Mishpat: Social Ethics in Jeremiah
"[The LORD] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing."
~Deuteronomy 10:18 [NIV]
"Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice..."
~Deuteronomy 24: 17 [NIV]
One of Yahweh's main concerns in making his covenant with Israel, after worshipping him alone, was maintaining social justice. Throughout Deuteronomy and subsequently in Jeremiah, we see the cry for mishpat, "justice," for the orphan, the widow, the poor, and the alien. Yahweh cares about these groups that cannot care for themselves, and he expects those in a right relationship with him to care as well. In Jeremiah's day, this key aspect of the covenant had been forgotten by Israel; injustice joined with idolatry and religious formalism to complete the indictment against the stubborn nation. The following discussion will trace the theme of mishpat throughout Jeremiah in light of God's justice, the justice he demands for the innocent, the widow, the orphan, and the alien.
The just nature of Yahweh is clearly seen in Jeremiah. Jeremiah 5:4-5 states that the people do not know the way of the LORD and his mishpat, and neither do the leaders know his mishpat--the justice he requires. "Let him who boasts boast about this," says Yahweh, that he understands "that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, mishpat, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight..." (9:24). Moving into the Book of Consolation in chapters 30-33, Yahweh tells Israel that he will punish them for their guilt, "but only with mishpat" (30:11, cf. 46:28). Yahweh is a loving but just God, and he wants his people to be the same way.
Unfortunately, they were not. In Deuteronomy 16 as part of the covenant, Yahweh declares that the land and the celebrations are for the alien, orphan, and widow among them as well (16:11, 14), and that the people are expected to show them justice (16:19-20, cf. Exod 23:6) and to care for them in order to be blessed (Deut. 24:19). Instead, Israel does the opposite. In 5:1, Yahweh tells Jeremiah to see if he can find one person who is actually doing mishpat, giving the implication that there is not one. As mentioned above, neither the common people nor the leaders know the just requirements of God (5:4-5). They do not plead the case of the fatherless or seek justice for the poor (5:28). Yet, according to Deuteronomy 27:19 a person who withheld justice from them was cursed. Moving into Jeremiah 7, Yahweh declares that if they would only treat each other with mishpat and stop mistreating the alien, orphan, and widow and shedding innocent blood, he would allow them to stay in the land (7:5-6). Sadly this was not to be.
The shedding of innocent blood seems to be a part of the injustice that breaks the heart of God more than any other. In Jeremiah 2, Jeremiah is indicting the people of Israel for breaking the covenant relationship with Yahweh by their "adulteries"...