Isaiah’s Justice

I just finished reading The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, by John Goldingay (2014).

I’m particularly intrigued by his way of explaining the significance of the Hebrew words mishpat and tzedek/tzedakah, which are important in Isaiah’s writings.

“The conventional English translation…is ‘justice and righteousness.’ … Neither word has an English equivalent, as is the case with many Hebrew words related to theology and ethics. The broad meaning of mishpat refers to government, the exercise of authority and the making of decisions…[T]here can be perverted exercise of mishpat.

The fact that mishpat can be exercised in an unjust way links to its pairing with tzedaka. Again, the common translation ‘righteousness’ captures an aspect of tzedaka, though ‘righteousness’ is inclined to denote individual holiness, whereas tzedaka is an essentially relational word. It suggests doing the right thing in relation to other people – in relation to God and to one’s community. ‘Right’ is this nearer its connotations, but ‘faithful’ is newer still. Mishpat and tzedaka this suggests the faithful exercise of power in the community.” (pp. 20-21)

Goldingay’s discussion of these terms comes in the context of their appearance in particular in Isaiah 5:1-7, a devastating poem about God’s disappointment in Israel.

The poem for the most part imagines a vineyard, tended to with great love, but yielding only wild, unusable grapes. The tender in frustration lets the vineyard crumble. So too, the people of Israel are supposed to be a wonderful vineyard, producing good deeds and loving relations with God’s cultivation, but instead staying after other aims (such as power, wealth, ego, maybe even violence).

The final line (Isaiah 5:7) in Goldingay’s translation sears with God’s disgust:

[God] looked for mishpat, but there – mispach; for tzedaka, but there – tze’aka.

The wordplay points to mispach, spilling out (of blood) or perhaps oppression, instead of just exercise of power, and to tze’aka, a crying out rather than faithful relating.

God seeks for human communities to faithfully exercise power in just ways that honor the vulnerable along with the privileged. This is one of the primary challenges Isaiah called out to us over 2500 years ago, an aspiration we continue to cultivate in our lives and societies today.