Among ancient Near Eastern perspectives of deities in judgment East, Yahweh’s courtroom is fairly unique. While Re, the Egyptian god of judgment, weighed the deeds of the dead against the feather of ma`at, in a singular judgment;[i] although the Hittite Sun-god gave his judgment, surrounded by other judging gods;[ii] and while the Babylonian great gods sat on the “Sacred Mound” in the ubšuukkina to decide Babylon’s destinies each Akitu Festival,[iii] Yahweh sat in court surrounded by numerous created heavenly beings where judgment took place with open books. Cherubim woven into the sanctuary curtains and hovering over the ark represented the presence of this host. Before these heavenly beings, the Satan strode and accused Job (and indirectly God). When the Satan accused Joshua the high priest before the Yahweh’s Angel, attendants stood ready to take away his filthy clothing and dress him in “festal apparel.”[iv] Isaiah’s call takes place in the temple where he sees Yahweh seated on a lofty throne with seraphs attending Him. Awed by God’s glory, Isaiah judges himself as unclean.[v] One of these attendants touches his lips with a coal from the altar of burnt offering to remove his sin. Involved in the heavenly court’s deliberations, Isaiah then volunteers to fulfill Yahweh’s request to go for Him.[vi]
It seems, therefore, that in the Old Testament, God holds open court into which anyone may come with a petition, a complaint, or an accusation. Perhaps suppliants in the Psalms prayed with the belief that they stood in the presence of Yahweh Himself in prayer. “O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence,” a petitioner prayed (was he in the temple?), “let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.”[vii] This open court may be the reason why Israelite worshipers could dare to argue with God as Abraham did over Sodom’s judgment, Moses at the burning bush, and Job before his three friends. Unlike worshipers in Mesopotamia, who must pray in such a way as to please their gods, these friends of God could speak to God freely and honestly about what was on their hearts. By contrast, Mesopotamians, who considered themselves slaves of the gods, sought primarily to petition, placate, and manipulate the gods, not reason with them.
What does an open-court judgment look like? In Micah 6:1, 2, God says to Israel: “Hear what the Lord is saying: Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains; let the hills hear your voice! Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth! The Lord has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue.”[viii] Though God has a case against Israel, this is no one-sided judgment; rather, He calls on Israel to inform him what he has done to alienate them. He asks, “What did I ever do to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!”[ix] and then recounts how He led them out of Egypt. His words sound more like a defense than an accusation. Israel responds in vv. 6-7 with attempts to settle the case with sacrifices valued at ascending levels. The case ends with the words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[x] The justice includes preserving life instead of shedding blood, refusing bribes, and ceasing oppression (see Micah 7:2, 3). However, in its entirety, the case reads like a disjointed conversation in which the parties speak past each other in separate paradigms: appeasement by humans versus divine pleas for trust and righteousness.
In Isaiah 1, after rejecting cultic functions—sacrifices, blood manipulations, burning of incense, new moons and required festivals, even prayers because “your hands are full of blood,” God pleads with the people to cleanse themselves and do good. He then declares: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”[xi] Here God invites His people to wrestle with Him like their ancestors Abraham and Jacob did. In Yahweh’s heavenly court, what matters most is honesty and a humble willingness to dialogue with God. Sin can only be dealt with if this takes place.
At times, God Himself takes on the investigation. When approaching Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah, He tells him, “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless, and their sin is very serious! I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know.”[xii] Here God desires unlock the truth about the situation and engages in an open investigation to demonstrate via the visit of angels whether the cities are as unjust as the complaints suggest.
So in God’s open court, the goal is the truth, and truth requires investigation. The books in Daniel 7:10 suggest that record-keeping is a cosmic court function. In the context of the chapter, these records concern the activities of the beast and its little horn—an oppressive power that devours the entire world. Thus record-keeping is needed in times of oppression and tyranny when trust is difficult.
But records serve another function. In Zechariah 3, the Satan turns on God’s people, accusing them before Yahweh’s Angel. As the self-appointed Accuser, he hopes to make his case against God’s people represented by their high priest, Joshua. Accusers hone their skills in keeping track of people’s sins, and are extremely selective to paint the bleakest picture of the godliest saint. So the Accuser brings his list of accusations, his selective recordkeeping of people’s sins. His dishonest record necessitates a truer, fuller picture, a record of what God’s grace has done in the lives of those who trust in Him. This evidence does not save them; it merely demonstrates that God has indeed delivered them. Even further, records are needed for the sake of all. Originally, God created His children to be interconnected; what happens to one happens to all. Therefore the books remain to answer any future questions any human being has about someone they love.
