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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
This story is an example of a familiar theme in the Hebrew prophets: the call to speak truth to unjust powers. The phrase “Speak Truth to Power” has its origins in the American Friends Service Committee in 1955 (see Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence). Yet the idea is ancient. Here are just a few examples of Hebrew prophets speaking truth to power in the Hebrew scriptures:
“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go.’” (Exodus 5:1)
“Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’” (2 Samuel 12:7-10)
“When [Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the LORD’S commands and have followed the Baals.” (1 Kings 18:17-18)
“The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me . . .Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:1-17)
“This is what the LORD says: ‘Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: ‘Hear the word of the LORD to you, king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne—you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’” (Jeremiah 22:1-3)
“When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (Jonah 3:6)
“And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: ‘This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” (Zechariah 7:8-10)
“Then I said, ‘Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel. Should you not embrace justice?’” (Micah 3:1)
“There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth. You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” (Amos 5:10-12)
What about us? What does it mean for us to speak truth to power today? We’ll explore these questions in Part 3.