Contentions and Trials

Lutheran Pastor James Prothro generously allowed me to see an advance manuscript of his forthcoming Both Judge and Justifier: Biblical Legal Language and the Act of Justifying in Paul (WUNT II; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck), a revision of his Cambridge doctoral dissertation (see my summary of one of his articles here). Save your pennies and keep an eye out for this book. It’s a blockbuster.

Protestants insist that in Paul’s letters justification is a forensic, legal, or judicial concept and action, but there is a lot of dispute about what kind of legal procedures Paul assumes. To answer the question, “What does it mean to ‘justify’?”, Prothro devotes a section of his book to investigating the legal procedures of the Old Testament and the meaning of “justify” within those contexts. He relies heavily on Pietro Bovati’s Re-Establishing Justice, a detailed study of legal terms, concepts, and procedures in the Old Testament. 

Bovati opens by examining the use of the Hebrew term rib, which typically refers to a two-way controversy. Someone believes he has been wronged and brings an accusation, a “case,” against the perpetrator. A war of words ensues, as the accuser attempts to convince the accused of his wrong. As Bovati puts it, “the accuser’s desire is not to vanquish but to convince the other. This is reinforced by the fact that the accuser’s speech often takes the form of a pressing argument that culminates in an invitation, directed at the adversary, to recognize that he or she is in the wrong, and thereby admit that the accuser is in the right” (83).

Though the accuser acts out of “wrath,” the aim of the procedure is reconciliation. Anger isn’t always just, of course: “anger has to be considered a blameworthy act, if it shows that a (wrathful) individual has been disturbed and ‘set on fire’ by something that does not justify such behaviour.” Yet, “there is also the possibility of just anger, which is indignation in the face of an objectively intolerable fact. The ‘wrath of God’ obviously falls into this second category: like the wrath of a king or a just man, God’s indignation expresses his non-connivance with evil and is the right reaction in the face of a grave situation of injustice” (53). Yahweh brings a “case” against Israel out of his justified indignation at her unfaithfulness and sin.

In response to the accusation, the accused can confess and seek pardon, or can protest his innocence. Protest sometimes turns into a counter-accusation (cf. Laban and Jacob in Genesis 31). Confession of guilt is often accompanied by gestures of humility, an enacted plea for forgiveness—prostration, weeping, tearing clothes, fasting. In contexts where Yahweh is accuser, confession shades over into praise: Give glory to God, Joshua tells Achan after the latter’s theft is exposed (Joshua 7).

Surprisingly, there are occasions when God’s accusation is met with protests of innocence and counter-accusations against God. Bovati writes, “A typical example of this may be found in Psalm 44. The purpose of the recognition of God’s saving acts in the past (vv. 2–9) is to bring out the inconsistency of what God is doing in the present (cf., with a reverse meaning, Jer. 2.3–5.11); the frequent mention of the people’s innocence (esp. vv. 18–19, 21–22) is turned into an accusation against God (vv. 13, 23), an accusation that takes the form of the question ‘why’? (vv. 24, 25)” (115). These “why?” responses can be unjust, when they become acts of self-justification that claim to judge God. On the other hand, “the ‘why?’ of an accusation is just to the extent that it is based on a desire that God should be God, the principle of life, and that this should be made manifest in the day-to-day history of humankind” (116).

What Prothro describes as a “bilateral” legal controversy structures much of Yahweh’s interaction with Israel through the centuries. Bovati says:

[I]ndividual and collective history appears as humanity’s repeated falling into sin, which is followed by a repeated denunciation by God (by means of his ‘messengers’); but little by little this repetition shows itself to be the practical manifestation of a total rejection which demands a total destruction. As a result, the message of the prophetic tradition changes gradually from an accusation dealing with particular points in the behaviour of individuals and the people to a global denunciation which embraces everyone in all times, a denunciation which becomes the threat of an irrevocable punishment. Just as prophecy becomes almost monotonous as it reveals the refusal to heed the voice of God, in the same way post-exilic tradition expresses Israel’s conscious response to prophecy, filling out and constantly repeating the people’s admission of guilt, this being a recognition of the seriousness of the sin that brought about the disaster of the Exile (106–7).

If the accuser fails to convince the accused of his guilt, there are several options. War is one. Or, the parties can appeal to a third party. Judges and formal court proceedings come into play when a two-way rib stalls. Even when the controversy moves from a two-way to a triangular controversy, when we move from rib to mishpat (judgment), features of the rib structure remain in place. Bovati concludes that:

[T]he dynamic expressed in
the trial remains fundamentally that of the controversy: we have an
accuser and an accused, and the outcome of their conflict is the chief
object of interest. If someone (maybe the judge) is on the accuser’s side,
the sentencing of the accused follows; but if this someone (perhaps the
judge) is on the accused’s side, the latter gains the victory at the
accuser’s expense (236). 

When Yahweh acts as Judge, He takes the side of the innocent against the false accuser. Yahweh doesn’t do justice by maintaining procedural integrity or by watching from a neutral distance. He does justice by playing the role of witness, defender, protector, and deliverer of the accused. He plays role by taking the side of the just.

Prothro’s book shows how all this illuminates Paul’s theology of justification. So, once again, save your pennies.

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