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The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible

          When used in conjunction with archaeological data and the literature of the ancient Near East, the social sciences can produce meaningful insights into the text and the society behind the text.

By J. David Pleins
Professor at Santa Clara University    
Department of Religious Studies


    How are we to understand the social justice vision and the social ethics of the Hebrew Bible? This essay represents a distillation of my survey of the topic more fully documented in The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001). Setting aside all of the references and documentation found there, I want to outline for the reader some of the more salient features of a lively and ongoing discussion of this topic. In more recent years, social-scientific models, ancient Near Eastern literary comparisons, and exploratory theological constructs such as canonical criticism have created new readings of the biblical texts. The insights are not only of ancient significance but are of continued relevance for those who are concerned about questions of poverty and matters of social justice.


    Reading the Bible is not enough. To understand the social vision of the Hebrew Bible, it is essential to study the contours of the biblical world. How do the various institutions, social structures, and values of that world we term “ancient Israel” intersect with the literary compilation we label “the Hebrew Bible”? 

    The hermeneutical and exegetical obstacles we face in characterizing the social ethics of the Hebrew Bible are illustrated by the seemingly straightforward case where Jeremiah denounces the king for grossly underpaying the laborers at royal construction projects (Jer 22:13-19).

    On the level of institutions, we are required to know something about ancient Israel's socio-economic structures. To study this aspect of the biblical world requires a clear historical tear-down of the institutions and social structures of ancient Near Eastern society, variously termed (1) the “dimorphic society,” with its symbiotic connection between urban and nomadic lifestyles, (2) the “palace-temple complex,” where these two major institutions serve as the locus of ancient social life, or (3) the “Asiatic mode of production,” referring to the “feudal” nature of the division of land and labor. To what extent, one may wonder, do sociological structures of this kind govern the economic relationships and ills presumed by the Jeremiah text? 

    We also have to ask questions about the social locations of the various actors within Israel's society and in the biblical text. In the case of the Jeremiah passage, we need to ask about the social status of the prophet in relation to the king. Depending on where we place the prophet in his social world, we will hear the prophet's denunciation in staggeringly different ways. Our understanding of the text changes radically if we think that Jeremiah's talk is that of a peasant farmer, an educated religious functionary, a dissident poet, or a provincial landowner at odds with the elite resident in the capital city. 

    A careful review of the social ethics of the Hebrew Bible must also take seriously the impact of the communities that produced and preserved these texts. The Torah and the prophetic literature, in particular, have passed through successive editorial grids which have stamped the received tradition with alternate, if not at times contrary, ideological and ethical perspectives. In the case of Jeremiah, we find ourselves asking several questions: Is this harsh social critique original to Jeremiah? Is the prophetic material echoing a more ancient tradition about social justice? How has the transmission and collection process created new images of the prophet as a voice in the community? 

    Various “classic” sociological statements from the early twentieth-century illustrate the variety of fruitful possibilities that open up to us when a sociological analysis is applied to the biblical text to illumine its social ethics. Max Weber alerts us to the sociological matrix of biblical law, helping us to see law as a product and mediator of social conflict. William Bizzell encourages us to locate prophetic social teaching in its socio-historical context, grounding sociological analysis in sound historical investigation. Antonin Causse suggests that we observe the values tendencies at work in the biblical narrative materials. Louis Wallis raises the issue of class divisions in the Bible and pushes to the front the question of who speaks for the poor in ancient Israel. 

    Since the mid-1970s, we have witnessed a marked resurgence in the social-scientific study of the biblical text. A reading of any of the more recent social-scientific forays into the biblical text reveal approaches that take advantage of (1) advances in sociological theory, (2) an increase in our knowledge of the ancient world, and (3) a more sophisticated understanding of the interface between theory and text. More recent discussions emphasize the necessity of using anthropological categories such as honor and shame, kinship patterns, in-group and out-group boundaries, patron-client relations, and social location as ways to jar loose the false modern assumptions biblical readers invariably bring to the text. 

    The social sciences can enable us to see in biblical ethics lived social realities, meaningful social interactions, signposts in various social worlds, and discourses reflective of struggles for social power. When used in conjunction with archaeological data and the literature of the ancient Near East, the social sciences can produce meaningful insights into the text and the society behind the text. Literary methods and source analysis can supplement those insights, producing a broad view of the social ethics debates and traditions of the biblical materials.


    As a totality, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah or Pentateuch) provide later tradition with the two great modes of theological discourse that are the cornerstones of Jewish social thought and practice, aggadah and halakhah. The former, aggadah, embraces story as reflected in the narrative strands of the Pentateuch. By contrast, its halakhic materials embrace that side of the Torah that is concerned with the formulation of legal decisions and the construction of a just commonwealth under the divine sovereign. 

    Prior to their compilation in our received Torah, the legal materials were marked by divergent editorial histories that are reflective of extensive and provocative encounters with the legal voice over the centuries in ancient Israel. By engaging these legal texts directly, we go to the heart of several key “justice” projects at work in the biblical tradition, allowing us to ask, from a variety of biblical perspectives, how the biblical legal and ritual traditions speak to the changing demands of the justice equation. Thus, while many today turn to the Hebrew prophets for their model of social critique and change, the biblical record joins its Mesopotamian neighbors in insisting that the voice of law, what Kaiser terms the “center of the Hebrew Bible,” is the primary institutional framework for constructing a society that embodies social ideals. 

    With roots that are not easy to reconstruct, the biblical law codes are clearly reflective of the long-lived Mesopotamian legal traditions. Through various “Ten Commandment” lists, however, the various strains of the Pentateuch sharpen the focus of biblical legal thought by creating an underlayer of “principles” that govern and measure the work of law-making. 

    While the Covenant Code of Exodus 21-23 undoubtedly has an independent history apart from the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the juxtaposition of list and code foster mechanisms by which biblical law can remain open to the changing conditions of social life, while still remaining true to the demands of the Exodus God. 

    This vision is realized most straightforwardly in Deuteronomy, where the laws rework significantly the Covenant Code, yet remain committed to the Ten Commandments as the framework for the expression of law. 

    The codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy incorporate major segments that respond to the situation of the weaker elements of society, namely debt-slaves and the poor. Thus, in practical terms, the codes outstrip the Ten Commandments by seeking to institutionalize avenues of assistance for those who would otherwise suffer from poverty and various forms of social injustice. While the specifics of the commandments do not call for such social practices, it is clear that the biblical writers have come to see in these provisions for the poor an outgrowth of the nation’s submission to the Exodus God. 

    If the Covenant Code of Exodus historically represents a negotiated arrangement between the royal house and (smaller) landholders outside the capital city, then we have in this code evidence of the dangers represented by the growing economic influence and social power of the monarchy, perhaps early in its history. Likewise, the legal material in Deuteronomy would represent a rather conscious attempt, at a much later date, to further regulate and cope with changing socio-economic conditions and political constraints in relation to the royal house. Deuteronomy updates the laws of the Covenant Code to meet the needs of a new era, a development that probably reflects the sentiments of Josiah’s supporters. 

    The Priestly legal materials of Leviticus and Numbers brings a rather complex ritual program to bear on the shaping of the priestly commonwealth after the exile. The parameters of such a community are established through a variety of provisions regarding “purity” and divine “holiness.” These conceptions undergird priestly legislation which encompasses sexual, communal, and familial matters. While there is no denying the marginalization of women in this scheme, even in the case of Genesis 1, nevertheless, the priestly legislation offers an almost utopian commitment to the rectification of the plight of the poor, even as the priestly writers’ works sought to secure the Aaronid hold on power in the commonwealth. 

    The prophetic writings stand in a rather ambiguous relation to the legal traditions of the Pentateuch. In many ways it appears that the prophets find little rooting in the traditions embodied in the Torah, a reality that allows them to bring to light injustices left unaddressed in the Bible’s legal traditions. More on the prophets later.


    While the law-making tradition was clearly taken up with matters of social obligation, justice, and the treatment of the disenfranchised, the Grand Narratives of the Hebrew Bible present us with a situation that is difficult to assess. While the poor are not the object of the ethical wrestlings of the historical sections of the Hebrew Bible, it is clear that institutional questions and socio-political issues abound in the narrative literature, particularly questions of royal, tribal, and priestly authority. 

    The editorial history of the Pentateuch and of the Deuteronomistic History (i.e., Deuteronomy through Kings, hereafter referred to as DH) is a minefield of scholarly discussion. Against criticisms of the J, E, D, and P consensus, as raised especially by the noteworthy efforts of scholars such as Rendtorff and Whybray (who have posed substantive questions about source analysis itself), we must insist that classic documentary analysis or source criticism contains an inner logic that is not thoroughly circular in character. We stick with the fourfold division of J, E, D, and P here, starting with the Deuteronimistic History.

    Whoever the writers are that are responsible for the DH, they are heavily invested in a recovery of the kingship as a useful institution—perhaps to counter priestly power. Yet at the same time the royal institution is no longer to be permitted to ride roughshod over the concerns of the community. Presumably those behind the composition and compilation of the initial edition(s) of the DH; i.e., the Josianic edition (if such there was) and the exilic DH (before any priestly redaction) were situated among the landed gentry of ancient Israel; i.e., those for whom, under the right conditions, monarchy could be a useful institution, especially against an encroaching temple establishment of the sort envisioned by P.

    While the DH is constructed around the doings of male heroes, royal figures, warriors, courtiers, priests, shamanistic prophets, and rivals, there is nonetheless an integral role for female figures in the fleshing out of the DH’s ideology of kingship and post-exilic royalist agenda. The successes and failures of the kingship in Israel and Judah are measured by women’s lives lived out as tragedies in the face of brutal abuses of male social power. Women join the DH’s plan of action when they confirm that power is with YHWH’s Judah, even in moments of uncertainty and duress. At times, for the DH, women can push the program forward, such as a Deborah, Jael, Abigail, or those many nameless “wise women” who are clever enough to side with the right side in the hour of struggle. 

    What about the other sources: J, E, and P? The books of Genesis to Numbers present us with a wide array of narratives which carry forward the competing social visions of the traditions that have come together to form this portion of the Torah. These conflicting social visions establish ideological matrices that combine theological constructs (such as covenant, blessing, fear of God, and purity) with pressing concerns about national survival, interaction with foreigners, the establishment of material security, the construction of a viable leadership, and the fostering of a ritual program for Judah’s exiles. 

    Source analysis allows us to unpack the scaffolding of several powerful narrative structures that were built on the quaking ground of Babylonian invasion and Persian triumph. These voices (J, E, and P) offer alternate social visions that run counter to that of the failed royalist project of the DH, ultimately yielding to the construction of a priestly commonwealth on this side of the exilic divide. Attempts by Kitchen, Millard, and Selman, in particular, have not convincingly eradicated the strong suspicion that the Patriarchal narratives bear, in large measure, the stamp of the monarchic period, if not simply the exilic and post-exilic eras. This is not to say that there are no elements of great antiquity in the patriarchal narratives, but it seems clear that the texts as a whole reflect the tensions and concerns of later periods. 

    J's political and social ideology is that of a community bent on struggling to survive exile. The project of restoration may have already begun, or at least with J those discussions are well underway. The community's two-fold task, for J, is to procreate and provide blessing, even as the curse looms large in the world. The community's pursuit of these communal and political ends must be such that even an embittered Pharaoh will in the end beg for that blessing from Israel (Exod 12:32). While J’s lore may be rooted in the ancient Judaean traditions, it is also clear that these traditions have been adapted in a vital way to the needs and demands of Judah’s exilic disruption.

    E evidences the bold strokes in a theological argument that makes God not only the God of Jerusalem but also a God who encompasses the shrines and peoples of the northern territories, locales that Nehemiah's and Ezra's reforms so desperately wished to embrace as they forged their new consensus in Israelite religion. E’s story of Joseph, if it can be read against the DH, has the effect of saying politically and ideologically that factionalism cannot be the way of Israel if the people hope to survive. Survival only comes when all are united as brothers of the promise. Is this unity to be provided by the North? Hardly. E’s Joseph story and E’s other narratives subtly embrace the North through the promises given to the House of David and the people of Judah. 

    In the P narratives, the priestly commonwealth, driven by a hierarchy sustained by the male household heads, the tribal groupings, and the procreative women, emerges as a formidable project, comprehensive in scope and structure. While it is possible that the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) has been written as a corrective to some of the ideas contained in P, it is nevertheless the case that this Code presupposes the hierarchical apparatus and ritual schema promulgated in the larger body of P texts. We do not find elsewhere outside of the Code talk of the Jubilee year, for example, yet the hierarchical and priestly social order envisioned throughout the Holiness Code has as its bedrock the P narrative materials strewn throughout Genesis to Numbers. The P narratives and the Holiness Code together establish a comprehensive priestly program that could hold its own against rival claimants who cloaked their alternative efforts in terms of royal or prophetic ideals. P does not appear to be seeking to embrace these other elements so much as to command them. 

    The Chronicler seeks more than simply a rehearsal of the known traditions. Rather, Chronicles stands as a creative alternative to the DH’s ideas regarding the monarchy, ritual reforms on the part of monarchs, the place of God’s compassion in Judah’s history, and the hope that can be held out to all the region’s inhabitants, both in Samaria as well as Judah. Unlike the DH which rests on the curse, or J which roots itself in blessing, or E which cultivates “fear” of God, or P which seeks a cleansing of the land, the Chronicler sets divine compassion as the lynchpin of its hopeful social vision.

    If poverty and injustice is not the focus of the Pentateuchal and DH narratives, then what is? Theological centerpieces for much of the social ethics of the historical writers are the broader matters of (a) land, (b) the family and procreation, (c) political power and leadership, (d) national sin, (e) proper worship and priestly authority, and (f) the nation’s survival. Whether singularly or in combination, these are the governing analytic categories for social ethics in this vast literature.


    In modern contexts of oppression, the ancient story of the God who leads slaves out of the harshness of oppression toward the promised land (Exodus 1-19) has had the power to capture the political imagination. African-Americans have long been inspired by this story. On a Latin American liberation reading, the Exodus story has functioned as a resource and guide for the Church's involvement in the task of human liberation. The pervasive appeal of the Exodus theme as a ground for liberation action is also evidenced by its impact on Christian discourse in the South African context. 

    Yet the story may not be as “liberating” as some would like: If the Hebrew Bible is infused with a primitive, developing, or stridently nationalistic view of God, then one needs to be cautious about using the Exodus, Conquest, or even prophetic texts when addressing modern socio-political situations. The “liberating” agenda we moderns hope to find in the text may actually cause us to overlook the unliberating aspects of the text. 

    As for the ancient context, the Exodus story bears striking resemblance to the cosmic battle myths known from Babylonian and Canaanite traditions. The biblical rendition witnesses the Israelite national god’s victory over Pharaoh at the Sea which gives way to the building of the wilderness tent shrine and the creation of a covenant people. The mythic origins and the obvious royal associations of the battle myth further complicate a modern liberation appropriation of the story of Exodus. 

    So if Exodus is not the manifesto of the ancient poor in their struggle against their oppressors, what is it for us moderns? Exodus is the mythic recasting of Israel's nationalist resistance to foreign domination. Exodus is a text replete with the political aims of the dominant class, not society's lowest echelons. In its various layers, the text represents the self-assertion of ancient Israel's priestly, monarchic, and tribal hopefuls. It is a document that undergirds the quest for national survival that plagued Israel for centuries. Exodus is not a document that in the end necessarily encourages internal social revolution of the sort envisioned by liberation writers. 

    The contrast between the Pharaohs of Genesis and Exodus tells us that there is room for good monarchic, priestly, and tribal hierarchies in the estimation of the various narrators. In this sense, the Exodus story is as far removed from a classless society as the rest of the biblical narrative materials are: God may indeed be on the side of the exploited, but the dominant code of the final form of the Exodus text is one that implies that God is more specifically on the side of a crushed nation which is seeking, either through priests, kings, or tribal leaders, to move out from under the yoke of foreign domination (or at least to manipulate the foreign powers) to pursue the nationalistic aims of its ruling elite. 

    Recognizing the mythical character of the Exodus narrative, one might nevertheless suggest that the early Israelites enshrined in this archaic poetry the eventual collapse of Egyptian political domination in Canaan after the long-lived reign of Ramesses II (1279-1212 B.C.E.), in particular during the reigns of Ramesses III (1198-1166 B.C.E.) and his successors. The Egyptian garrison presence and hold on Canaan is well known from the archaeological record. Extant monuments make it clear that this Egyptian presence had been of a striking military character. The collapse of this empire’s hold on its vassal states must have appeared as something of a miracle to those who long endured Egyptian subjugation. 


    As diverse as the narrative materials in Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Ruth, and Daniel may be in terms of content, with Nehemiah focused on rebuilding, Ezra consumed with law-making, Daniel laced with visions, Esther not even mentioning God, and Ruth pointing the way for halakhah (“law”), these works share more than a formal link as tales and novella of the Persian-Hellenistic age. Whether the figures are depicted working as emissaries of a foreign power (Ezra-Nehemiah), or inside the courts of those kings (Daniel, Esther), or as a foreigner finding a home (Ruth), each of these works tells fairly coherent stories of heroic figures who defy great odds to keep alive the Jewish community and its traditions. Taken together, these five books reach into the heart of the debates of the Persian and Hellenistic periods both for those in Judah who were attending to the reconstruction under foreign domination as well as those living outside Judah who were wrestling with the dilemmas of diaspora. 

    Careful attention to the growth of the Ezra-Nehemiah literary complex makes us aware of the changing shape of some of those debates. Whereas the historic Nehemiah may have been an architect-reformist, the theological and political debates shaped a figure who, along with Ezra, could speak to the ritual concerns and the broader opposition that threatened the community of the reconstruction. Still later, these literary figures would play a role in the crisis over intermarriage. 

    Works like Esther and Ruth reveal the integral character of women to the program envisioned in priestly circles. Granting the hierarchical and patriarchal cast of these texts, Esther and Ruth are nonetheless portrayed as active agents in the building up of a just commonwealth. In Ruth’s case, the accent is on the assistance to the poor, a key theme for P, whereas in Esther’s case, the emphasis is on personal integrity, loyalty to one’s people, and support for the community’s developing traditions. Both of these books shore up central aspects of this commonwealth’s social structures: The Book of Ruth invests itself in nurturing law, while Esther sustains the importance of the community’s ritual life. 

    Finally, the Book of Daniel envisions a post-imperial political vision, one in which a person of integrity might support foreign rulers when they act justly but does not fear acts of resistance when the commonwealth’s fundamental values and institutions come under foreign fire. 

    It is true that Rome’s military might would ultimately crush these structures, but the social visions of these five books continue to speak to the reforms and struggles integral to the construction of a more just society.

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