M.J.M. Coomber (ed.), Bible and Justice: Ancient Texts, Modern Challenges

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Coomber, Matthew J. M. (ed.), Bible and Justice: Ancient Texts, Modern Challenges (London: Equinox, 2011). Pp. ix + 247. Softcover. US$29.95. ISBN 978-1-845-55327-8.

This edited volume is based on papers presented at the 2008 Bible and Justice conference held at the University of Sheffield, which was organized by the editor, Matthew Coomber. The volume is divided into three sections: 1) Challenges and Understandings of Bible and Justice, 2) Uses and Approaches to Bible and Justice, and 3) Prospects for Applications of Bible and Justice. The first section is comprised of papers written by Yvonne Sherwood, Philip Davies, John Sandys-Wunsch, and Stanley Hauerwas. Sherwood's paper, “On the Genesis of the Alliance between the Bible and Rights,” examines four main political-theological visions (or Bibles, as she refers to them) which were present in the seventeenth century, namely, the Active Revolutionary Bible, the Passive Bible, the Monarchial Bible (characterized by Robert Filmer), and the Liberal Bible (characterized by John Locke). These visions represented different ways the Bible was interpreted and applied to the context of the Civil War. Ultimately, the Liberal Bible, with its focus on the rights of all people to equally share dominion over the earth emerged dominant and provides the background for the modern use of the Bible in the public arena. Sherwood provides this historical account to illustrate that the Liberal Bible provides the backbone for the diversified opinions on whether the Bible can be applied to topics of justice. At the conclusion of the chapter, Sherwood suggests that the Bible can be used in this discussion and application but that it is not the only source (or force).

In the second essay, “Rough Justice?,” Philip Davies illustrates that contrary to the modern separation of philosophy and religion, “philosophical reasoning” exists in the Bible on topics such as justice, and that dialogues and debates exist within the canon itself (p. 43). Davies explores the notion of collective punishment alongside the opposition to collective punishment in biblical texts. Though smooth justice would entail only guilty individuals being punished, it is not possible for this type of justice to be implemented entirely in our society and so, rough justice exists where, for example, the guilty are sometimes not punished accordingly. Davies believes that the biblical texts can help us understand justice, but do not define justice nor provide us guidance for applying it.

In the third chapter, “Is the Belief in Human Rights Either Biblical or Useful?,” Sandys-Wunsch presents the following three proposals for the origin of inalienable rights: 1) during the Civil War in the seventeenth century, John Locke developed a counter argument on the issue of rights by arguing against Robert Filmer's notion that kings had the divine right to rule; 2) the Bible has a strong concern for justice and in the Old Testament, in particular, it is God who provides and upholds the rights of people; and 3) the influence of Jeremy Bentham's questioning of inalienable rights can be detected in present day scholars' objections, while his critical examination of biblical texts in relation to social matters set a high standard of analysis which is similar to today's exegesis.

In the final essay of this section, “Jesus, The Justice of God,” Hauerwas begins by presenting unsatisfactory theories of justice where either Christians become involved in the pursuit of secular justice, thereby relegating Christianity to the sidelines, or where salvation of the individual becomes the priority and justice is placed as a secondary issue. Hauerwas discusses Daniel Bell's Christocentric approach to justice, which understands Jesus as embodying the justice of God, with the implication that justified people in Christ should do the same. He also critiques Nicolas Wolterstorff's philosophical and theological proposal of justice which places individual rights at its centre based on scriptural analysis. Hauerwas concludes that “what we need is not a theory of justice capable of universal application…” but “rather what we need is what we have…” which is “…a people learning again to live in diaspora” (p. 84). This means, in the words of Bell, that the church is on a pilgrimage in the world “seeking reconciliation through the works of mercy” (p. 84). This represents, according to Bell and Hauerwas, the justice of God.

The second section of this edited volume, “Uses and Approaches to Bible and Justice,” includes papers written by Walter Houston, Louise Lawrence, and Gerald West. Houston's paper, “Justice and Violence in the Priestly Utopia,” provides an exegesis of Gen 1:28–30 and Gen 9 which highlights humanity's role of ruling over creation in a caring/protective, non-violent, and non-exploitive manner. Houston further notes some difficulties with applying these texts to today's context in his brief hermeneutical section of the paper, but points out that given the violent nature of our world, justice as viewed by the “priestly writer” in Gen 1 is possible. He does not believe that this task of reducing violence within creation has been “seriously undertaken” as yet (p. 104).

In Lawrence's essay, “A Signs Source: Approaching Deaf Biblical Interpretation,” she describes how the deaf community has been marginalized and oppressed in society by the hearing population in “educational, religious, and academic contexts” through, for example, past opposition to the implementation of British Sign Language and lack of access to biblical texts (p. 108). Lawrence associates the marginalization and oppression of the deaf community with colonization. The paper also examines the deaf community's interpretation of Scripture, which consists of filling in gaps in biblical stories when they are retold and displays a midrashic approach when applying the stories to a contemporary context.

West's essay, “From a Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) of the Economy to the RDP of the Soul: Public Realm Biblical Interpretation in Postcolonial South Africa,” examines former South African President Thabo Mbeki's speech in 2006 at the Fourth Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture. This speech represented a change in philosophy within South African governance from a focus on economic transformation to that of soul or moral transformation of the nation. Mbeki frequently referenced biblical texts in this revived transformation which Mandela first propagated. West points out that a transformation of the economy needs to be recaptured and implemented and that the Bible can be used, albeit, carefully, in economic policies that have been cast aside by Mbeki in favour of moral transformation.

