The Responsible Judge: Readings in Judicial Ethics

By John T. Noonan Jr.; Kenneth I. Winston | Go to book overview
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A. The Impartiality of God

1. God Does Not Take Bribes

In the beginning, the idea of impartiality was difficult of conception. Where relations were determined by family or tribal status, the kind of impartiality that would rule out preference for family was unknown. With strangers, the rule was one of reciprocity. Only a lunatic would approach a powerful stranger who could affect one's fortune without having a gift in hand.

The ideal of impartiality seen in terms of the divine is described by John T. Noonan, Jr., in Bribes ( 1984), a history of the development of the concept of the bad or socially disapproved gift:

Inscriptions in Egyptian tombs of the third millennium BC convey the belief that after death the merits of the deceased will affect his future, but do not indicate how these merits will be ascertained or how fair the process of ascertainment will be. Scales had been invented by 3000 BC, a splendid symbol of objective judgment, once turned to this use. Near the end of the third millennium, between 2200 and 2050, tomb writings refer to "that balance of Re, in which he weighs ma-at." Re is the sun god. Ma-at is "Order," "Right," "Truth," "Justice." The scales in which Re weighs truth is now seen as the instrument of determining truth, the means of giving judgment. The symbol implies that the judgment is objective; nonetheless, it is also said that the deceased's "offerings [shall be] in front of him." The ambiguity is captured in a Coffin Text of the Middle Kingdom (post 2050), where a spell prays, "May your sin be erased by those who weigh in the balance on the day of reckoning characters." The weighers are invoked so they may cleanse the deceased before the weighing. Still, scales are expected to register the decisive verdict. Weighers open to influence co-exist with an objective measure.

Khun-Anup, whose story is roughly contemporary with this spell, knows of Anubis, the god who does the weighing, and Thoth, the god who is the recorder

-3-

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