God is my Judge.
For someone whose name means “God is my judge” it is not surprising that the theme of judgement is something of interest to me.
At first it was a scary thought. God is my Judge. That somehow meant that I would receive the punishment that I deserved, since I’m a bad girl. Where that thought—that I’m a “bad girl”—came from is a topic for another time, but the desire to find out what the meaning of judgement is in the Bible pushed me to do a thorough search.1
I started with the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, or Torah as these books are also called. The Pentateuch is the foundation of the Bible. The stories we encounter there are carried out to the rest of the Scriptures. Why not check that out first?
As it turns out, judgement is a word that was used much more often in the early Bible translations. The King James Version (KJV) has 340 occurrences in the Old Testament while The Living Bible (TLB) only has 78. The Pentateuch KJV (published in 1611) uses the word 64 times while TLB (published in 1971) only four. It looks like translators used that term less and less as the years passed. Perhaps it’s because the term judgement is sometimes openly, sometimes subtly juxtaposed to those of promise, justice and mercy. The message that seems to linger is that judgement is a negative idea.
When you think of the word judgement, what comes to mind? Is there a positive or negative connotation attached to it? Do you sometimes connect judgement and punishment as one and the same thing, or one that inevitably leads to the other?
When considering the term judgement being increasingly less used in the Old Testament translation, one wonders if the Hebrew words which the KJV translated judgement are many, or few, and whether a new understanding of their meaning has come to light.
Turning to the Pentateuch, we find that three main Hebrew words are used for judgement: dîn, špt and mšpt. I decided to check every single verse in the Pentateuch that uses any of these three words and to check the words grammatically and then consider the context in which they are found to determine what their meaning would be.
For example, when Sarai said to Abram “May the LORD judge between you and me” (Genesis 16:5), what did she want to happen? When the Israelites in Egypt told Moses and Aaron “May the LORD look upon you and judge you!” (Exodus 5:21), what did they want God to do?
In 113 verses of the Pentateuch, these Hebrew words are found 120 times. Yes, sometimes twice in one verse. That is quite a bit of checking to do, and this article does not allow such in-depth study. So, let’s look at Genesis 16:5—one example—and then I’ll share the conclusion of the whole study.
“Then Sarai said to Abram, ’You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me’.”
The sentence “May the LORD judge between you and me” points out that there are two people in question: “you” (Abram) and “me” (Sarai). There is a call upon a third party to be involved—the LORD. There is a problem in the relationship between “you” and “me” that needs to be sorted out, and Sarai is appealing to God to be the third party Who will solve this problem.
What is the context here?
Sarai has given Abram her Egyptian maidservant as a wife. She was following a well-established custom of the time.2 Abram agreed to have Hagar as his wife, and as a consequence of their union, Hagar became pregnant. In that condition she felt her status rise significantly, so much so that she despised Sarai, her mistress. The situation must have become unbearable since Sarai spoke to Abram. She considered him the one responsible for the situation. Abram who was the head of the family and the big household had the responsibility “to keep things in order”.3 If Sarai was suffering so, he did not perform his duty well. He did not keep his other wife in check, so that there was peace and order in the household. Sarai had a problem with Hagar, but it was Abram’s responsibility to sort this out. Since he failed, she was calling on God to see this case.
The Ancient Near Eastern practice regarding the solving of quarrels or controversies also helps in understanding the meaning of “judge” in this text. If a quarrel (rîb) occurred between two parties, they could either solve it themselves or have a judge adjudicate between them. “The two contesting parties present their respective arguments to the judge, and he then decides between them. The judge is therefore an arbitrator whose principal purpose it is not to punish, but to solve disputes.”4 Sarai is not asking God to punish Abram, but to decide who is right and who is wrong.
The verb špt is used with a jussive force,5 which can be translated with “let him . . .” It is an encouragement to God to do something for the despised and suffering person. The real meaning is “Let the Lord decide who is right, you or me.”
The context seems to indicate that Sarai was sure of being right in this situation, and that God will make such a decision known, so that the matter can be settled. She called upon God to decide justly, to vindicate her, to save her from mistreatment.
What about the rest of the verses that have the three Hebrew words used for judgement?
Does judgement in the Pentateuch have positive or negative connotations? Based on the study of the Hebrew words for judgement (dîn, špt and mšpt) the answer is clear: positive. Out of 120 times where those words are in the Pentateuch, the meaning of punishment is found only three times. The conclusion is that judgement in the Pentateuch is a decision followed by an action, based on informed reasoning. Its main purpose is to vindicate, help and defend the innocent.
I’d say, bring on the judgement!
But what about the rest of the Bible? Does it matter in which part of the Bible the word is found? Has the meaning become different or increasingly more negative as we read the Bible?
This is a question for someone else to answer. But for now, Danijela, whose name means God is her Judge—like Sarai in the Bible—can with joyful anticipation wait for God to judge her, as she knows that God will make a just decision in her favour, vindicating her faithfulness and reliance on Him. One day she will live forever in a just world, because God is the ultimate Judge.
1. Danijela Schubert, Meaning of Judgement in the Pentateuch: A Word Study (Place: Lap Lambert Academic Publishing, 2012).
2. Victor Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 444, offers several examples from the Ancient Near East that would indicate this was a well-established custom in the area.
3. WE Vine, Merrill Unger, and William White Jr, eds, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (Nashville: Nelson, 1985), 125.
4. R de Vaux, “Les institutions de l’Ancien Testament 1”. In “The Reversal of Creation in Hosea” by Michael Deroche. Vetus Testamentum XXXI, 4 (1981): 408.
5. J Weingreen, A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 88.
Danijela Schubert is South Pacific Division project assistant field secretary and Ministerial Association secretary .She has two adult sons and lives with her husband in Melbourne, Vic.