Justice versus Mercy in the Hebrew Bible

By Richard Hagenston

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 2
March – April 2018
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Since traditional Christianity assumes that Jesus died for the sins of others, I have long wondered why most Christians don’t think to ask where that idea came from. In fact, in the time of Jesus the idea that God’s forgiveness requires a bloody death was just one of two highly conflicting concepts of God, both of which are reflected in the New Testament. The question is, is God primarily a God of justice or a God of mercy? How these two concepts evolved and were later understood helps explain how Jesus could come to be seen both as a sacrificial Lamb of God (John 1:29) and a teacher who followed John the Baptist’s practice of bypassing the sacrificial system.

Is God primarily a God of justice or a God of mercy?

To uncover the origins of the tension between justice and mercy, we need to go back to the time when Israel, which was united as a single kingdom under David and his son Solomon, split in two after Solomon’s death around 922 BCE. Solomon’s taxation policies had caused unrest, especially in regard to perceived favoritism to the southern part of the kingdom and the capital city of Jerusalem. The formal split—into a southern kingdom, Judah, with its capital and religious center in Jerusalem, and a northern kingdom, Israel, with its capital in Shechem and worship centers in Dan and Bethel—came after Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, proved to be even harsher than his father (see 1 Kings 11–12).

Two kingdoms, two histories

These two kingdoms had much in common, in particular a shared heritage of the origins of their people. But they also had differences in which each positioned itself as the most authoritative when it came to tradition and religious practice. That heritage and those differences led to the writing of two significant documents which were likely based on the work of earlier scribes and editors who, in turn, had drawn on stories that had been handed down orally.

Today biblical scholars commonly call those documents J and E for the Hebrew words that they use for God. One was written in the southern kingdom of Judah and is commonly designated J for Yahweh, actually the divine name which begins with the letter J in the German language of the scholars who pioneered this source theory. E was written in the northern kingdom of Israel. It gets its designation from its use of the word Elohim for God. Today we find J and E interwoven in the early books of the Bible, but they were once separate. And, as we will see, they also came to be interwoven with another document now commonly called P that we will look at in more detail later.

In spite of their similarities concerning the history of the Israelites, J, E, and P differ enough in emphasis, style, and vocabulary that scholars have been able to identify which passages of the Bible likely originally belonged to each. This scholarship dates back more than two centuries and has followed a path that sometimes reads like a detective story. The work goes on, but many biblical scholars are in general agreement about the broad framework. Concerning the identity of these documents and their significance, I will largely be guided by the presentation of Richard Elliott Friedman in his book Who Wrote the Bible? 1

The kingdoms of Israel and Judah coexisted for two centuries. Then in the year 722 BCE Assyria conquered the northern kingdom, and it disappeared forever. Many of its people were led off to exile, but others were able to go south to safety in Judah. Some of those who fled to Judah brought E with them, and that posed a problem. There was now just one kingdom but two histories, E and J, which were similar in many ways but with significant differences of special importance to the peoples of the original kingdoms in which those documents were written. Adopting both of them could prove awkward. However, keeping one and discarding the other would cause considerable dissent. In an attempt to resolve the matter, anonymous scribes employed some skilled and diplomatic editing to weave them together into a document that modern scholars now commonly call JE. 2

The consolidation of documents—J with E, and later with P—led to doublets (two versions of the same event) that can be found in the early books of the Hebrew Bible. When the doublets in J and E differed, sometimes both were preserved and sometimes a portion of each was used to craft a single story. Friedman provides multiple examples. One is the “theophany of Moses,” a direct encounter of Moses with God. It begins with a portion of E (Exod 33:12–23) and then continues with a portion of J (Exod 34:1–10).

Sometimes we see clearly contradictory versions of the same event. For instance, J from the southern kingdom tells that Jacob obtained the northern kingdom’s capital of Shechem through treacherous deceit followed by a massacre (Genesis 34). The authors of E in the northern kingdom could not accept that. Instead, they wrote that Jacob obtained the land in Shechem honorably through a purchase (Gen 33:18–19).

Creating an anthology that honored both traditions was more important than eliminating contradictions.

Dramatic differences such as those about how Shechem was obtained make clear that there actually once were separate stories. As for Shechem, those who combined J and E included both versions. For them, creating an anthology that honored both traditions was more important than eliminating contradictions.

A challenge to the belief that God is merciful

One thing both J and E agreed upon, and that carried over into the combined JE, was an understanding of God as merciful and forgiving.3 One of the most significant expressions of this is the passage in Exod 34:6–7a in which God passes before Moses and proclaims himself as

Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.

But then someone who did not agree with the idea of a merciful God came along and added words that were in total contradiction, saying that God was

yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation (Exod 34:7b).

This startling shift in message within a single passage is evidence that some priests in Judah decided they could reap an advantage by challenging JE’s understanding of God as merciful. From them came another document, this time presenting God as a God of strict justice requiring blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin, and more specifically, sacrifice performed only by them. At least one person in that group decided to make the case on their behalf by writing a competing history. Because it reflects priestly concerns and agendas, that is the document now commonly called P. To begin to understand how P came to be we need to consider the tribe of Levi.


