The Bible contains a rich variety of socio-biographical
materials about the people of God, both in the form of stories of individual people and
stories of social collectivity. The stories of individuals are also social as they
represent the common social experiences of the community to which they belong. We will
seek to identify some outstanding Biblical social biographies and to demonstrate that they
constitute essential components of the story of Gods dealing with Gods people.
Furthermore, God acts consistently in relation to the people of God while the social
biographies of the people provide the contexts for the unfolding of the concrete
manifestations of Gods divine actions.
We will illustrate the Biblical social biography of the people of God
in four categories: the story of the people in the social context; their story in the
political context of the kingdoms; the peoples story in the political context of the
empires; and finally the story of individual people in their historical contexts. We have
added the last category because, although it seems to lend itself to individualistic
interpretation, in fact, it cannot be seen in an individualistic way.
Next we will seek to clarify in each category the concrete
manifestations of Gods relationship with the people. This will consist mainly of
theological reflection in relation to the stories of the people.
Obviously we cannot deal with the subject exhaustively but only provide
an outline. Also we are inevitably short of historical details because of the
incompleteness of historical materials, including the Bible itself. This does not mean
that social history is irrelevant in our deliberations; on the contrary, social history is
one essential dimension of the social biography of the people.
I. The Story of Slaves
The story of Yahweh begins with the story of the slaves in Egypt. The
so-called biography of the slave is paradigmatic in the Bible as well as in human history.
In the story of the Exodus, God delivers the Hebrew slaves from bondage and establishes a
liberated community that is based on a covenant between the people and Yahweh. In Exodus
21, Leviticus 15 and Deuteronomy 15, the legislated form of this covenant is stated.
Specifically, however, what were the details of the story of the Hebrew
slaves? In Chapters 2 and 3 of Exodus, we find some answers:
"The Egyptians forced the sons of Israel into slavery and
made their lives unbearable with hard labor, work with clay and with brick, all kinds of
work in the fields: they forced on them every kind of labor. The king of Egypt then spoke
to the Hebrew midwives, ...When you midwives attend Hebrew women, he said,
watch the two stones carefully. If it is a boy, kill him; and if a girl, let her
live. ...The sons of Israel, groaning in their slavery, cried out for help and from
the depths of their slavery their cry came up to God. God heard their groaning.. .and
Yahweh said, I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard
their appeal to be free of their slave drivers. Yes, tam very well aware of their
suffering (Exod. 2 and 3)."
From this outline of their social biography, the core of the story
becomes evident: there are the Hebrew slaves and Yahweh of the Hebrews, and there are the
kings, slave drivers and military might of Egypt - the powerful forces of the empire. The
protagonists in this story, however, are the Hebrew slaves based on the intervention of
Yahweh, for Yahweh forms a special relationship with the Hebrews. Through the covenant,
Yahweh joins in partnership with the Hebrew slaves, who are now the people of God.
The story of the slaves is not only about the Hebrews; it also reveals
the nature of the antagonists in the story - the power of Egypt, its system of rule, its
socio-economic structure and its exploitation and oppression of the people.
Egypt, however, was fearful as well as powerful - fearful of losing its
power. The pharaoh, Ramses II, feared the increasing numbers of the Hebrews, for instance,
and felt that "if war breaks out they might add to the number of our enemies. They
might take arms against us and so escape out of the country (Exod. 1:10)." The
pharaoh ordered the killing of the innocent male Hebrew babies, commanding, Throw
all the boys born to the Hebrews into the river (Exod. 1:22)."
Ramses II was also fearful of losing his force of exploited labor on
which the wealth and comfortable lifestyle of the Egyptians rested. We know from Exodus
1:11 that the pharaoh engaged in building projects, such as the great supply cities of
Pithom and Ramses, which was his own residence. When the call of Moses came to "let
my people go," "pharaoh gave this command to the peoples slave drivers and
to the overseers: Up to the present, you have provided these people with straw for
brick making. Do so no longer; let them go and gather straw for themselves. All the same,
you are to get from them the same number of bricks as before, not reducing it at all. They
are lazy, and that is why their cry is, "Let us go and offer sacrifice to out
God." Make these men work harder than ever so that they do not have time to stop and
listen to glib speeches."
Ramses II, who held the absolute authority of the oriental despot and
who thought of himself as a son of the Sun Goddess, did not let the people go, for he did
not recognize the authority of Yahweh.
At the center of this story of slavery and oppression, however, is
liberation: Yahwehs liberation of His people based on the relationship between
Yahweh and the slaves, for Yahweh was the God of the Hebrews; they were the people of
Yahweh. It was on the basis of this relationship that the Sinai covenant of mutual
faithfulness was established, which formed a bond of liberation between Yahweh and the
former slaves; for as long as the Hebrews were faithful to their God, Yahweh would protect
them from the bondage of slavery.
This message is the central core of the Old Testament. Out of this
paradigmatic experience of slavery and liberation, the covenant code in Exodus 21:1-23:33
was born - the heart of which legislates freedom from exploitation and oppression.
The covenant code had other repercussions as well. It affected not only
the development of the socio-political order of the people of God but also the empires of
Babylonia, Assyria and subsequently the emerging empires.