Revelation portrays saints seated on thrones with the authority to judge (20:4a). What apparently gives them this authority is the fact that they have not worshiped the great oppressor, the beast, of humankind (20:4b). They are therefore merciful, humble, and kind and thus qualified to engage in the investigative process. Yet when the judgment takes place, the wicked are “judged according to their works, as recorded in the books” (20:12), while the righteous are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (5:9). Their redemption is made manifest in characters that resemble the Lamb instead of the beast (see Rev. 14:1-5; 13:3, 4).
In this open court, only demonstrated evidence holds weight in the discussion, not claims. Nothing better depicts this than the book of Job. The Satan does not accuse Job for some sin he has committed, but calls into question Job’s motives: he claims that God has bribed Job into worshiping him. The Satan can challenge Job’s motives because he knows that God prizes only genuine obedience from the heart. Since he hasn’t found any fault in Job’s external life, he claims that, since God bribed his righteous works, Job’s worship is, therefore, a fraud.
How would a court overthrow this claim? Appeal to the consistency of Job’s actions overtime? Ask Job if his motives are pure? Ask God if Job’s motives are pure? In the first case, even consistent actions would not prove anything since they could stem from more than one motive. In the second, making a claim to offset a claim proves nothing in court. Job could be deceived about his heart or he could be lying. But what about God? Surely, God could set the record straight by stating that He knows that Job’s motives are pure. And who could question God?
This brings us to the heart of all of the heavenly court’s “investigative” judgments. God could have dismissed the Satan’s accusations, declared Job’s motives pure, and closed his case. Instead, when the Satan offers to determine Job’s motives by afflicting him to the point of exposing them before the universe, God assents. The only way to prove the state of the heart is by demonstrated evidence.
But Job is not the only person who has had to go through such a trial. God Himself has taken His case to court and allowed the universe to judge Him.[xiii] Even when He speaks to Job, His speeches can be termed His defense. Throughout His life, Satan tested Jesus until He died, and His life and death demonstrated the evidence that His Father’s character is genuinely good, not a pious fraud.
How are humans judged? At the end of the discussion and the demonstration of the evidence, does God make the final judgment with an arbitrary claim? In Zechariah 3, God’s messenger does not condemn or exonerate Joshua. Instead, He rebukes the Accuser with the words, “Jerusalem is my chosen city, and this man was rescued like a stick from a flaming fire.”[xiv] Said another way, his past record doesn’t count because he was delivered.
To Nicodemus, Jesus stated: “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”[xv] He then stated the nature of that judgment: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”[xvi] What determines human destiny in the judgment is what they do with the light. Does the light of God’s love draw them to Him or do they resist it? Therefore judgment is not God’s arbitrary decision about us but rather our decision about God. How can the universe know what our decision about God really is? Through the evidence demonstrated daily in our lives. For what we do with the light of God’s love inevitably translates into how we treat others especially in the midst of trial—their mistreatment of us.
In the heavenly court, the universe participates in an ongoing, investigative discussion, we call “the judgment.” The court and discussions are open, yet claims, even God’s claims, do not settle disputes nor determine human destiny. Only the evidence of the truth has the final word. And the Judge, who ratifies our decisions about God, is notably on the side of those who trust Him.[xvii]
[i] Leonard H. Lesko, “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egyptian Thought,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (CANE),(ed. Jack M. Sasson; New York, N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995), 1768.
[ii] Johan de Roos, “Hittite Prayers,” CANE, 1998.
[iii] Mark E. Cohen, The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 1993), 439, 448; Jack N. Lawson, The Concept of Fate in Ancient Mesopotamia of the First Millennium: Toward an Understanding of Šīmtu (Orientalia Biblica et Christiana 7; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1994), 116-117. The determination of fates or destinies was a closed system in which the gods fated the destinies of people and provided ways to learn and avert negative outcomes. For this reason, Lawson (131) refers to it as a “closed-system.”
[iv] Zechariah 3:4, NRSV.
[vi] One of the Hebrew words for “language” literally means, “lip.” HALOT shaphah
[vii] Psalm 88:1, 2, NRSV.
[xi] Isaiah 1:10-18, NRSV.
[xii] Genesis 18:20, 21, CEB.
[xvi] John 3:19-21, NRSV.
[xvii] John 16:25-27; Romans 8:31-39.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5669