"Provocative...Friedman has gone much farther than other scholars in analyzing the identity of the biblical authors."
U.S. News and Word Report

A priestly version of history

The Levites were a priestly class not given their own tribal territory. Instead, they received several cities of their own and the related pastureland scattered throughout the territories of the other tribes. You might think that any Levite could perform any priestly function, but instead the Levites broke up into clans with competing claims to authority. The writing of P reflects the claim by a specific group of priests to continue what had been their monopoly over the Jerusalem Temple. These were the Aaronites, meaning that they understood themselves to be descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron.

Aaronites had been the high priests at the first Jerusalem Temple ever since its construction by King Solomon. However, the fall of the northern kingdom and the merging of J with E posed a problem that could challenge their authority. E was very favorable to Moses. It thus could be seen to support another group of priests who understood themselves to be Moses’ descendants and who had been very influential before the time of the monarchy. Even worse for the Aaronites, E was harshly critical of their ancestor Aaron, as exemplified by the notorious episode in which Aaron makes an idolatrous golden calf (Exod 32:1–4).

To enhance Aaron’s image, the author of P dealt with the troublesome matter of the golden calf by omitting it. And he made Aaron largely co-equal with Moses in authority and respect. In P, when something important is being accomplished, it is not just by Moses as leader but by Moses and the priest Aaron, as in Num 1:17–18, where both Moses and Aaron assemble the congregation. (Other examples showing Aaron as a co-leader include Num 1:44; 3:38–39; and 4:34, 37, 41, 45–46.) To cement a lofty image for Aaron, the author of P often has God speak not just to Moses but to Moses and Aaron, as in Num 2:1 and 4:1, 17.

To support the idea that only the Aaronites could rightfully perform sacrifice, the author of P thoroughly deleted all examples of sacrifice performed before the time of Aaron. In P, for instance, the story of Abraham and Isaac is nowhere to be found. Since Abraham lived before Aaron, Abraham could not be one of Aaron’s descendants. Preserving the story of Abraham sacrificing the ram that was provided in place of his son Isaac would result in showing a non-Aaronite making a valid sacrifice. That is something the author of P could not condone, although it meant ignoring an important part of his people’s traditions.

In P there are no sacrifices before the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests that comes toward the end of the book of Exodus. Then the book of Leviticus begins by specifically declaring that it was Aaron’s descendants rather than anyone else who were to be the priests in charge of sacrifices (Lev 1:5–11). This is reinforced in Num 18:1–7, which says that other Levites can serve only as assistants, but not in the holiest areas, and that anyone other than an Aaronite who approaches the altar is to be put to death. Thus the author of P and those he represented played very rough, demanding the killing of challengers.

The early chapters of Leviticus offer great detail on different types of offerings: burnt offerings, grain offerings, offerings of well-being, and, beginning with chapter 4, sin offerings. Initially sin offerings are shown as being only for unintentional sin (Lev 4:2), but later for all types of sin (Lev 16:16). In a stern refutation of the merciful God of JE, the message is clear: the author of P wanted everyone to believe that God won’t forgive without first being appeased by a bloody death—not just a sacrificial offering but a blood sacrifice. And, as we have seen, he insisted that only the priests of his group were authorized to officiate.

The insistence that God’s forgiveness could be mediated only through them gave the Aaronites enormous authority

The insistence that God’s forgiveness could be mediated only through them gave the Aaronites enormous authority over anyone who would accept it. And the author of P also turned this into an opportunity to ensure not just his group’s power but also its income, for he wrote that whether an offering was of grain or an animal, the priests were entitled to a portion of each (for examples see Lev 2:1–3 and 7:31–36, and Num 18:8–14). In fact, the Numbers passage says they were to have not just a portion, but the best portion of everything.

A break with longstanding tradition

This view of sacrifice to satisfy a God of strict justice was not only self-serving for the Aaronite priests but also a huge break with the much older tradition representing a God of great love and mercy. To understand how great that break was, realize that JE uses the word “atonement” only once, in reference not to a sacrifice but to an effort by Moses to mediate with God on behalf of the people about the idolatrous golden calf made by Aaron: “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to Yahweh; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exod 32:30).

This view of sacrifice to satisfy a God of strict justice was not only self-serving for the Aaronite priests but also a huge break with the much older tradition

Although examples of sacrifice, such as Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram instead of his son Isaac, do occur in JE, sacrifice in JE is never to atone for sin. To repeat, JE has no instance of a sacrifice to atone for sin. Not one. In JE, God is so faithful and merciful that such a thing is not even to be conceived. Instead, in JE sacrifice is always an offering to demonstrate gratitude or faithfulness to God. It is the same concept of a merciful and forgiving God that also occurs elsewhere in the Bible, such as in some of the psalms—but not in P, which never even once uses the word “mercy.”

