Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament

01.14.09 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, M. Daniel Carroll R. | by Walter J. Houston

    M. Daniel Carroll R.'s Review of "Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament" by Walter J. Houston.


    Book: Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament.

    Walter J. Houston, Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament.  Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 428.  Rev. edn. London: T. & T. Clark, 2008.  xxi + 274 pp.  Paperback, $49.95.  ISBN 0-567-03354-6.

    This is a revision of a book of the same title that originally was published in 2006. As Walter Houston explains in the Preface, the offer by the publishers to produce a paperback edition provided the opportunity to incorporate new ideas and modify some of his previous interpretations. Communication with the Israeli scholar Avraham Faust of Bar-Ilan University had impacted his views, prompting Houston to make some changes, most noticeably to the second chapter.

    The author is an Emeritus Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford, and an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures at the University of Manchester. Over the last two decades he has published several substantive pieces related to the social ethics of the Old Testament. Portions of those earlier publications reappear in this work. Houston offers a detailed examination of a breadth of texts and appropriates insights from social science studies, in particular the work by Ronald Simkins on patronage in ancient Israel (although in a more nuanced fashion than in the first edition).

    In chapter one ("Texts and Contexts") Houston spells out the twin foci of Contending for Justice. His most basic working assumption is stated in the opening line of the book. This work is an "attempt to understand texts concerned with social justice in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, as discourse with persuasive purpose in identifiable social situations in ancient society" (p. 1). Therefore, Houston takes his main task to be to reconstruct the class settings, interests, and conflicts of those who produced the ethical texts of the Old Testament (Note the book's subtitle: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament). The literature we have before us, he believes, would have been written by elites, not by the peasantry who comprised most of the population; yet, it is clear that what is found in the Old Testament is sympathetic to the less fortunate (and this would not be surprising within a patronage system that was functioning properly).

    Second, as a Christian, he is convinced that, even as the Old Testament has ethical views inescapably bound to their various contexts, it also has a word that transcends those social locations and eras: "My central conviction in this book is that knowing the social roots of the Bible's ideas and language of social theology and morality and the social ends which they serve enables us to discriminate among them, and to recognize those with roots deeper than the needs of the moment and the interests of the hegemonic class" (p. 15). That ‘deeper' reality that the Bible seeks, and which God champions at all times and everywhere, is social justice; therein lies its ongoing theological value and ethical relevance (hence the title, Contending for Justice).

    Chapter two ("The Ancient Social Context") presents Houston's understanding of the social realities of ancient Israel. It is at this juncture that the influence of Faust is most evident. The chapter begins with a discussion of village life that highlights both regional commonalities and differences, some of which involved land tenure and relationships to urban areas. The rest of the chapter is a helpful and judicious survey and evaluation of several models of the social dynamics and structures of ancient Israel and Judah. He considers four in turn: rent capitalism (O. Loretz, B. Lang), ancient class society (H. Klippenberg), the tributary state (N. Gottwald and others), and the patronage socio-cultural system (R. Simkins). Houston critiques what he feels are the errors and excesses of each. His reconstruction of the context is that during the monarchical period there was no establishing of latifundia at the expense of the poor and no centrally controlled economy, as village life in many places continued without much interference. The Northern and Southern kingdoms, he believes, arose from segmentary societies with an egalitarian impulse, and many rural areas would have continued under traditional kinship structures, even as in time the cities and administrative centers became more and more stratified. Drastic changes would have come as the result of the impact of the empires that governed this area under vassalage status or eventually conquered it.

    Chapter three ("Oppression and the Prophets") is the first step in an extensive survey of material that Houston believes represents the responses to the social changes wrought by the internal and international pressures of those times. He covers five prophets (with the greatest attention given to Amos) and closes with a helpful general discussion of oppression as it is presented in the prophetic literature.

    Whereas chapter three concentrates more on communal issues in the prophets, chapter four ("Justice and the Patron") looks at texts from the prophets, law, and wisdom, which look at the individual. Chapter five ("Justice and the King") and six ("Justice and the People") turn their attention to the national level. Each of these chapters tries to establish the ideologies that lay behind the expectations for a just social order and righteous leadership. Chapter seven ("The God of Justice") argues that the Old Testament's perspective on social justice is determined by analogy to the ancient institutions of kingship and patronage. The final, short chapter ("The Old Testament: A Resource in Contending for Justice") reiterates the author's conviction that the Old Testament, even though reflecting particular circumstances, still can shape the moral imagination and calls for the reader to embody the justice of God.

    There is much to commend in Contending for Justice. Houston is well-versed in the relevant scholarship, and his analysis of a wide range of pertinent texts is informed and careful, even if one may not agree with the occasional critical presupposition or exegetical opinion. It also is refreshing to engage an author who views his or her task as part and parcel of a personal ethical commitment: one can sense the passion behind the pen of the scholar. Finally, the contribution of the social sciences and the attention to ideological possibilities grounds this treatise in concrete realities. This is not a discussion of disembodied, timeless ethical principles; the call for justice arises from what the author believes are actual historical contexts.

    Two closing, but brief, comments by way of disagreement are in order, and these as they pertain to the book of Amos. First, Houston disagrees with this reviewer about the nature of divine judgment (pp. 55, 60). The point of contention involves the scope of the judgment (in Amos and elsewhere). It is difficult for Houston to accept that the poor and oppressed should suffer the punishment of the unjust elite. The socioeconomic class conflicts of that time are now masked by a global judgment in the final form of the text. My tack has been to consider that somehow all of the nation is involved in transgressions that God rejects; hence, the entire nation will suffer the consequences of the invasion, even as some are singled out for particular judgment. Second, this reviewer is not totally convinced by the discussion of ideology (pp. 10-16, passim), which is foundational for the argument of the book. Basing himself on authors as diverse as M. Walzer and F. Jameson, Houston explains how ideologies that claim to be universally true will carry within them views that make ethical concessions to the underclass (i.e., they project the assumption that everyone is answerable to the same moral ideals) and which allow the hegemonic group(s) to maintain control. In this way, the patrons of Israel could be self-critical through their spokespersons, even as they worked to stay in power or at least understood that the leaders' morality needed to change even though the social structures would not. There is food for thought here, but I am not sure if this is the best way to evaluate the ethical stances of the biblical material, especially the prophetic literature.

    Houston has provided a thought-provoking resource. I recommend it, at the very least as a gate into multiple avenues of research and reflection in Old Testament social ethics.

    M. Daniel Carroll R., Ph.D.
    Distinguished Professor of Old Testament
    Denver Seminary
    December 2008

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