The Origins of a Concept of Social Justice
HOWARD L. ADELSON
There is one example from the ancient world that contains the most complete paradigm of what is meant by social justice as distinct from righteousness or the call to upright living. In the Book of Nehemiah ( Slotki 1951) the tale is told of how a protest arose among the poorer Jews who were dwelling in Jerusalem after the return from Babylon ( Nehemiah 5.1-13; cf. Ackroyd 1970: 259). 1 The problem arose because of the social and economic privation to which the poorest elements of the population were subjected. Nehemiah, the royal governor of Judah, was angry that such a protest was even necessary, and he promptly consulted the more affluent members of the community (called in the text "the nobles and the rulers)." Nehemiah rebuked them for the injustice and inequality that was rampant in the land. He also called a "great assembly" of the multitude of the Jews. To them he repeated the complaint and exhorted them to cease oppressing the poor and to restore the lands and produce as well as a part of the money that had been usuriously exacted. To the probable amazement of Nehemiah, the rich promptly agreed to restore all that had been exacted from the poor in its entirety. Immediately Nehemiah summoned the priests and exacted an oath from the rich and powerful that they would fulfill what had been promised. Symbolically, Nehemiah then shook out his cloak from his lap and called for the punishment by God of those who failed to keep their oath. He said, "So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labor, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out and emptied." The people promptly assented by calling out "Amen," and they praised the Lord. Nehemiah also records that, in fact, they carried out their promise completely.
This story reveals the salient features of an act of social justice. In the first