Justice in the Bible

How was justice managed in Biblical times?


Reprinted with permission from JPS Guide: The Jewish Bible.

Basic justice was administered by the local court of elders sitting at the city gate, while more difficult cases came be fore the king (I Kings 3:16-28). Moses is said to have set up a hierarchical system of courts in the desert (Exod. 18:1 3- 26 ), and King Jehoshaphat is credited with appointing royal judges in the cities of Judah (2 Chron. 19:5).

o Property law deals with the ancestral estate. On the father’s death, his sons divided the land into equal shares, the firstborn taking a double share. If one of the sons died childless before there was a division of the estate, either because the father was still alive or because after the father’s death the brothers had continued to hold the land in a kind of partnership (“brothers dwelling together”), levirate law applied: the surviving brother had to marry the deceased’s widow, and their offspring would take the place of the deceased, thereby preserving his share of the inheritance (Deut. 25:5-10).
o If a man died leaving daughters but no sons, the daughters were allowed to inherit the family’s estate (Num. 27: 1-1I1, 36:1-12).

o Various laws protected the family’s ownership of their land. If poverty forced the owner to sell, he or a kinsman could redeem the land and thus bring it back into the family (Lev. 25:25-27). If redemption were not possible, the land would automatically return to its owner at the Jubilee, which occurred every 50 years (Lev. 25:28).

o A person cultivating land bore social responsibilities. He had to set aside part of his crop for the poor and needy (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-2 1) and every 7th and 50th year leave his land fallow so that its produce could feed those in need (Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:3-7).

o The law made great efforts to alleviate debts. Interest was forbidden on loans to fellow-Israelites (Exod. 22:24). Although a creditor was entitled to foreclose a debtor’s possessions, or even his family (2 Kings 1:1), certain items (such as a millstone) could not be taken in payment of debts (Deut. 24:6). Impoverished kinsmen, like land, could be redeemed (Lev. 25:47-53) and slaves could be set free automatically after a number of years’ service (Exod. 21:1; Lev. 25 :54; Deut. 15:12). It has often been suggested that such laws were merely utopian. In fact, it was common practice for the kings of the ancient Near East to declare a cancellation of debts and consequently emancipate slaves and land. This was regarded as one of the king’s duties, although the timing was left to his discretion. The difference in the biblical law is its replacement of the king’s role by an automatic cycle of 7 or 50 years, which would ensure the enforcement of these reform measures. King Zedekiah actually declared a freeing of slaves, but subsequently the officials and the people forced them in to slavery again (Jer, 34:8-11).

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Dr. Shalom Paul is Chairperson of the Dead Sea Scrolls foundation and is a former chair of the Bible Department of Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He was editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica's Bible section and has written six books and over forty articles on nature and scientific exploration from a biblical perspective including The Bible & Archaeology.

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