Biblical Hebrew is a word-poor language with only a few thousand words – most words having several meanings like diamonds with many facets. Today we’ll look at just one facet of “mishpat.”
When you hear the word justice you probably think of the legal system: a courtroom, a judge presiding, the law being read, a jury deliberating, a verdict announced, a reward or punishment given.
An ancient Hebrew would have thought of justice in very much the same way!
The Hebrew word mishpat (pronounced mish-pawt’) and it’s many forms can mean judge, order, portion or due, verdict, and even courtroom. But it’s usually translated justice in our English bibles.
Today in Israel, mishpat is law. A mishpatan is a lawyer. The Israeli civil courts are called batei mishpat lshalom, which means courts for making peace between people.
For the ancient Hebrews, God alone was the Judge determining what is good and what every person is due. God’s verdicts are impartial, showing no favoritism or discrimination – to Jews and Gentiles, old and young, from the White House to the poorhouse. “God is no respecter of persons.”
God’s justice ALWAYS gives ALL people what God determines they are due…no matter who they are.
There are at least three kinds of biblical justice:
- Retributive – When God decides someone is due punishment for straying from God’s good way. This is how we usually think of justice in our legal systems today: punishing those who do wrong.
- Restorative – When God decides someone who has lost what they are due is to be made whole again. Hebrew law, for instance, says that when your neighbor steals your camel he should give it back and give you one of his. And a woman who has lost her husband should be married to one of his relatives and provided for by him. So much of Hebrew justice is restorative, giving people back what they’ve lost, righting what’s gone wrong.
- Distributive – When God provides the basic necessities God decides all people are due in order to flourish. For instance, God commanded all Jewish olive farmers to strike their trees once during harvest to shake olives loose. People who didn’t have daily bread (“the poor”) were then able to strike the trees and harvest olives they needed to survive. God’s system protected the poorest of the poor from starvation.
“Doing justice” in Hebrew scripture is giving everyone what God says they’re due without favoritism or discrimination: punishment, provision, or protection.
I cannot stress this enough: Biblical justice is NOT giving people what American laws say they are due! Biblical justice is giving people what GOD says they are due.