Posted by: Dan | June 20, 2005

God as Judge

The metaphor of the judge does not have its locus in a theory of law. It lives, rather, in a world of desperate, practical appeal to those who have no other ground of appeal or hope and in a world of righteous rage among those who are appalled at exploitative brutality that must be called to accountability.
~ Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament.

As Christianity was infiltrated by Greek philosophies and other modes of thought from the Greco-Roman world, the idea of judgment became increasingly related to a law of moral purity, and personal piety. That is to say, judgment became associated with sin that had more to do with personal holiness and less to do with social justice. Of course this is only natural once Christianity becomes the official religion of the Constantine's empire (and any other subsequent Christian empires), for the religion of empire is a religion which cannot show much regard for the social injustices that result from the excercise of power. If anything such a religion provides a the empire with a justification for such inequalities.

However, a Christianity that only thinks of judgment in this context is essentially unbiblical. As Brueggemann emphasises, the notion of God as the judge, the notion of God excercising his judgment, is intimately tied to socio-economic issues.* God as judge is understood as the God who will not tolerate social injustices. God as judge is the God who sides with the oppressed over against the oppressor. God as judge is the God who brings liberation to captives and food to the hungry.

Of course Christian discourse about judgment is mostly dominated by questions relating to the final destination of one's eternal soul (which is itself a Greek, and not a Hebraic, concept). However, Krister Stendahl, a New Testament scholar who is partially responsible for launching the school of thought known as 'the new perspective on Paul,' does an excellent job of bringing a genuinely biblical understanding of judgment back into the discussion. He argues that God's judgment cannot be divorced from the realm of the social and the political. The notion of God's judgment cannot help but give us pause about our current socio-economic status. In the conclusion to his stirring essay “Judgment and Mercy” (found in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles), he writes,

Judgment and mercy. We must resist all homogenizing, neutralizing, dialecticizing and balancing acts with these terms.** There is little mercy except the chance of repentance for those of us who sit in judgment; but when judgment comes upon us, there is much mercy for the oppressed… So let us weep! And let them rejoice when the judgment that comes upon us provides their liberation!

Christians would do well to worry less about the state of their own souls and worry more about the state of their neighbours' bodies.
___________________________
* I say “his” because the title of “judge” when applied to YHWH is generally associated with YHWH's masculinity. There are other titles that emphasise YHWH's femininity — of course, as Brueggemann also highlights, we need to understand all nouns as “noun-metaphors” when they are applied to YHWH in the Old Testament. They are not Israel's primary way of referring to YHWH and only gain their meaning from their association with the broader narrative and from the ways in which YHWH acts in the story of Israel.
** This thought also fits well with Brueggemann's insistence that one should refuse to resolve tensions that are inherent to the biblical texts. Brueggemann argues that such tensions must be maintained because they are essentially a part of the character of YHWH as it is revealed to us.

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