Some of you may recall, from around a year ago, that I posted from time to time on the relationship between law and ethics in the Pentateuchal social justice laws–were these laws moral rules of charity or genuine civil legislation of justice, and what did this tell us about the relationship between charity and justice more generally? To answer the question took six months of labor on a paper of many thousand words, with which I was still never quite satisfied, so I was quite bowled over, with a kind of exasperated delight, when I found Eric Nelson summarily deal with (resolve?) the whole question in one elegant paragraph in chapter 2 of The Hebrew Republic:
“The vision [of property rights] in question is epitomized by a striking semantic fact about the Hebrew language, well-known to Biblical scholars, but worth repeating in this context. Those of us whose languages use terms derived from Greek and Latin are used to marking a key lexical distinction between ‘justice’ (dike/iustitia) and ‘charity’ (charis/charitas). What distinguishes them is the element of personal discretion. If I give you a $5 bill to which you have a legal claim, this is an instance of justice, not charity; if, however, I give you a $5 to which you have no legal claim, this is an instance of charity, not justice. Hebrew recognizes no such dichotomy. The same Hebrew word (tzedek/tzedakah) refers both to the fulfillment of what we would regard as conventional legal obligations and to the performance of what we would regard as charitable acts. The reason is straightforward. In the Biblical worldview, God is regarded as the owner of all things and is therefore empowered to impose whatever conditions he wishes on the use of his property by human beings. Many of these conditions involve, for example, care for the poor and indigent, but precisely because these are legal obligations imposed by a rightful owner on his tenants, they are no more discretionary than, say, the payment of debts. The Hebrew Bible develops this into a theory of property according to which there is only one owner. As God says to Moses in chapter 25 of Leviticus, ‘the land is mine’ (Lev. 25:23).”
Yeah, I guess that’s pretty much what I was trying to say. Brilliant.