An Excursus on Righteousness

Have you ever pondered the fact that words can have various meanings according to the culture, time period, and community in which they are uttered? Sometimes the difference between what words once meant and what they now mean is quite nuanced and other times these differences are drastic.  For instance, take the word “cool”. When we use the word cool today we are typically describing someone who is confident and tends to “roll with the punches” of life. By our standards, a cool person is someone who never getting too bent out of shape — at least not outwardly. For African slaves in America during the 19th century, this word meant something rather different. For these African slaves, the word cool was meant to depict an outward confidence that was a way for their community to cope with the utter suffering that they had to endure. They were not actually cool, calm, or collected, but it was the word they used in order to grope for normalcy amidst chaos. “Cool” is an example of a word through which we are able to grasp the occurrence of words that evolve and change over time. Sometimes definitions undergo more significant change than we see in the word cool. Etymologies can be traced that show us that certain words, while spanning centuries, have undergone significant re-definition. I have been learning that one of these words is the word righteous.

The word righteous has undergone many phases, most of which I can hardly begin to unravel. I am especially interested in how the word righteous is used in the Bible and how we use it today. I know that there are plenty of intermediary periods that can shed light on this word, but I hope that we will be caused to see differently as we unpack the etymological differences in the word righteous.

Why is this important? I am convinced that a contextual study of the Bible changes how we see. We often come to Scripture with our own cultural lens, but in order to understand some of the nooks and crannies of Scripture we must begin to wonder about the intent or meaning behind this or that word or phrase. Righteous is one of these words that I hope changes the way we see as we encounter it in Scripture.

In today’s post-elightenment era, the word righteous has often come to mean one who is morally upright. In fact, a quick search through google shows us that Merriam-Webster defines righteous as:

morally good: following religious or moral laws.

Would you disagree with this definition? I tend to think that most of you would not, but please tell me if you would have! When we describe someone as righteous, we are usually defining the moral quality of their person. I am not saying that anything is wrong with the way that we have come to define this term, but I am saying that it is important to understand words in different contexts if we are to understand and interpret the Bible in its context (without bringing out context to bear upon it). As you might have guessed though, our modern-day definition only speaks to part of how the Bible defines the word righteous.

The Bible is where we often see the word righteous and what people think of when they utter the word. Most generally, the word denotes relationship (yes, you read correctly). In the Bible, righteousness often refers to the relationship God has with his people. There are four major components of this “righteous relationships” that is evident at different moments in biblical literature.

1) Righteousness often refers to God’s saving acts in human history. God’s rescue of Israel from Egypt is a great example. These acts of God’s rescue are always described as righteous. Micah 6:5 is a great example of this, but the Psalms are also littered with similar examples.

2) When God rescues his people in the Old and New Testament, he always grants them a new status: righteous. Through God’s saving acts his people are granted a righteous status before Him. There is a great quote from Rudolph Bultmann that helps incarnate this idea:

It [righteousness] does not mean the ethical quality of a person. It does not mean any quality at all, but a relationship. That is, dikaiosyne [Greek] is not something that a person has on his own; rather it is something that he has in the verdict of the “forum” to which he is accountable.

3) Righteousness always includes a human response to the saving acts and granted status of God to his people. The righteous acts of his people are not necessarily morally upright acts but those acts that are proper and in accordance with how God has treated them . Simply put, how God treated them is the model for how they are to treat others. The righteous response to God’s pursuit is an embodiment of how God has graced them in his saving acts and in the new status he has granted them.

4) Lastly, righteousness always corresponds to peace in the Bible. Peace, as depicted in the Bible, usually means wholeness. Righteousness therefore brings peace to interpersonal relationships just as God has enacted peace through his righteous acts and granted status of righteousness to His people.

Hopefully through this brief explanation you will notice the discrepancies between our modern conception of righteousness and the biblical conception of that rich word.

This content was gathered from two different sources. The first paragraph that explained the etymology of the word “cool” was gathered from a book entitled “The Vertical Self” by Mark Sayers. The rest of this blog was content that was gathered from a book entitled “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” by Kenneth Bailey. 

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