Photo and Article by David G. Garber, Jr.
“Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
While these may sound like the musings of an ancient sage, these are the words of the late Bruce Lee. He used the metaphor of water to describe not only how his body moved when practicing martial arts, but also his life philosophy. In this quote, Lee captured the evasive essence of water and illustrates its use as a powerful metaphor, a literary technique the Hebrew prophets often used.
Amos employs the metaphor of water to express one of the most poignant and memorable descriptions of justice: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Like Lee's understanding, the water metaphor was also multivalent for the ancient Israelites. The Hebrew term, “roll down” describes the billowing of the sea or the flowing motion of a river. The parallel description of righteousness emphasizes the constancy of a continually flowing force for well-being.
As we know, water is one of the major building blocks for life, making up over half of the composition of the human body. But even with an ancient pre-scientific worldview, the Israelites deeply acknowledged the life-giving nature of water. They settled alongside the river valleys in order to use water to irrigate their crops. They understood the necessity of water when they recounted the narratives of their ancestors wandering in the desert of Sinai. God could withhold water as judgment during times of great drought (e.g., 1 Kgs 17-18) or use its power to render judgment as in the great flood (Gen 6-9).
Just as the imagery of water is flexible, the concepts of justice and righteousness throughout the Old Testament are also fluid. At times, the term mishpat simply refers to a decision made by God through the consultation of the Urim or the casting of lots (e.g., Num 27:21, Prov 16:33). The term also refers to formal community decisions, such as in the description of the prophet, Deborah, who would sit under a tree and render decisions for the tribes of Israel (Judges 4:4-5). At other times, mishpat clearly refers to the process of a trial, as in the case of someone accused of manslaughter (Num 35:12). The term “justice” can refer to the punishments that God brings upon the Egyptians (Exod 6:6) or the rules by which God demands that the Israelites order society (Deut 6:1).
The companion term to justice has multiple layers as well. The root term for righteousness, tsedeq, can refer to a judgment's moral correctness (Psalm 19:10), a person's virtue (e.g., Gen 38:26, Job 34:5) or the legal declaration of a person's innocence (Job 4:17). Isaiah 48:18 also uses the imagery of water in conjunction with the term for righteousness. YHWH laments that if the people would merely have heeded the commandments, their righteousness (translated as “success” in the NRSV) would have rolled forth like the waves of the sea.
Within the context of Amos, God has been issuing judgments against the people of northern Israel, primarily for the economic injustices of the upper class against the poor. YHWH promises punishment to the people, “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals” and they “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7). They have mocked God's principles of justice and righteousness (5:7) and have despised those who declare truth in the public square (5:10). Sickened by the opulence of the rich in society, God decides to make all of their efforts for financial gain and security a pursuit after the wind (5:11). God eschews the religious pomp and circumstance of the wealthy and yearns for the time when justice and righteousness will flow again in the land (5:24).
In my years of teaching at McAfee, I have witnessed a swelling concern for social justice in the wider Christian culture and among our students. Many of them, like Amos or Micah before them, have recognized the gross injustices in our communities, both locally and globally. Many of our students have witnessed the perpetual state of war in our country and abroad, the increasing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the rising costs of education, the constant gender and ethnic inequality, and the many injustices in our criminal “justice” system. Their recognition of our society living in the desert of injustice has left them with a thirst for righteousness and justice, and many are contemplating how they might incorporate concerns for justice into their vocational goals.
Several such students have taken my course on social justice in the Old Testament, and I am frequently inspired by their deep passion for and knowledge of particular causes on the local, national and global levels. In my current class, students are researching topics such as the conceptions of wealth and poverty in Proverbs, the ethics of hearing traumatic witness in the book of Job, rape culture in our current society and in biblical narratives, the death penalty, the care of orphans and the like. But Amos, like many other Hebrew prophets, does not merely ask us to theorize or conceptualize what the flowing waters of justice might look like. The Hebrew prophets call for action beyond theory.
After their initial research in the class, students will devise an “action plan,” a set of ideas for future work based on what they learned. These plans can be as simple as educating congregations on particular justice-oriented issues or as complex as using their research as the seed for a non-profit organization or movement.
My dream for current students and alumni is that when they look back on their career, they might remember the trickling springs of justice in their formative years of ministry and see how, through partnership with their communities and peers, those tiny springs have conjoined to form mighty rivers of justice that shape the topography of the Christian culture and beyond.
To read more about “Ministry on the Margins” see the Fall Issue of Tableaux.
Dr. David G. Garber, Jr. is the Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at McAfee. He teaches courses in Old Testament, Hebrew Exegesis, Social Justice in the Old Testament, The Theology of Ezekiel, The Bible and Popular Culture, and The Book of the Twelve. In his research, Dr. Garber explores the usefulness of trauma theory as an interpretive lens for biblical study.