Human Rights in the Old Testament

Human Rights

Picture: Execution of Prisoners in Tikrit

Credit: ISIS

Public Radio International is reporting that the United Nations Human Rights Committee is investigating claims by ISIS that it has killed 1700 captured prisoners of war. The following is an excerpt from the news release:

The United Nations human rights office says it has corroborated reports of a massacre in Iraq. Islamic rebels, known as ISIS, claim to have shot dead 1700 captured Iraqi government soldiers and security officials. The rebels have released video and still images of the purported killings.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This group is also known as ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. ISIS is an al-Qaeda affiliated Jihadist militant group in Iraq and Syria which desires to establish a Caliphate—a Islamic state.

The photo above, provided by ISIS shows the detainees being executed at a site near Tikrit in Iraq. Both the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Human Rights Watch, an organization based in New York, are investigating the claims made by ISIS to see whether the execution took place or whether the picture has been staged for propaganda purposes.

In the sectarian conflict that is taking place in Iraq, the rights of individuals are being violated. This is the reason why the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the American Human Rights Watch are investigating the claims made by ISIS.

The biblical concept of human rights is based on the nature of human beings as created in the image and likeness of God. The concept of human beings as special individuals is found in the creation story found in Genesis 1.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).

The Old Testament view of human beings is unique because they were created to live in relationship with God. Thus, human beings find their full humanity only as they live in relationship with the Creator. Human beings are also responsible to God for maintaining God’s creation. Thus, human beings know themselves as they know the God who created them.

When we compare the creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, it becomes clear that in Genesis 2 that man was created almost in the same way the animals were created. Both were created out of the ground (Genesis 2: 7, 19) and both are called nephesh hayyah, “living beings” (Genesis 2:7, 19).

In Genesis 1, human beings are never called nephesh hayyah. It is the image of God in humans that makes them humans. It is because human beings have a special relationship with God that they can be distinguished from the animals. Human beings have a mission in the world as God’s representatives.

But the relationship between God and human beings was broken because of sin. The Old Testament pictures sin as disobedience to God’s will. Human beings were created to live in relationship with God, but this is not a relationship of equals. Human beings must live and act within certain limits in order to maintain their relationship with God.

In order to bring humanity back to himself, God brought Israel out of Egypt, made them a special people, gave them a mission in the world, and set them apart from the other nations by establishing a covenant with Israel.

God also gave Israel a set of laws to help Israel live a holy life in the world. One important aspect of these laws was the concern for the rights of individuals in Israel, both the natives and the foreigners.

For example, several laws in the Old Testament deal with the humane treatment of slaves. The treatment of slaves in Israel was based on the fact that Israel had been a slave in Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (Deuteronomy 15:15).

Another example was Israel’s treatment of the aliens in their society. The people were to care for aliens and foreigners who lived in Israel because they had been foreigners in Egypt: “You must not oppress a foreigner, since you know the life of a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9 NET).

In the same way, Israel should take care of the poor because at one time, they were also poor: “If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:35-38).

Thus, the rights of individuals in Israel are based on what God has done for Israel. What God has done for Israel should be the moving force behind what an Israelite does for the less fortunate in their society.

The true basis for human rights in the Old Testament is the nature and the character of God. Those who despise God also despise their neighbor: “Those who mock the poor insult their Maker” (Proverbs 17:5).

The qualities God requires of every human being are the same qualities God displays in his relationship with people. In his book Theology of the Old Testament, Jacob wrote: “If man’s nature can be defined by the theme of the image of God, his function can be qualified as an imitation of God” (1958:173).

Jeremiah gives a good description of God’s qualities in his relationship with people: “If people want to boast, they should boast about this: They should boast that they understand and know me. They should boast that they know and understand that I, the LORD, act out of faithfulness, fairness, and justice in the earth and that I desire people to do these things, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:24 NET).

The biblical concept of human rights is better defined as human responsibility. How people treat one another should be based on the awareness of what God has done for them. Each person has an unconditional obligation to treat another human being with dignity because that person bears God’s image.

It is because of the image of God in humans that God demands that humans respect the life of others: “Whoever sheds human blood, by other humans must his blood be shed; for in God’s image God has made humankind” (Genesis 9:6 NET).

The reason the Jihadists killed hundreds of people is because they do not recognize the image of God in those whose lives they took. Only when an individual lives in right relationship with God will they learn how to respect the life and the rights of others. By killing those people, the Jihadists infringed on the rights given to them by their creator.

The Old Testament has much to teach about human rights. Since the rights of individuals are based on God’s character as the Creator, those who deny an individual his or her rights is rejecting God and rebelling against God’s will for his creation.

Let me conclude by quoting what Routledge said about the implications of being created in the image of God:

“Human beings are created in the image of God and this has several implications for ethical conduct. First, all human beings are called to reflect the character of the one in whose likeness they have been made; this has particular significance for the life of the people of God, but also has implications for the conduct and accountability of all people. Second, it emphasizes the sanctity of human life. . . . Third, it stresses the equality of human beings and the importance of proper conduct toward others, who are also made in God’s image” (2008:248).

Note:

1. On this day, June 18, 1948, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted its International Declaration of Human Rights.

2. Many ideas for this post were adopted from an article by Alfred Bloom, “Human Rights in Israel’s Thought: A Study of Old Testament Doctrine,” Interpretation 8 (1954): 117-123.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Bibliography:

Bloom, Alfred. “Human Rights in Israel’s Thought: A Study of Old Testament Doctrine.” Interpretation 8 (1954): 117-123.

Jacob, Edmond. Theology of the Old Testament. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1958.

Routledge, Robin. Old Testament Theology. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

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2 Responses to Human Rights in the Old Testament

  1. jkdoyle says:

    Dr. Mariottini

    This was a good post, and I agree with it; but I also struggle deeply that the above ISIS image could correspond to the decrees to kill all the inhabitants of areas/cities that Israel conquered and enemies that they later encountered (such as God’s decree to Saul to destroy the Agag and his people). I know these were rare in terms of the total story of the Hebrew narrative, but they are disturbingly there. How do you address this?

    Thanks
    Jimmy

    Like

    • Jimmy,

      Thank you for your comment. You have a good point in your comment and the answer to your questions is not easy.

      What we find in the Old Testament is what is called “the rhetoric of war.” It is like when the Chicago Bears plays the Green Bay Packers and the Bears win by a large margin. People say: “The Bears killed the Packers.” In this case, no one got killed.

      When you read the Old Testament, Joshua was ordered to kill all the Canaanites, but most of the Canaanite people were not killed. Saul was ordered to kill the Amalekites, but David still had to fight the Amalekites. The Amalekites were not killed because they were still alive in the post-exilic time (1 Chr. 4:43). The idea behind these commands was a call for total victory against the enemy.

      There is no doubt that the Israelites killed many Canaanites. ISIS has killed many Iraqis. It is the New Testament that gives us a better perspective on how to deal with our enemies.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

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