You shall not pervert the justice of a stranger [or] an orphan; and you shall not take as pledge the garment of a widow. – D’varim/Deuteronomy 24:17
Given that the injunction to judge fairly has already been expressed earlier – lo tate mishpat “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality” (D’varim 16:19, JPS) – and in very similar language, why does Moshe feel the need to return to the topic again in this text and why does he link it to the use of garments as loan guarantees? What is it about the word mishpat, ‘justice’ that warrants such treatment? Rashi says that Moshe “repeats the commandment regarding a poor person to violate two negative commandments because of him.” Surely not? If someone is prepared to render crooked justice, the fact that they will be violating two prohibitions isn’t likely to cut much more ice with them than violating one. That cannot be the most important reason.
The verb nata is the Hif’il 2ms prefix form of the root nun-tet-heh. The Qal meanings of the root speak of stretching or extending, spreading out or expanding, bowing and turning (Davidson). In the Hif’il stem, the verb adds the ideas of declining or departing from something, to twist, wrest or pervert. We can see both meanings working together here: justice can be ‘stretched’ or ‘turned’ and – in more violent cases – ‘twisted’ or ‘perverted’ so that it becomes the opposite of justice. In a vision of great slaughter in Jerusalem, HaShem told the prophet Ezekiel that “the iniquity of the houses of Judah and Israel is very very great, the land is full of crime and the city is full of muteh corruption” (Ezekiel 9:9).
What does the word ‘justice’ mean? The Hebrew noun mishpat comes from the root shin-peh-tet to judge, administer justice, decide between (Davidson). The ways it is used in the Tanakh cover punitive judgement, a place of judgement, a legal process, legal rights, what is correct, what is right. The word is a key part of G-d’s character – “the L-RD of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy G-d shows Himself holy in righteousness” (Isaiah 5:16, ESV) – and in time to come, “He will fill Zion with justice and righteousness” (33:5, ESV). In the meantime, He urges Israel to be just at all times and makes it a condition of residence in the Land: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the L-RD your G-d is giving you” (D’varim 16:20, JPS).
Why should the commandment be repeated here? Perhaps because its first formulation is general, applying equally to rich and poor. Here it is particularised for the poor and potentially disenfranchised in society. Rashi augments his previous comment to add: “since it is easier to pervert the judgement of a poor person that that of a rich person, this is why Scripture stated the commandment and repeated it.” Jeffrey Tigay explains that, “Although the fatherless and resident aliens are covered by the universal principle expressed there, the need to assure that they are treated fairly in court is often reiterated because of their situation, like that of widows and the poor, exposes them to exploitation. In court the alien is at a disadvantage because he is neither a fully integrated member of society nor a peer of the judges or his adversary, and the fatherless may have no adult male with the experience and eloquence to represent them capably.” So much so, that Sforno suggests that this is the reason for the rabbinic dictum of potach pi l’ilem, opening the mouth of the dumb. He warns, “at the time of argument, be careful (in dealing with) these (litigants) that their claims not be ‘closed off’ due to their humble standing. Indeed, under proper circumstances (you should fulfill the precept of) ‘Speak up for the dumb, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy’ (Proverbs 31:8-9, JPS).
Hirsch takes the argument a little further, out of court and into society as a whole: “The tendency of this prohibition is not meant to be limited solely to the legal sphere of the actual administration of justice … the rights which are specially conceded to the stranger and orphan in the social life of the nation are to be understood … a duty of considerate kindness towards socially depressed people.” This answers our second question: the linkage with using garments as loan guarantees. Not only is it wrong to use the clothing of a poor person as a guarantee – the object of security, which may be seized or repossessed if the lender defaults on his loan – but this text makes no distinction between a rich and a poor widow; both alike are to be protected against the seizure or confiscation of their clothing. This is elementary justice, preserving human dignity and not trespassing on basic human rights.
Justice continues to be a constant theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the prophets call Israel back to the way HaShem expects his people to behave. Oppression of the poor nevertheless seems to be an endemic problem for G-d’s people – as for all the nations of the world. Amos has to tell the norther kingdom to stop their meaningless ritual and sacrifice, but to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NASB). Speaking to the southern kingdom, Jeremiah rebukes them roundly, bringing the message: “Thus says the L-RD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3, ESV). The same three categories are identified as being at risk: the strangers or resident aliens, the orphans and the widows; those who are easiest to oppress and least able to defend themselves. Religious ritual is secondary to and is to be shaped by living the Torah’s concerns for social justice: “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6, NASB). James shares the same concerns: “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our G-d and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27, NASB).
Notice too that the stranger or resident alien dwelling in the Land is included in this divine protection. The word ger is often translated or expounded by Orthodox Judaism as ‘convert’ and so brings this class of person within the body of Israel, one of ‘us’. It comes from the root gur, “to sojourn, dwell for a time as a stranger” in the way that Naomi and Elimelech went to sojourn in the land of Moab during the famine in Israel; a temporary arrangement, for a season. Such people might not speak the language of the Land well, might be dependent upon charity for food and shelter and, commonly in the Ancient Near East, might be excluded from land ownership so have to rely on being employed by local farmers and landowners. Yet they were still people and the Torah gives them rights and protection against exploitation, reminding the Israelites that they too, in their turn, were slaves in Egypt.
Yeshua told two stories that directly address the issue of believers providing for the needy and disenfranchised in society. The first is the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where He rewards the sheep for their care for the needy – “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:35-36,40, ESV), while the goats are rebuked and rejected from a share in the Olam Haba because of their failure to provide that care.
Yeshua’s second story is the parable of the Good Samaritan, started by a lawyer who “desiring to justify himself, said to Yeshua, “And who is my neighbor?” Yeshua replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:29-30, ESV). The hated and despised Samaritan turns out to be the surprise hero of the story who cares for the man – a Jew – who has been robbed and beaten, across racial and national lines and prejudice, where his own countrymen did not. Yeshua’s challenge when the lawyer has to admit that the Samaritan did the right thing for his neighbour – even though Jew and Samaritans were anything but neighbours – is, “Go, and do likewise” (37, ESV)
Exploitation today is often well hidden, with those who are being exploited being kept strictly out of view, often over-seas, camouflaged as exported jobs, cheaper labour or seasonal growers. Others live among and look just like us but work a day or two a week in a brothel to keep a roof over their heads and pay for their children’s education. Justice demands that we be aware of these neighbours and act in a way as to better their cause and grant them protection from exploitation, whatever form it takes!
Further Study: Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 23:23-24; Luke 18:1-8
Application: Today’s society seems to have a blind spot for sojourners, widows and orphans – our disenfranchised – particularly if they also happen to be refugees or foreigners who don’t speak our language very well or follow our cultural values. How can you “do the right thing” to bring them the justice of the kingdom of G-d?
06:31 27Aug17 Tim: Another thing occurred to me as I read this. The Torah itself “can be ‘stretched’ or ‘turned’ and – in more violent cases – ‘twisted’ or ‘perverted’ so that it becomes the opposite of justice.” Hence Jesus getting so angry that mint and dill is tithed or that property is designated corban so as to deny justice even within the house of Israel let alone the stranger.