Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

justice, the standard by which the benefits and penalties of living in society are distributed. The same basic meaning of justice is found throughout the different books and types of writing of the Bible despite the differing spheres to which it is applied. The pervasiveness of the concept of justice in the Bible can be veiled from the English reader by the fact that the original terms most approximating justice have been frequently translated in English as ‘righteousness’ and ‘judgment.’ A rule of thumb can be that when these terms appear in a context of social distribution or social conflict, ‘justice’ would be a better translation.

Foundation: Justice is founded in the being of God, for whom it is a chief attribute. As such, God is the sure defender of the poor and the oppressed (Jer. 9:23-24; Ps. 10:17-18). This care of God is universal (Pss. 76:8-9; 103:6). The Psalms ground it in God’s role as the sovereign creator of the universe (Ps. 99:1-4). The demands of God’s justice thus extend beyond the nation of Israel (Ps. 9:7-9; cf. Dan. 4:27).

Since the justice of God is characterized by special regard for the poor and the weak, a corresponding quality is demanded of God’s people (Deut. 10:18-19). When they properly carry out justice, they are agents of the divine will (Isa. 59:15-16). Paul presents God’s justice as a grace flowing into and through the believers to the needy (2 Cor. 9:8-10). The demand of God for justice is so central that other responses to God are empty or diminished if they exist without it (Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Matt. 23:23). Justice is demanded of all the people, but particularly of the political authorities (Jer. 21:11-12; Isa. 1:10, 17).

Focus: Justice is closely related to love and grace (Deut. 10:18-19; Hos. 10:12) rather than being a contrasting principle. It thus provides vindication, deliverance, and creation of community in addition to retribution. Need is the criterion for distributing benefits although the provisions do not exclude ability as a criterion once this priority is met. Thus the focus is upon the oppressed with particular attention given to specific groups, such as the poor, widows, the fatherless, slaves, resident aliens, wage earners, and those with physical infirmities (Job 29:12-17; Ps. 146:7-9; Mal. 3:5). Justice is associated with the basic requirements of life in community. Basic needs are basic rights. Thus what is literally ‘the justice belonging to the needy’ is properly translated as ‘the rights of the needy’ (Jer. 5:28, rsv). These rights, found by observing what matters are involved in the context of passages mentioning justice (cf. Job 24:1-12; 22:6-9, 23; 31:6, 17-19), include land (Ezek. 45:9), food and clothing (Deut. 10:18), and shelter (Job 8:6). While due process is not omitted (Exod. 23:1-3, 6-8), the dominating concerns are substantive, material, and benefit oriented. The context for the carrying out of justice is the creation of community and the preservation of people in it (Lev. 25:35-36; Job 24:5; Ps. 107:36; Luke 7:29-30).

Justice is a deliverance, rectifying the gross social inequities of the disadvantaged (Ps. 76:9). It puts an end to the conditions that produce the injustice (Ps. 10:18). Such redress will not be to the advantage of everyone in the community. The oppressed are raised; the oppressors are judged (1 Sam. 2:7-10; cf. Luke 1:51-53; 6:20-26).

Paul uses the language and meaning of justice to describe God’s work of salvation in his theme of ‘the righteousness of God.’ It occurs primarily in Romans, where he treats the inclusion of the Gentiles in the new order of redemption. By justice, God brings into community the Gentiles, who previously had no rights in the commonwealth of Israel.

See also: a topical index of online articles on "justice" at


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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