What justice looks like in the Old Testament

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Justice looks like …” is a special series in the Voices column. Readers will have the opportunity to consider justice from numerous viewpoints. The series is based on each writer’s understanding of Scripture and relationship with Jesus Christ. Writers present their own views independent of any institution, unless otherwise noted in their bios. Click here for more information about the series.

When one talks about the language of justice in the Old Testament, there are terms directly translated as “justice” or associated concepts, and there are those that create a platform upon which the concepts of justice rest.

Where justice begins

All discussions of justice and how humanity treats humanity begin, continue and end with the central concept of humanity being created in the “image of God” (tselem elohim). The fact that everyone—male and female—is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) is the basis for ethics and morality throughout the entirety of Scripture.

Indeed, since this is the essence of how we are created, all standards of treatment are built around either maintaining this status in society or returning individuals back to this standing when it has been lost.

From this central premise, the Old Testament branches out in a variety of directions to express more precisely how one might maintain such a status.

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Words in the Old Testament

Shaphat and mishpat

The first term for the word justice is found in the verb “to govern” or “judge” (shaphat) and its related noun “judgment” (mishpat). These terms have their basis in a legal setting.

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The meaning, however, does not stop simply at rendering “judgment” as in a decision or act of applying legal or moral standards to a situation or relationship. It also expresses an attitude, right or desire for rectitude that belongs inherently to individuals because of their position in society or their identity as an image-bearer (Exodus 23:6; Micah 6:8).


While one often thinks of the term “righteousness” (tsedeq) in terms of expressing a person’s standing before God, it also is used for how people treat other people. In fact, there are several places in Scripture where righteousness is put alongside justice almost as a synonym or explanation (Psalm 89:14; Proverbs 21:3).

Tsedeq can carry the idea of vindication or, more generally, the act of setting something right. Since this word plays such a central role in both salvific and social contexts, one can see how closely Scripture connects our relationship with God to our relationship with man.

Indeed, at the heart of the holiness code and covenant stipulations of Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 16 is the precept that our righteousness from God must result in justice for people. Prophets such as Amos and Micah make this connection explicit in a couple of places (Amos 5:6-7, 14-15, 24; Micah 6:8).


An often overlooked term, din is almost a synonym of mishpat, but finds expression almost solely in poetic and worship texts, rather than in legal or narrative contexts. It often is communicated in relation to a plea and in most of its occurrences it refers to defending, protecting or restoring the oppressed or weak (Jeremiah 5:28, 22:16; Psalm 9:5, Psalm 140:13; Proverbs 31:5, 8; Job 35:14).


“Equity” (meshar) literally means something is level or straight and is used figuratively in wisdom-centered texts to refer to the ethical value of seeking equity or justice (Proverbs 1:3, 2:9, 8:6; Psalm 9:9, 58:2, 75:3; Isaiah 33:15; Daniel 11:6).

Wise living values equity. Many scholars connect the basic Hebrew idea of wisdom (hokmah) with the Egyptian concept of harmony (ma’at). In Egyptian iconography, a person’s soul often was balanced or weighed by the feather, which represented ma’at. This connection shows the Hebrew concept of wisdom is yet another way in which we see the call for balance or justice as a fundamental path of life in Scripture.

Other views of justice in the Old Testament

There are many other places one could look to understand better the idea of justice in the Old Testament.

The whole concept of the year of jubilee, during which debts were forgiven and land was returned, was rooted at least in part in maintaining equality, overcoming injustice, communicating righteousness and emphasizing the link between salvation and justice (Leviticus 25; Isaiah 58:6-12).

Prophets, at times, used the language of sexual perversion to describe the social injustice that took place in Israel (Ezekiel 9:9; Hosea 1-3).

The central story of the entire Old Testament is the Exodus, which begins with four terms expressing God’s total identification with the oppressed (Exodus 2:23-25).

Wherever one turns in the Old Testament, it is impossible to separate the concepts of belonging to God and carrying out justice in the world in which we live. It is built into creation itself.

Timothy Pierce is an associate professor of Christian Studies at East Texas Baptist University. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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