We can quickly turn the kinds of standards and norms to which sedaqah refers into a strict code of moral conduct. It’s important to understand the relational connotation of the word sedaqah to avoid this temptation.
The relational nature of sedaqah affirms a biblical reading of God’s character as far more concerned with relationship than with performance.
Consider yesterday’s example of a merchant cheating a customer by using unrighteous scales. In such a case it is not the breaking of a norm that is evil, but the wronging of an individual with whom one has a relationship – any level or sort of relationship.1
When an individual is cheated out of basic necessities by a dishonest merchant, the community in which he or she lives is also damaged.2 The person who cannot thrive cannot readily offer gifts and relationship to others. The mutual trust upon which all of society depends for orderly functioning also breaks down.
Even when sedaqa refers to a norm, this does not mean a generic standard to which everything must conform.
As theologian Walter Eichrodt says, “In Hebrew thinking there is no such thing as an abstract formal concept which might be classified according to an objective standard, thus presupposing a universal idea of righteousness.”3
Rather, sedaqah refers to what is right or expected within the context of a relationship or particular circumstances.4 A norm in terms of sedaqah involves every party’s views and expectations5 and can change with context.
It is by being in relationship with the Lord and with others that we know what is right and just in each situation.
With this in mind, the rules and standards in the Bible become largely about restoring relationships – with one another, with God, with creation – and returning the world to God’s original intentions.
1. Hemchand Gossai, Justice, Righteousness and the Social Critique of the Eighth-Century Prophets (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 59.
3. Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament. I. OTL. Trans. J.A. Baker (London: SCM Press, LTD), 1961, p. 240, qtd. in Gossai, 54.
4. Wright, 256.
5. Hemchand Gossai, Justice, Righteousness and the Social Critique of the Eighth-Century Prophets (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 49.