‘Justice and Right’: Biblical Ethics and the Regulation of Capitalism


  • Walter Houston University of Manchester, UK





The Hebrew expression in the Old Testament mishpat u-tsedaqa, conventionally translated ‘justice and righteousness’, has a particular application to the social responsibility of the king. The state, in the person of the king, is seen in the Old Testament as having an obligation to exercise its power on behalf of the most vulnerable. This may be illustrated by the widespread evidence from the ancient Near East of administrative and judicial action undertaken by kings to cancel debts, provide for the release of debt slaves, remit taxes, order the return of distrained property, and so forth. Although the impact of such measures would have been limited, and the tradition is attenuated in later levels of the text, the ideal of the state as the protector of the poor may be applied to the state’s relationship with the modern capitalist economy. It demands that the economy should be regulated to protect the most vulnerable against the impoverishment resulting from its transformation by globalized capitalism. The reality, however, especially in the UK and the US, is that the state colludes with capitalism to increase inequality and deepen poverty.


Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

Anderson, Gary A. Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Baker, David L. Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2009.

Belgrave, Kate. ‘Work capability assessments: the fightback’, New Statesman, 29 July (2012). Online at http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/staggers/2012/07/work-capability-assessments-fightback (accessed 2015-12-13).

Boer, Roland, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015.

Butler, Patrick. ‘Benefit sanctions leave clients hungry for months’, The Guardian, 2 March (2015). Online at http://www.theguardian.com/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2015/mar/02/food-banks-benefit-sanctions-leave-clients-hungry-for-months (accessed 2015-12-13).

Charpin, Dominique. ‘Le “bon pasteur”: idéologie et pratique de la justice royale à l’époque paléo-babylonienne’, in Les moyens d’expressions de pouvoir dans les sociétés anciennes, edited by ARGO. Leuven: Peeters, 1996.

Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed., edited by E. Gowers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, 2nd edn. London: Sheed and Ward, 1989.

Gottwald, Norman K. ‘The Expropriators and the Expropriated in Nehemiah 5’, in Concepts of Class in Ancient Israel, edited by Mark R. Sneed. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn and London: Melville House, 2011.

Gregory, Bradley C. Like an Everlasting Signet Ring: Generosity in the Book of Sirach. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010. DOI: 10.1515/9783110223675

Guillaume, Philippe. Land, Credit and Crisis: Agrarian Finance in the Hebrew Bible. London: Equinox, 2012.

Hamilton, Jeffries M. Social Justice and Deuteronomy: The Case of Deuteronomy 15. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992.

Houston, Fleur S. You Shall Love the Stranger as Yourself: The Bible, Refugees and Asylum. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

Houston, Walter J. ‘Doing Justice’. Unpublished paper delivered at the Ehrhardt Seminar, University of Manchester, 15 Oct. (2015).

Houston, Walter J. ‘The King’s Preferential Option for the Poor: Rhetoric, Ideology and Ethics in Psalm 72’, Biblical Interpretation 7 (1999), pp. 341-367. DOI: 10.1163/156851599X00272

Houston, Walter J. ‘The Scribe and his Class: Ben Sira on Rich and Poor’, in Writing the Bible: Scribes, Scribalism and Script, edited by Philip R. Davies and Thomas Römer. Durham: Acumen, 2013, pp. 108-23.

Houston, Walter J. Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament, 2nd edition. London/New York: T & T Clark, 2008 [2006].

Houston, Walter J. Justice—the Biblical Challenge. London: Equinox, 2010.

Jackson, Bernard S. ‘Justice and Righteousness in the Bible: Rule of Law or Royal Paternalism?’, Zeitschrift für altorientalische und biblische Rechtsgeschichte 4 (1998), pp. 218-622.

Jenkins, Simon. ‘Budget 2014: George Osborne, it’s not your job to look after the very rich’, in The Guardian.London, 19 March (2014). Online at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/18/osborne-wealth-gap-governments-conspire-obscene (accessed 2015-12-13).

Jones, Owen. ‘The TTIP deal hands British sovereignty to multinationals’, The Guardian, 14 Sept. (2014). Online at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/ 2014/sep/14/ttip-deal-british-sovereignty-cameron-ukip-treaty (accessed 2015-12-13).

Miranda, José Porfirio. Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression. London: SCM Press, 1977 [1971].

Rodd, Cyril S. Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001).

Rogerson, J.W. According to the Scriptures: The Use of the Bible in Social, Moral and Political Questions. London: Equinox, 2007.

Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? London; Allen Lane, 2009.

Weinfeld, Moshe. Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, rev. edition. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press/Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995 [1985].

Wikipedia. ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transatlantic_Trade_and_Investment_Partnership (accessed 2015-10-21).




How to Cite

Houston, W. (2016) “‘Justice and Right’: Biblical Ethics and the Regulation of Capitalism”, De Ethica, 2(3), pp. 7–21. doi: 10.3384/de-ethica.2001-8819.15237.