Justice and fraud in the Hymn to Shamash (Proverbs 11)

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Illustration: Hymn to Schamesh, the Sumerian sun god

Desire for justice and fairness is a universal human trait. No society can function efficiently where injustice and fraud prevail. Indeed, people the world over have long believed that justice is not merely a human institution but the will of heaven. In the ancient Near East virtually all people believed that moral obligations were imposed upon them from above. Even though only Israel had the law of God, it would be a mistake to say that the other ancient religions lacked or ignored moral teaching.

A particularly clear example appears in an Akkadian hymn to Shamesh, the sun god. Since the sun was thought to have been an all-seeing eye that looked down from above upon the affairs of humankind, it is not surprising that Shamesh in particular would be associated with justice. In the hymn Shamash is praised for bringing to light the deeds of humanity. In particular, the hymn declares that the sun god sees and judges anyone who invests in a shady business scheme, commits fraud using inaccurate scales, avoids by some hoax full repayment of a debt or launches groundless lawsuits. Such people, the hymn insists, will see all of their profits disappear.

Proverns 11:1 declares “The Lord abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are His delight“. The fact that the Bible is not the only ancient text that speaks in such terms concerning justice does not diminish the place of Scripture as God’s special revelation. Indeed, it is precisely at this point that Biblical teaching meets the wisdom of the Gentiles: The Bible affirms what is best in the teachings of the sages of the other nations, while avoiding the superstition and degradation that accompany paganism. Thus, 1:7 can recommend to all its readers that the fear of the Lord is the only valid launching pad in the quest for wisdom. Its words affirm the Gentile desire for justice but assert that this longing is best fulfilled by turning to the God of Israel.


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