The third and final section of the volume, “Prospects for Applications of Bible and Justice,” comprises papers written by J. W. Rogerson, David Horrell, Simon Woodman, Diana Lipton, and Matthew Coomber. In the first chapter, “The Old Testament and the Environment,” Rogerson presents two main approaches that may shed light on how to deal with environmental problems facing the world today. He first examines the strategies of Ragnor Kinzelbach, a German environmentalist/scientist, which entail reducing over-population and over-production to reconcile our “economic system with the eco-systems” and developing a “new conception of the nature of humanity and the structure of its society in the world of the future” (pp. 150, 151). Rogerson then examines the Old Testament for environmental insights. The Exodus story is foundational for the gracious treatment of foreigners, but this graciousness extends to the non-human order. including rest for the land in the Sabbath year and the prohibition against destroying fruit trees during military pursuits. Rogerson concludes that, even though the Old Testament does not provide solutions to the present environmental crisis, it does contain valuable insights which may be mined separately or alongside Kinzelbach's strategies.

Horrell's chapter, “Ecojustice in the Bible? Pauline Contributions to an Ecological Theology,” presents three responses to Lynn White Jr.'s 1967 paper which blamed Christianity and, in particular, its supposed interpretation of Gen 1, for the exploitation of the earth and the resulting environmental damage. These diverse Christian responses include a priority on the personal salvation of people, humanity's responsible stewardship over the earth affirmed by the Bible, and the pursuit of ecojustice by the Earth Bible Team, which has established “ecojustice principles” apart from the Bible and measure the Bible's teachings, whether consistent or contradictory, against these principles (p. 160). Horrell then presents his own approach to ecojustice derived from Paul's teaching of reconciliation, where both the human and non-human world are transformed—a new creation in light of Christ's death and resurrection.

Woodman, in his essay, “Can the Book of Revelation Be a Gospel for the Environment?,” views Revelation as containing both negative and positive images about the environment. The book describes environmental destruction which will result from God's judgment on evil but is limited to Babylon (i.e., Rome). The destruction entails the removal of oppressive systems and liberates all of creation. Woodman believes that the four creatures worshipping at the throne in Rev 4 represent all creation, human and non-human, as only one of the creatures has human facial features. He concludes that the book of Revelation is “good news” in that it “revolve[s] around God's justice: justice against evil, justice for righteousness, and justice for creation” (p. 191).

Diana Lipton's chapter, “The Kindness of Strangers: Biblical Hospitality and the Politics of Intervention,” examines how Amos 1–2 (oracles against the nations) and Gen 18–19 (Sodom and Gomorrah) can be used to establish principles for military invasions/interventions of other nations in today's context. For example, she views hospitality, derived from the Genesis account, as a key element which an invading/intervening nation should consider before intervening in the affairs of another country. Hospitality can be shown by ensuring that the recipient nation is prepared to receive the intervention and its resulting effects.

In the final paper of this section and volume, “Prophets to Profits: Ancient Judah and Corporate Globalization,” Coomber uses Marvin Chaney and D. N. Premnath's cultural evolutionary approach to understand the process of land consolidation in eighth century Judah, which prophets such as Micah and Isaiah vehemently opposed, and analyzes a modern day example in the North African country of Tunisia. Coomber illustrates that these patterns persist throughout history in his analysis of Tunisia where the process of land consolidation and centralized administrative control occurred, creating poverty through oppression and exploitation.

In the introductory chapter, Coomber provides a basic description/definition of justice, noting that notions of justice vary depending on different contexts. He also provides a summary of each of the papers presented in the volume, which is beneficial to the reader. It is interesting that in a volume dedicated to the Bible and justice, none of the papers seeks to establish a definition of justice, nor develops an understanding of justice from either an Old Testament or New Testament perspective.

The topics in the second and third sections of the volume—Uses and Approaches to Bible, and Justice Prospects for Applications of Bible and Justice—generally tend to be more larger-scale or global in nature, dealing with South Africa, Tunisia, environmental concerns, military intervention, and globalization. Though these issues are important, people and/or organizations which have considerable power and influence would be more likely to effect changes in these areas. It may be that for the concerned individual reader inquiring into how justice may be done at a local level, the papers presented by Hauerwas and Lawrence would be the most applicable.

The third and final section of this volume appears to be heavily weighted towards the application of the Bible to environmental concerns as three out of the five chapters deal explicitly with this topic. This in no way discredits the importance of developing a perspective on ecojustice as it is an important aspect in the discussions about justice and in fact, it is refreshing to see it highlighted in this volume.

Though the various papers have been organized into three separate sections in the volume, when the papers are placed side by side within the individual sections, they seem to be topically disconnected from each other. Even though the last section of the volume has grouped together three papers concerning the environment, there still is no discernible flow or progression of thought within these sections. It would have been helpful for the editor to provide a concluding chapter to bring together the various papers and topics by drawing some general conclusions and giving closure to the volume.

Overall, this volume or at least portions of it, will appeal to Coomber's audience, identified as consisting of either scholars, those involved in the practice of social justice, those interested in the volume title, or a combination of all three. Given the different foci of the volume with its varied topics, not all of its contents will appeal to any one of these types of audiences. However, the volume touches on some key aspects of justice ranging from philosophical and theological discussions to practical examples of how biblical texts have been or can be applied to contemporary culture. Though the volume is academically oriented and may, as a result, alienate some potential readers, the papers are all insightful and thought-provoking, and incite the reader to further reflect upon various issues relating to the Bible and justice. For those who are involved in the study and pursuit of justice in our world, this volume is a worthwhile read.

Shannon E. Baines, McMaster Divinity College