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Levitical Law as the Basis for Modern Economic Justice

We are thrilled to share with you The Justice Project’s Second Place Winner for our Writing Competition:

Levitical Law as the Basis for Modern Economic Justice
by Ted Goshorn

You shall and you shall not. So goes the pattern of law within the book of Leviticus. Many of the you shalls and you shall nots are much as one might expect of religious law: regulations on eating, sexual relations, and spiritual activity. Then there is the curious example of Leviticus 19:35-36a. It states, “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin…” (NRSV) Such a law proves foundational for the actions of the Israelites in their land and instructs us today.

The implications of this particular law in Leviticus are economic. They exist to ensure the maintenance of balance within an economic system. Cheating by merchants, the primary audience of the law, would affect in disproportion the poor, for it was the poor who came to the wealthier merchants to trade their goods. Where cheating of the poor occurs, according to Levitical law, the society has left the path of justice. Levitical law repeatedly admonishes the people to live lives of concern for and service to those marginalized by society. Should the Israelites meet this standard, prosperity would ensue. The Israelites failure to care for the marginalized, however, would create the basis for God’s judgment against them; in other words, an end to the prosperity.

While overtly religious, this standard holds implications for our time. In their society as well as ours, the lack of economic justice demonstrates the absence of a basic morality within society at large. Economic justice flounders under the weight of those who seek to get rich quickly through dishonest means or inequitable trading, demonstrating injustice when good economics, like Levitical law, demands balance. Capitalism may be far more complex than a bartering system like the one operative in Leviticus, but a basic standard remains the same: fairness to all those impacted by the system must govern all transactions.

The inclusion of this law within the greater holiness code of Leviticus demonstrates the foundational nature of economic justice for societies, while also setting a standard for economic behavior. Lining up our modern society against this standard seems condemning, and thus begs the question of how we move forward. The answer requires a trip back into Leviticus. Throughout this law code, God and the religious authorities constantly call on the people to remember times of prosperity. These times came because the people lived righteously, in other words, did justice for all people. In our own history, such a remembrance of justice brings to mind the passing of welfare programs, the Earned-Income Tax Credit, and the like; legislative moments that coincide with times of great prosperity for the United States. This coupling of prosperity with legislated economic justice demonstrates that a people committed to achieving justice for the poor can achieve prosperity because of that justice, rather than in spite of it. For societies then and now, Levitical law thus demonstrates prosperity comes because of economic justice.