In a previous post, “Amos and Social Justice,” I wrote that justice and righteousness were the focus of Amos’ message. In that post I studied the ways in which the word “justice” was used in Amos. In the present post, I will discuss how the NIV uses the word “justice” in the book of Amos.
The message of Amos contains a strong criticism of the royal officials of the Northern Kingdom and of those who administered justice in the courts because they were undermining the legal system of Israel in order to exploit the underprivileged and drive the peasants away from their patrimony. Because of the legal decisions made by dishonest judges, many landowners became tenants of a rich class of people who abused the legal system to take possession of their lands.
Amos used the word “justice” (mishpat) to criticize the royal officials, the judges, and the rich people for the perversion of the judicial process in Israel. In his commentary on Amos, James L. Mays wrote:
“In Amos mishpat is specifically associated with the court in the gates and means the judicial process and its decisions by which right order is maintained in social relations, and especially the protection of [the] weak and poor through the help of the court” (p. 108).
Mays also wrote:
“When the poor and afflicted come to the courts of justice they are dealt out the very same injustice from which they sought relief. To Amos, who will allow Israel no other identity and way of life than that given her in the election of Yahweh, such a reversal of things staggers the mind, and he can only compare it to some incredible perversion of the normal order of things” (p. 121).
The word “justice” (misphat) appears four times in the book of Amos: three times the word appears in association with “righteousness” (sedaqa) and once the word appears alone:
“O you who turn justice (misphat) to wormwood, and cast down righteousness (sedaqa) to the earth” (Amos 5:7).
“But let justice (misphat) roll down like waters, and righteousness (sedaqa) like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
“But you have turned justice (misphat) into poison and the fruit of righteousness (sedaqa) into wormwood” (Amos 6:12).
“Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice (misphat) in the gate” (Amos 5:15).
Anyone who desires to understand the message of Amos should read the book in light of Amos’ emphasis on social justice. A study of the word “justice” as its appears in the book of Amos will help the reader see Amos as a prophet who spoke against evil in the public place.
Unfortunately, the NIV is not a good place to go for a study of the word “justice” in Amos. The reason for this statement is because the NIV is not consistent in its use of the word “justice” in the book of Amos. Twice the NIV uses the word “justice” in places where the word mishpat is not used in the Hebrew text. Those readers of the Bible who do not know Hebrew will think that the word “justice” in those additional places has the same meaning as the word “justice” in the verses where the Hebrew word mishpat appears.
In Amos 2:7, the NIV reads:
“They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.”
The Hebrew should be translated as follows: “They turn aside the way of the afflicted.” This translation is followed by the RSV: “they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted.”
The NIV used the word “justice” and translated the expression “to turn aside the way” by “deny justice” even though Amos did not use the word mishpat. Wolff said that the Hebrew expression “to turn aside the way of the afflicted” “is an abbreviated equivalent of ‘to pervert the courses of justice’” (p. 166). Mays wrote that to “‘turn aside the way of the afflicted’ is a locution for the perversion of legal procedure. ‘Way’ (derek) is a synonym for ‘justice’ (mishpat)” (p. 46).
Only the NIV and the TNIV use the word “justice” in Amos 2:7. All other translations do not use the word “justice” to clarify the message of Amos.
In Amos 5:12, the NIV reads:
“You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”
The Hebrew should be translated as follows: “You who oppress the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.” This translation is followed by the RSV: “you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.”
The NIV, by using the word “justice” here, is following a common practice in the Hebrew Bible where the word natah (“to turn aside”) usually occurs together with the word mishpat (Exodus 23:6; Deuteronomy 16:19; Proverbs 17:23). However, although the word natah is used, the word mishpat does not appear in Amos 5:12.
Only the NIV, the TNIV, the NET, the HCSB, and the Living Bible use the word “justice” in Amos 5:12. The New King James Version also uses “justice,” but the word is in italics to indicate that the word is not in the Hebrew text and has been added to clarify the meaning of the English translation.
What distinguishes Amos and his use of mishpat is that he is the first one to use the word together with sedeqa. As Wolff has pointed out, “this word pair is completely unknown in Israel’s legal collections in the Pentateuch” (p. 245). After Amos, Isaiah used the words misphat and sedaqa together three times (1:21; 5:7; 28:17). The two words again appear in wisdom literature, in the Psalms, and in Jeremiah. Wolff concludes that the use of the words misphat and sedaqa in the Hebrew Bible clearly indicates that Amos was the first one to use them together.
By using the words “justice” in Amos 2:7 and 5:12, the NIV is trying to clarify to its readers the legal meaning behind these two verses. However, in doing so, the NIV may leave the impression in the mind of some readers that the Hebrew word mishpat is behind the translation of “justice” in Amos 2:7 and 5:12.
Any translation of the Bible must clarify the original text for its readers but, at times, the inconsistency of the NIV does not help the English speaking reader grasp the significance of the use or non-use of specific words by the prophet. Some people may see in the NIV an example of moderation and others may call the TNIV “maligned”; I would call both translations: inconsistent.
James L. Mays, Amos (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969).
Hans W. Wolff, Joel and Amos (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969).
Other Studies on Amos
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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