Friday, April 24, 2015

Justice or Judgment in Amos 5:24?

Should מִשְׁפָּ֑ט be translated in Amos 5:24 as “justice” or “judgment?” מִשְׁפָּ֑ט is primarily defined in BDB 4941 as “judgment” and “justice.” In the assigned literature (Hosea, Amos, and Micah), the noun appears 8 times. Modern translations translate מִשְׁפָּ֑ט in Amos 5:24 as “justice” (CEB, NRSV, NIV, ESV). I will, however, suggest that מִשְׁפָּ֑ט is best translated as “judgment” in Amos 5:24.

Amos 5:7’s use of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט is correctly translated as “justice” because God is exhorting Israel to return, but instead they have turned “מִשְׁפָּ֑ט” into wormwood, suggesting that a good thing has become corrupt (the CEB translation: “throw justice to the ground”). V.15 is another exhortation for the remnant to “establish justice,” and while God desires to be gracious, v.15 is somewhat more ambiguous. מִשְׁפָּ֑ט could be translated as “judgment” could be viewed positively as something done by the remnant. But “justice” seems more coordinate when paralleled with the call to “hate evil and love good,” especially in Amos 6:12 where there is a contrast as something good (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט) is turned into something that resembles “poison.” However, these references likely appear in a different paragraph from v.24, as the next paragraph seems to begin in v.18 and proceed to the end of the chapter. This potential break may illustrate that מִשְׁפָּ֑ט will be better translated as “justice” in v.24.

Hosea 5:11 states, “Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment” (NRSV). V.9 specifies that “Ephraim shall become a desolation in the day of punishment.” The references to being “punished” (v.2) and “devoured” in v.7 illustrate the judgment of God. 10:4 contains the other use of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט and it also seems to be better translated as “judgment” for two reasons: first, the reference to “litigation” (NRSV) rising up like “poisonous weeds” in v.4 suggests the destruction of a crop, which is the life for many. Second, the language of destruction following v.4 seems to affirm God’s judgment and the general usage of battle language in v.13-15. Hosea’s use of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט seems more coherent with “judgment.” Micah’s two references seem to affirm the translation of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט as “justice” as 3:9 concerns a perversion of something good, and in 6:8 “justice” seems more coordinate with “kindness” rather than judgment, which involves a more negative connotation.

This brings us to Amos 5:24. The use of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט seems most likely to be a reference to judgment, as the repeated expression “the Day of the Lord” (v.18, 20) may illustrate. The text in v.18 and v.20 specify to whom God is speaking: it is those who actually desire this Day of Judgment, which is a day of terror (Joel 2:31; Lam. 2:22). Is. 13:6 states this day of the Lord “will come like destruction,” which suggests an eschatological judgment. While I am not entirely settled on my choice, I find the translation of “judgment” in Amos 5:24 to be a better contextual fit, especially in light of the Day of God’s judgment. 

This study is of course limited, and I don't pretend that it is exhaustive. I was limited to 500 words. However, given the limitations, it is safe to say that Amos 5:24 is indeed best translated as "judgment." I also have not had Hebrew yet, so I am limited by that as well.

Of course, it is possible for "justice" and "judgment" to be two sides of the same coin, but I was not given the option of having my cake and eating it too. :)

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