Across the Pastor’s Desk: Bad grammar speaks godly words
Across the Pastor’s Desk by Todd Walsh
There is an unusual verse in the Bible.
That may seem a peculiar way to start a column.
There are quite a number of them, but this one is a grammatical oddity. It is in fact bad grammar. But therein lies its point and punch.
The first part of Deuteronomy 16.20 reads, “Justice justice you shall pursue.”
That is a literal translation. You can see the problem. Even my grammar checker in Word is showing red in the passage.
The uniqueness of the passage lies in how the Hebrew language works. Biblical Hebrew does not allow for all caps in a passage. There is only one way to write the letters. There is also no way to bold the letters, and there are no punctuation marks. That means no exclamation mark.
Translators have struggled with the passage.
New Revised Standard reads, “Justice and only justice you shall pursue.”
The venerable King James Version is a bit more flowery and gives us, “That which is altogether just shalt thou follow.”
The repetition of the word justice is for emphasis. It is the ancient equivalent of bold-faced, underlined all-caps. And the meaning is that it is saying, “This is important! Pay attention to this.”
So what is the story here? This section of Deuteronomy is about naming tribal judges. There are instructions for them. And one of them is this passage. It’s pretty obvious that there is a need to emphasize the central purpose of the judges. It is justice.
The biblical prophets pushed the understanding of the passage to include the kings of Israel and Judah. And their words were not kind to the kings. Later rabbinic interpretation pushed the application out to all Jews with the justification that the passage is a summation of the Torah’s protections of everyone, especially including the vulnerable (“orphans and widows”) and outsiders (“the alien in your land”).
So what does Jesus say about the passage? The New Testament does not record him quoting it. So does that mean we are off the hook on pursuing justice as Christian people? By no means, to borrow the words of a great biblical scholar who met Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Our Lord dedicated his earthly life to reaching out to and making a difference in the lives of the everyone he met. He went out of his way to touch the lives of the vulnerable and those society called outsiders. He spoke harsh words for leaders who took advantage of those they were meant to serve and instead served themselves. Is it any wonder that the leaders of that day went after him and arranged his earthly demise?
Consider also the most familiar and favorite Bible passage, John 3.16.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Here we see God’s aim to reach out to us. There can be no question that we are vulnerable in God’s eyes and in need of ultimate attention.
Our Lord Jesus did not seek his own way for his life. He served humanity throughout his life and gave his life for ours. He is the embodiment of Deuteronomy 16.20. He is the model and inspiration for our behavior and our lives. His life can be lived in our homes. His life can apply to what happens on the playground and the workplace. His words can inspire each of our days.
There are some who say that repeating yourself is a sign of old age or worse. I find comfort that even the Bible repeats itself. We are in good company. And what better repetition than to speak and live words that point to the way of life that is heaven-sent and has come down to earth in the person and message of Jesus. Justice. Justice. You shall pursue.
Todd Walsh is the director of spiritual care services at Thorne Crest Senior Living Community in Albert Lea.