Alister E. McGrath discusses the history of "justification" language; discusses the background to sedeq and related terms in the Hebrew Bible.

Alister E. McGrath

Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1-32

Cambridge University Press
Alister E. McGrath
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The etymology of the two Hebrew terms sedeq and sedaqa, both of which are usually translated as ‘righteousness’, is generally accepted to be obscure, and it is quite possible that the original meaning of the grapheme sdq is lost beyond recovery. The fact that there are two Hebrew words usually translated as ‘righteousness’, the masculine sedeq and the feminine sedaqa, has been the subject of much speculation. Although it might be supposed that these two terms are synonymous, this has been called into question for two reasons. First, it is philologically improbable that two different words should bear exactly the same meaning at the same time. Second, sedeq is used as a characterising genitive, especially for weights and measures, as in Leviticus 19:36. Sedaqa, however, is not used in this manner. It is difficult to know how much can be read into this distinction. It is certainly possible to argue that the feminine form tends to refer to a concrete entity, such as a righteous action or a vindicating judgement, whereas the masculine formtends to be associated with the more abstract idea of ‘that which is morally right’ or ‘right order’. Yet it is unclear quite how this impacts on our investigation.

Recent theories of the historical background of the Hebrew language have tended to divide the Hamito-Semitic languages into two groups: the archaic southern Cushitic and Chadic languages, and the more progressive northern group of languages, including the Semitic languages, the Berber languages of north Africa, and ancient Egyptian and Coptic. The triliteral root is a conspicuous feature common to all the languages of the northern group, and it is possible to argue that at every level –whether semantic, grammatical or phonological – features of these languages are theoretically derivable from a common source. When the etymology of the grapheme sdq is examined, using other ancient neareastern languages as models, a spectrum of possible meanings emerges, of which the most fundamental appears to be that of conformity to a norm. This observation is confirmed by the fact that the dominant sense of the terms sedeq and sedaqa appears to be that of ‘right behaviour’ or ‘right disposition’. The world is understood to be ordered in a certain way as a result of its divine creation; to act ‘rightly’ is thus to act in accordance with this patterning of structures and events. Emphasis has often been placed on the idea that the divine act of creation involves the imposition of order upon chaos; such ideas can be found throughout the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East.

The validity of such an appeal to etymological considerations has been criticised by James Barr, who illustrates the alleged inadequacy of the tool with reference to the English word ‘nice’. The etymology of the word indicates that it derives from the Latin nescius, presumably via the Old French nice, thereby suggesting that its meaning should be ‘silly’ or ‘ignorant’ – which is clearly of little use in determining its usage today. Barr neglects, however, to point out that etymological considerations can give an indication of the early meaning of a term, despite the connotations it may develop later as a consequence of constant use. While the derivation of ‘nice’ from nescius does not allow its modern meaning to be established, it is perfectly adequate to allow its sixteenth-century meaning to be established, it then bearing the sense of ‘silly’ or ‘ignorant’. As the enterprise in question is to establish the meaning of the term in texts of widely varying age, etymological arguments are perfectly acceptable in an attempt to establish its early meaning; the later meaning of the term, of course, cannot be determined by such considerations, as nuances not originally present make their appearance. Thus, in later Hebrew, sedaqa came to mean ‘almsgiving’, a meaning that cannot be derived from etymological considerations alone. Here, as elsewhere, the semantic connection between a grapheme and the meaning of a word appears to have eventually become so strained as to have almost snapped completely. However, as we shall indicate below, this later meaning of the word sedaqa can be understood on the basis of its etymology if its theological associations are given due weight.

The oldest meaning of sedaqa, as judged by its use in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1–31), appears to be ‘victory’. This meaning appears to be retained in some later texts, such as 1 Samuel 12:7 and Micah 6:5, although it is clear that the nuances associated with the term have altered. In this early passage, which contains many unusual grammatical forms and rare words, God is understood to have acted in ‘righteousness’ by defending Israel when its existence was threatened by an outside agency. This use of the term allows us to appreciate that the term ‘righteousness’ can possess both retributive and salvific aspects, without being reduced to, or exclusively identified with, either concept. Thus God’s act of judgement is retributive with regard to Israel’s enemies, but salvific with regard to God’s covenant people.

