Injustice Made Legal

  • Harold V. Bennett
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Bennett, Harold V. Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers, and Orphans in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans. 2002. Hardcover, $50.00. 209 pp. ISBN 0-8028-3909-6.

Over the last decade or so, and for a wide variety of reasons, there has been an increase in the interest in Old Testament ethics in general and in a number of sub-topics within that broader discipline as well. One area that has drawn much attention has been the problem of poverty and oppression in ancient Israel, and, accordingly, its treatment in the Old Testament. This volume by Harold Bennett, assistant professor of religion at Morehouse College, investigates six specific texts in the book of Deuteronomy that deal-as the title makes clear-with widows, strangers, and orphans: 14:22-29; 16:9-12, 13-15; 24:17-18. 19-22; and 26:12-15.

The opening chapter ("Prolegomenon", pp. 1-22) is a helpful introduction to the rest of the book. The author begins by providing a brief survey of the work of other scholars and then offers a clear presentation of the social-scientific theoretical foundation of his own approach. His study is grounded in recent 'Critical Legal Studies,' which he claims offer several key presuppositions for the analysis of any legal code. These include: all law codes are a means of social control of certain categories of people by specific interest groups; these legal sanctions reflect socioeconomic and political conflict; and, because those vulnerable groups are not truly represented in these law codes, it is important to attempt to listen to their voices in order to appreciate the impact of the legal system on their lives. The goal, therefore, of Injustice Made Legal is to identify the special interests that promulgated these laws and to ascertain the reasons why. In the closing paragraphs of the chapter Bennett states that he believes that these laws were drafted in the ninth century in the North by cultic officials and served to manipulate the peasantry rather than to help the needy as a safety net, as is commonly assumed. This is a provocative thesis indeed, and the rest of the book presents a sustained argument for this position.

In his second chapter Bennett deals with the primary Hebrew terms for these unfortunate individuals that are the topic of his study and then appeals to social theory (Gottwald, Lenski) to locate them more exactly within agrarian societies. Once again the author provides a succinct survey of the scholarly literature, but in each of the three cases he also tries to substantiate that widows, orphans, and strangers were a distinct social grouping, neglected and separated from the rest of society and without economic and legal protection.

It is here that what will become a series of methodological problems begin to surface. To start with, here in chapter two and elsewhere he has not represented all of the evidence well. For example, to extrapolate from a few passages (Gen. 38; 2 Sam. 14:5-7, 20:1-3) that all widows were bereft of any help from their kinship group, or to minimize the enfranchisement and inculturation of strangers and disregard the laws that allow their assimilation into so many different spheres of Israelite life in order to argue for their marginalization-all in order to define widows, orphans, and strangers as members of a specific social group or underclass exploited by the rest of the society-is to ignore important textual material and ancient social conventions and to go beyond the sound implications of the data.

A second methodological problem concerns the historical dating of texts. This, too, becomes evident in chapter two. Barnett argues that exploitation occurred in the North in the ninth century and that therefore this context could serve as the locus for the promulgation of the Deuteronomic laws pertaining to the widow, orphan, and stranger. This is a linchpin for his thesis that is further developed in chapter five. In other words, while he recognizes that much scholarship holds to a seventh century date as the terminus ad quem for Deuteronomy, his view is that the ninth century is the terminus a quo of these regulations. Of course, the dating of the composition (and final redaction) of Deuteronomy is a classic battleground in Old Testament studies, but that is beside the point here. What is suspect is Bennett's attempt to date his six chosen passages to the ninth century by positing lexical and theological connections with "E" (whose very existence is another point of scholarly contention), Amos, and Hosea. This hypothetical reconstruction is stretched even further as he tries to connect other passages dealing with kinship groupings to the North, too (pp. 143-49; note in particular his caveat on p. 144).

Another methodological shortcoming of this volume is its penchant for presenting possible explanations of the textual material as a confident hypothesis of ancient Israel's socio-religious life. For instance, the fourth chapter returns to certain social theory that posits that laws are part of a broader ideology of control and oppression by those in power. This is an interesting discussion, but Bennett then turns to his biblical passages and reads them in such a way so as to discover sinister motives and negative consequences: The call to collect the triennial tithe at the central sanctuary now is understood as ignoring the vulnerability of widows, orphans, and strangers and thus perpetuating their poverty, since they might not be able to travel; this infrequent tithe also would condemn them to inescapable destitution, because they would not be adequately empowered to get out of their socioeconomic predicament; these laws had no legal sanction and so lacked force, and were idealistic anyway, since the poor peasant class would be reticent to share what little they might have; finally, gleaning in the margins of the fields would result in humiliation and low self-esteem of the widows, orphans, and strangers.

The fifth chapter argues that the group that developed these laws was the Yahweh-alone movement (represented most conspicuously by Elijah and Elisha) that was fighting the state religion and the syncretistic family beliefs of the masses. The poor peasants consequently were caught between the oppressive demands of the Omride kings (Ahab, Jehoram) and this legislation for the poor, which actually was designed to protect the financial interests of the Yahweh-alone cult functionaries. In other words, Bennett claims, these laws allowed these priests and prophets to prosper, since they demanded that the tithes be brought to the sanctuaries, where these religious leaders could control and oversee the distribution of goods. The charitable laws of Deuteronomy were actually an ideological means for the self-perpetuation and preservation of this religious movement during a difficult time! This hypothesis is quite extraordinary for all sorts of reasons. To mention an obvious question: How could this persecuted yet crusading Yahweh-alone minority movement be in command of the sanctuaries and push religious legislation, which was openly opposed to the monarchy, and create a moral ethos that would be accepted and practiced by the people of Israel at that time and for years afterward? The tenuousness of the entire argument is apparent with the author's continued use of phrases like "it is possible", "it is conceivable," and "it becomes plausible."

In sum, this reviewer does not find Bennett's argument convincing. This volume does make some positive contributions, however. It presents surveys of biblical scholarship on several pertinent topics and introduces the reader to helpful insights from social theory. The book also tries to wrestle with issues that are important for any thoughtful consideration of the Bible and ethics, such as the possible socio-religious contexts for the rise of Israel's moral laws, the reality of how charitable laws can be twisted for other ends (in the ancient world and today), and the challenge of interdisciplinary research.

M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary