Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Enrique Nardoni, Rise Up, O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World (trans. Seán Charles Martin; Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004). Pp. xxiii + 343. Paper, US$29.95. ISBN 1-56563-530-2.

Nardoni's book is a translation of a 1997 work, Los que buscan la justicia: Un estudio de la justicia en el mundo bíblico, intended for college and seminary teachers and students, religious educators, and leaders of grass-roots or base ecclesial communities in Latin America, as a guide to biblical texts on social justice. Furthermore, the book intends to “counteract a reading of these biblical texts dominated by ideological interests in which eisegesis is more prominent than exegesis” (p. xiii). Nardoni's chief concern is reading legal texts regarding the poor and oppressed to see how justice was administered, how abuses of power were critiqued and oppressive structures were condemned in antiquity. Nardoni also wants to relate the biblical text to the contemporary scene and makes many references throughout the book to the “modern reader” and his/her context (cf. pp. 72, 75, 89), to “allow them to be transformed from spectators into participants” (p. xiv, 322). The English edition is a revision of the Spanish edition, adding footnotes, new paragraphs, and updating the bibliographies after each chapter.

The book is composed of thirteen chapters. Chapter One touches upon “Justice in Ancient Mesopotamia” towards the poor and oppressed, and the responses of government and popular piety regarding them. Social conflicts between the social classes threatened national stability and compelled the ruling class to instigate social reforms, as seen in the reforms of Entemena, Urukagina, and Gudea and the law codes of Ur-Nammu, Lipit-Ishtar, Eshnunna and Hammurabi. Nardoni concludes that despite repeated reforms and new codes of law, it was difficult to eliminate class exploitation and oppression, even though these reforms and codes held the king accountable to his actions. Chapter Two focuses on the concept of maat (truth-justice) in ancient Egypt with the pharaoh and his court who was to be her mediator. As in the case of Mesopotamia, the practices of maat did not extend to the poor, but primarily profited the Egyptian rich and powerful.

Chapter Three discusses the “Exodus as the event of liberating justice”. Nardoni is critical of liberation theologians and scholars, e.g. Croatto, Pixley, and Gottwald, who posit a socio-revolutionary struggle behind the stories of Israel's liberation from Egyptian slavery. He prefers to see the event as divine intervention in human history. He seems here to be countering those readings that he thinks are dominated by “ideological interests,” while overlooking the fact that his own reading is just as ideologically motivated. In Chapter Four, Nardoni investigates the exercise of justice toward the needy and weak in the Israelite legal codes in Exodus and Deuteronomy. While observing that the Mesopotamian and Egyptian reforms and law codes primarily served the interests of the ruling elites, Nardoni does not turn this same critical eye to the Israelite law codes themselves, preferring to take them at face value. Recent scholarship on the marginalized, however, is less sanguine about the socio-political motivations of the biblical lawgivers (see Harold V. Bennett, Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers, and Orphans in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).

It is significant that in Chapter Five, Nardoni moves from the Exodus/Sinai period to the period of the monarchy and prophecy, skipping the period of the conquest and settlement. The Exodus as “the event of liberating justice” for the Israelites has as its end result the unjust seizure of land and the oppression of its indigenous population. This contradiction regarding “justice for whom?” is not explored. For Nardoni, the “prophets were the champions of social justice—the moral conscience of the kings and the powerful ones of society” (p. 100), and Nardoni is on good ground here. Chapter Six briefly deals with justice and the poor in the Psalms and Wisdom literature. As in his discussion of the legal codes, Nardoni does not consider the social location of the author(s) of Proverbs among the wealthy urban elites which may account for their patronizing attitudes towards the poor. In Apocalyptic literature (Chapter Seven), justice toward the poor and an end to oppression takes on an eschatological flavor. In the remaining chapters, Nardoni treats justice in Jesus' ministry, Mark, Matthew and the Letters of James, Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Paul's letters, and the Johannine corpus.

The strength of this book is its coverage of the whole biblical corpus, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures, on the themes of social justice for the poor and oppressed. A student of the Bible is able to see the range of perspectives on social justice in legal, prophetic, wisdom, gospel and epistolary literatures. The book achieves quite well its purpose as an entrée for students and base communities to learn about what the Bible says about justice. The broad scope of the book, however, necessarily limits a deeper socio-political analysis of the texts themselves, particularly the legal and Wisdom literature. As Nardoni observed with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian material, these texts often served the political and economic interests of the elites who produced them and not the interests of the poor and marginalized. The biblical texts present the ideals regarding justice in the biblical world, not the actual practice of it. For this, a deeper analysis is needed.

A number of typographical errors mar the book, particularly in the transliteration of languages. (See especially, pp. 9, 22, 24-5).

Gale A. Yee, Episcopal Divinity School