Underlying this understanding of iustitia Dei is the conceptual framework of the covenant: when God and Israel mutually fulfil their covenant obligations to each other, a state of righteousness can be said to exist – that is, things are saddiq, ‘as they should be’. There is no doubt that much of the Old Testament thinking about righteousness is linked with the notion of a covenant between God and Israel, demanding fidelity on the part of both parties if a state of ‘righteousness’ is to pertain. The close connection between the themes of creation and covenant in the Old Testament points to a linking of the moral and salvific orders.

Similar understandings of ‘righteousness’ were common elsewhere in the ancient world. For example, contemporary Assyrian documents suggest that the king was to be seen as the guardian of the world order, who ensured the regularity of the world through his cultic actions. The kinship of these notions can also be seen from the close semantic association between the ideas of ‘righteousness’ and ‘truth’ in the Aryan rtá and Iranian aša. Thus Israel’s triumphant victories over her enemies were seen as proofs of the sidqot ’adonay (Judges 5:11) – the iustitiae Dei of the Vulgate. Even where the specific term ‘righteousness’ is not found, it seems that a clear connection is understood to exist between God’s activity as a judge and Israel’s victory over its neighbours (as at Judges 11:27, and possibly also 2 Samuel 18:31).

At this stage in the history of Israel, the ‘righteousness’ of the covenant does not appear to have been considered to have been under threat from within Israel itself, but merely from external agencies. However, with the establishment of Israel came the rise of prophecy, and the threat posed to the covenant relationship from within Israel itself became increasingly apparent. The eighth-century prophets Amos and Hosea stressed the importance of righteousness on Israel’s part if if were to remain in a covenant relationship with its righteous God. This insight was expressed by the prophets in terms of the conditional election of Israel as the people of God, For the prophets, sedaqa was effectively that condition or state required of Israel if its relationship with its God was to continue.

Although there are many instances where sedaqa can be regarded as corresponding to the concept of iustitia distributiva, which has come to dominate western thinking on the nature of justice (despite the rival claims of iustitia commutativa), there remains a significant number which cannot.

A particularly significant illustration of this may be found in the Old Testament attitude to the poor, needy and destitute. As we have noted, sedaqa refers to the ‘right order of affairs’ which is violated, at least in part, by the very existence of such unfortunates. God’s sedaqa is such that God must deliver them from their plight – and it is this aspect of the Hebrew concept of sedaqa which has proved so intractable to those who attempted to interpret it solely as iustitia distributiva. It is clear that this aspect of the Hebraic understanding of ‘righteousness’ cannot be understood in terms of an impartial judge who administers justice according to whichever party has broken a universally accepted law.

Hermann Cremer (1834–1903) argued that the only way of making sense of the Old Testament usage of sedaqa was to assume that, in its basic sense, the term refers to an actual relationship between two persons, and implies behaviour which corresponds to, or is consistent with, whatever claims may arise from or concerning either party to the relationship. The relationship in question is that presupposed by the covenant between God and Israel, which must be considered as the ultimate norm to which sedaqa must be referred. The Hebrew concept of sedaqa thus stands in a conceptual class of its own – a class which Cremer brilliantly characterised as iustitia salutifera.

The strongly soteriological overtones of the term sedaqa can be illustrated from a number of passages in which ‘righteousness’ and ‘salvation’ are practically equated, particularly in many passages within Deutero-Isaiah:

I will bring my sedaqa near, it is not far away, And my salvation will not be delayed. (Isaiah 46:13)

A similar theme recurrs throughout many Psalms, which stress and proclaim ‘the reliable, foundational event of the covenant and the continuous salvific faithfulness of Yahweh in history and worship’. This is not, it must be emphasised, to say that ‘righteousness’ and ‘salvation’ are treated as being synonymous; rather, they are regarded as being inextricably linked on account of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. Semantic and theological considerations combine to give the Old estament concept of the ‘righteousness of God’ such strongly soteriological overtones, which the western concept of iustitia distributiva cannot convey.

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