The author of P carefully crafted his document as a replacement for JE, with many of the elements of JE, including a creation story. He ignored everything from JE that was not favorable to his cause and added new material to support his own position.

Then, as Friedman points out, something very ironic took place. Instead of letting P stand alone as its author intended, someone combined JE with P, just as J and E had earlier been combined to form JE. The result is the first four books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. This combining of sources explains the dramatic shift from a God of mercy to a God of judgment that we saw within a single passage in Exodus 34. It’s also the reason the Bible begins with two very different creation stories. Genesis begins with the P story. Even a cursory look shows that it was never intended to depict literally the creation of the world. For instance, although it says light appeared on the first day, there are no sources of light—sun, moon, or stars—until the fourth day. Instead, the most obvious purpose of the P creation story is to serve a priestly agenda. By depicting God as creating the world in six days and then resting on the seventh, it declares a divine precedent for the Sabbath. Then midway through Gen 2:4 the JE creation story begins, presenting God’s work of creation without any connection to the six-day sequence in P.

[A] combining of sources explains the dramatic shift from a God of mercy to a God of judgment

The combination of JE with P is also the reason the story of Noah in Genesis has two interwoven versions that differ in the number of animals brought on the ark. The JE story has God ordering Noah to collect seven pairs of certain animals:

Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and one pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. (Gen 7:2–3)

This allowed some animals to be used for a sacrifice of gratitude after the flood subsided (Gen 8:20). However, since for the author of P a valid sacrifice was impossible before the time of Aaron, he wrote a version that says God ordered that only one pair of each animal was to be taken on the ark:

And of every living thing, all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you. (Gen 6:19)

Emphasizing that these animals were to be kept alive prohibited any possibility of sacrifice. Thus we have in Genesis two conflicting and awkwardly combined stories of Noah and the ark.

The P document also gives the laws found in Leviticus. They include what Jesus called, after the commandment to love God with our whole heart (Deut 6:5), the next greatest commandment: to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Lev 19:18).

We have not discussed Deuteronomy which, with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers completes the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Scholars interested in how the Hebrew Bible came to be written see in Deuteronomy a document that they call D. Deuteronomy seems to have been written in part to protest against P, since it says that any and all Levites can perform priestly functions with no distinction as to who is most important:

For Yahweh your God has chosen Levi out of all of your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of Yahweh, him and his sons for all time. (Deut 18:5–7)

And, as do J and E, D views God as primarily a God of mercy rather than a God of justice:

Because the LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them. (Deut 4:31)

Also, although Deuteronomy gives rules for sacrifice, there is no mention at all of a sacrifice for sin. Instead, all sacrifices are in the nature of donations and tithes in grateful response to blessings received.

"Richard Hagenston has written an incredible book … so well organized that one would have to read a thousand pages from other books to draw the same conclusions … I put this one on my ‘must read’ list and will be recommending it to others."
—Fred Plumer, ProgressiveChristianity.org

First-century implications

Jews of the first century CE could choose from their scripture and traditions two very different understandings of how to obtain God’s forgiveness

A result of all of this is that Jews of the first century CE could choose from their scripture and traditions two very different understandings of how to obtain God’s forgiveness. Some took the position of P and viewed God as a deity of strict justice for whom blood sacrifice is essential. But even in Old Testament times there were those who disputed that position in favor of the far older tradition of a God of mercy. In the Hebrew Bible, for an example of the tension between these two views, we can look at Psalm 51. That psalm was written following the conquest of Judah in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of thousands of its residents to Babylonia. It was a time when temple sacrifice was impossible because the temple had been destroyed. To offer comfort in this situation, the psalmist climaxes a plea for God’s forgiveness and salvation by proclaiming a God of mercy for whom sacrifice is not only not required but not even wanted:

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps 51:16–17)

Those in the first century CE who felt the same way understood that all this merciful God requires for forgiveness is sincere repentance. However, the psalm concludes with a contradictory addition by what was likely a later writer who still believed in the necessity of sacrifice. And this opposite view, that of the importance of sacrifice, was also held by many during the time of Jesus:

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar. (Ps 51:18–19)

This leaves us with the question: which of these two views did Jesus accept? In my book Fabricating Faith: How Christianity Became a Religion Jesus Would Have Rejected, I take the position that Jesus proclaimed a God of such great love and mercy that the need for the atoning death of even an animal, let alone a person, is simply unthinkable. But, of course, many Christians who believe Jesus died to satisfy God’s justice for their sins would disagree.

Jesus proclaimed a God of such great love and mercy that the need for the atoning death of even an animal, let alone a person, is simply unthinkable

Copyright © 2018 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Photo of Richard Hagenston

Richard Hagenston is the author of Fabricating Faith (2014), an ordained United Methodist minister and former pastor. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Wesley Theological Seminary and a master's in journalism from Indiana University.

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1. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Harper Collins, second edition, 1997). Readers who wish to know more about how the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, developed can find a very readable and detailed presentation in Friedman’s book.

2. See Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, 87–88.

3. See additional discussion of this theme in Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, 144–45, 238–41.

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