all modern talk of human rights is inherently individualistic and therefore quite incompatible with the communitarian assumptions of the Bible. But this rejection of the Bible’s relevance does not do justice to the various ways in which biblical tradition has influenced the recognition of human rights, both in the past and in the present.
Certainly, the modern discourse of human rights plays a key role in the philosophical foundations of liberal democracies (cf. Harvey 2005:175-82). In this tradition, citizens are often seen as participants in a virtual ‘social contract’ within which individuals are willing to relinquish some aspects of their autonomy to the state in exchange for security of life and property, but essentially the role of the state is to protect the liberty and well being of its citizens.
International human rights agreements, such the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, do not depart fundamentally from this logic in so far as they reflect the consent of state parties to accept the range of responsibilities articulated in such international declarations and covenants. In the late 1940s, it was manifestly clear that a democratically elected government, such as the German Third Reich, could act oppressively towards its own citizens, and therefore an international instrument was needed that could uphold the rights of individuals against the powers of a state. The UN Declaration of 1948 was framed in secular discourse, and promoted in those terms by Christian ecumenical leaders (Nurser 2005), but earlier formulations of rights were more explicitly religious in content.
A simplistic historical account of seventeenth century Europe might suggest that in this modern period the ‘divine right of kings’ (an ideology that provided theological support to the privileges of the monarchy) gave way to a new secular model of sovereignty within which the ‘natural rights’ of the people finally prevailed over medieval theological hierarchies. But secularity was initially forged in theological debates (Taylor 2008). As Jeremy Bentham complained in 1794, these revolutionary ‘natural rights’ were regularly conceived as God-given, and being theologically grounded he considered them ‘nonsense on stilts’. In short, modern human rights were not born into secular liberalism; they had to be adapted within that environment to new conceptions of human flourishing (Robertson 2009).
The arrival of ‘natural rights’ in modern Europe is part of a complex history within which democracy and nation states began to displace monarchy and empire. These dramatic changes were forged initially in the crucible of Protestantism, although it must be noted that ‘natural rights’ were discussed by Catholic lawyers already in the twelfth century (Tierney 1997). St. Bonaventure, for example, argued in his Defense of the Mendicants in 1269 that some rights cannot be renounced because they arise ‘from the right that naturally belongs to man as God’s image and noblest creature’ (O’Donovan & O’Donovan 1999:317). It would take some centuries before the idea of ‘inalienable’ rights would take revolutionary shape, but when Oliver Cromwell assaulted the monarchy in the seventeenth century it was on the basis of a biblical covenant theology within which ‘the people’ relate directly to God, making kings and priests largely unnecessary (Greenfeld 1992).
Protestant revolutionaries did not invent their ideas out of nothing; they were re-reading the Bible with renewed political interest. What they found, especially in the prophetic books, was a relentless critique of kings and priests. We now know that this ancient tradition of prophetic critique was very unusual within the surrounding cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Assyria (0tto 1999). Kings were more likely to be considered divine or semi-divine, and given this exalted status, they were the ones who made the law. In Israel this was pointedly not so: kings were not originally part of the divine plan for government, and when they did arrive on the scene it was a matter of regret (1 Samuel 8). In the course of time, the monarch was seen as subject to the divine law, and constrained by a division of powers (Levinson 2006).
According to the biblical story that describes the introduction of kingship into Israel, Samuel had warned the people that the king’s ‘justice’ (mishpat) would turn out to be an oppressive regime of accumulation. The Crown’s view of social order would not just require taxation, but also the acquisition of sons, daughters and land: ‘he will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his underlings’ (1 Samuel 8:11, 14). There is a broad agreement amongst historians that the tenure of Israelite monarchs did indeed yield deep divisions between rich and poor. The biblical prophets attacked this social stratification with the claim that people did not become rich because God had blessed them but because they had exploited traditional landowners who were increasingly forced into debt slavery (Houston 2008).
The Concept of Rights Exists in the Hebrew Bible
While we do not find the specifically modern vocabulary of ‘inherent’ or ‘human’ rights in biblical law, analogous concepts can be found there nonetheless (Wolterstorff 2008). In particular, we find that the economic rights of the marginalized are of direct concern to God:
Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien… otherwise he may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. (Deut. 24:14-15)
Such divine commands are given in the context of specifically Israelite covenantal laws, which, with a few interesting exceptions, are not seen as binding on non-Israelites. Among the exceptions, the prophet Amos condemns foreign nations for war crimes (Amos 1), reflecting the conviction that some basic norms are seen as internationally binding (Levenson 1996). The wisdom literature also shows no interest in specifically Israelite covenant law, and thus in the Book of Job we find that concern for the widow, orphan and alien rests simply on the basis of creation theology,
Did not he who made me in the womb make them?
And did not the same One fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:15)
Regardless of whether the foundation of moral concern was covenant law or some kind of ‘natural theology’ (Novak 1998), there was an expectation that actual legal practice should defend the inherent rights of the marginalized. Take for example Isaiah 1:17 –
Seek justice (mishpat),
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
The Hebrew verbs here all have a legal connotation, e.g., ‘plead’ for the widow can be accurately translated as ‘plead the case of the widow’. In the historical context of this verse (the eighth century BCE), the prophet might have in mind more the customary law practiced in the city gate rather than written statutes associated with the authority of Moses. Taken together with Isa. 10:1-2, it is clear however that mishpat applies both to a legal decision and to the inherent rights of the vulnerable:
Woe to those who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their rights (misphat),
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey! (Isa. 10:1-2)
It is perhaps worth noting here that the eighth century prophets expressed their concern for the marginalized by focusing on ‘widows, orphans and the poor’, without mentioning ‘aliens’ (gerim, also translated as ‘refugees’). Only in Deuteronomy and the later prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, does the concern for resident aliens become a litmus test of moral concern (e.g., Jer. 7:6; Ezek. 14:7). The best way to explain this heightened awareness is that after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE, there was a flood of refugees who headed south into Judah (Crüsemann 1996:182-185). The experience of coping with these refugees displaced by Assyrian imperial aggression apparently activated an aspect of Israel’s memory of suffering oppression under the imperial power of Egypt. Hence the law of Deuteronomy has an element of moral exhortation that exceeds what we might normally expect to find in a statute: ‘Love the refugee (ger), because you were refugees in Egypt’ (Deut. 10:19).
The Hebrew Bible also contains several significant visions of an international law (torah or mishpat) that offers peace and justice beyond Israel. For example, Isa. 42:1 envisages a justice ‘for the nations’, as does Isa. 2:3-4, the last part of which is inscribed on a wall opposite the United Nations building in New York:
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
This internationalism has been conceived differently in Judaism and Christianity, but both faith traditions have developed universal conceptions of natural rights that extend beyond any narrow definition of covenant community (Sacks 2003; Barrera 2005). Indeed, in the New Testament, a parable about hospitality to strangers in Matthew 25 suggests that anything less than universal concern for the poor is unacceptable, since in this story the ‘righteous’ are condemned for not recognizing Christ in the poor (cf. Hebrews 13:2 ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’.)
For the atheist defenders of human rights, the complexity of the Hebrew Bible’s legacy is enough to demonstrate that such ancient scriptures are irrelevant to modern ethical and legal debates. But for those of us whose identities are still marked by this tradition, another conclusion is possible. A living tradition is always constituted by internal debates about the meaning and values that constitute that tradition. As it has done for centuries, the Bible still inspires religious motivations to support the common good, including the legal protection of inherent rights.
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