We now turn our attention to who the Hebrew slaves were. We know that
the name of Israel was not given to the Hebrews in Egypt nor in the wilderness; rather, it
was attributed to the community of the Hebrews in Palestine when they formed a
confederacy. From recent scholarly discussions, we have learned that the term "Apiru"
has a close affinity to the name "Hebrew." Apiru, a widespread
phenomenon in Near Eastern civilization in Biblical times, was the state labor force
composed of captured people, purchased people and other slaves. Thus, from the Biblical
story of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the affinity of the two terms, we may conclude
that the Hebrew slaves were representative of all Apiru and other socially
But what were the causes of slavery? Who became a slave? Basically, the
origins of slavery were socio-economic, such as insolvency. Persons unable to repay their
debts were forced to pay through slave labor. Under Mesopotamian laws, such as the Code of
Hammurabi and the Middle Assyrian laws, the right of the creditor to seize his defaulting
debtor and to force him to perform compulsory service was legal - a practice widespread in
Palestine as well.
Another early source of slavery was war. Prisoners of war, and
sometimes large segments of the civilian population of the defeated nation, faced a life
of forced servitude.
Slavery also was a form of commerce. Slave traders sold and transported
people like commodities from one country to another. Even minors were sold by their
parents, particularly in economically stressful times. Their hunger and debt drove parents
to sell their children and then themselves.
Thus, the Hebrews became slaves because of hunger and debt, war and
captivity. They were treated as merchandise to be sold, bought, leased, exchanged or
Women who became slaves experienced extra hardships. Not only were
female slaves treated as a physical commodity - they were leased for work, given as a
pledge or exchanged as part of a dowry - but they were also treated as a sexual commodity.
Ownership of a female slave meant the right to exploit her labor and her body. A woman as
a slave could attain her highest position in society by bearing children for her master as
his concubine; the opposite extreme was to be reduced to a professional prostitute.
Slavery in the ancient Near East was not a phenomenon peculiar only to
nations and peoples outside of the Hebrew covenant community; it also occurred in the
post-Exodus life of the people of God. Because of economic and social transactions within
the Hebrew community and through the establishment of state slavery and the institutions
of corvee under the strong and centralized power of Kings David and Solomon,
slavery had penetrated into the life of the Hebrew people as well. For example, King
Zedekiah made a pact with all the people of Jerusalem to free their slaves during the
period of Jeremiahs prophecy. However, this pact was later disavowed by all of the
nobles and other people who had entered into the pact who had agreed that all male and
female slaves should be freed.
Nevertheless, liberation was the foundation of the covenant, and
covenant codes were developed to protect the liberated community throughout the history of
the Hebrew people. Thus, the Exodus experience becomes a part of their history and the
essence of their communal life.
The uniqueness of the covenant code should also be noted, for the
context in which the covenant code became the law of the people was a liberated community.
The covenant code, such as the earliest text found in Exodus 21:1-11, is radically
different from other slave legislations of the ancient Near East, which were implemented
to control and bring order to the slavery system. The purpose of the covenant code,
however, was to liberate and protect the rights of slaves, to establish security against
the powers of domination: "In the seventh year he may leave; he shall be free with no
compensations to pay (Exod. 21:2)."
The social biography of the slave is representative of all the other
biographical materials in the Bible. The social biographies of the orphan, the widow, the
poor, the captives and others are similarly described. God has a special relationship with
Gods people who bear such stories. Even God is incarnated in the form of a slave as
witnessed in Chapter 2 of the letter to the Philippians.
II. The Story of the Poor
The history of the Hebrew people is the fundamental reason why the
former slaves rejected. a king when this was proposed by some leaders of the community of
early Israel. We quote here the full text of objections as it appears in I Samuel 8:10-18:
"All that Yahweh had said, Samuel repeated to the people who were
asking him for a king. He said, These will be the rights of the king who is to reign
over you. He shall take your sons and assign them to his chariotry and cavalry, and they
will run in front of his chariot. He will use them as leaders of 1,000 and leaders of 50;
he will make them plow his plow land and harvest his harvest and make his weapons of war
and the gear for his chariots. He will also take your daughters as perfumers, cooks and
bakers. He will take the best of your fields, of your vineyards and olive groves, and give
them to his officials. He will take the best of your man servants and maidservants, of
your cattle and your donkeys, and make them work for him. He will tithe your flocks, and you
yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out on account of
the king you have chosen for yourselves; but on that day, God will not answer you."
However, the people of Israel had taken the option of establishing a
kingdom. This created tension between the covenant-centered security of the community, who
had been liberated from the powers of internal and external domination, and the
kingdom-centered state seeking security from foreign powers. This tension appears
dramatically with the re establishment of the state slavery system under the reigns of
David and Solomon and continues throughout the history of the kingdoms, rising in the form
of the prophetic movement for the poor against the dominating powers.
Already at the beginning of the kingdom, the prophet Nathan rebuked
David for his violation of the covenant code by taking the wife of Uriah, whom he had
maneuvered to have killed on the battlefield. Nathans rebuke is classic:
"In the same town were two men, one rich, the other poor. The rich
man had flocks and herds in great abundance; the poor man had nothing but a ewe lamb, one
only, a small one he had bought. This he fed, and it grew up with him and his children,
eating his bread, drinking from his cup, sleeping on his breast; it was like a daughter to
him. When there came a traveler to stay, the rich man refused to take one of his own flock
or herd to provide the wayfarer who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor mans
lamb and prepared it for his guest."
In the eyes of the prophet, the king was that man. This was the problem
of the kingdom. The question reached its peak in the reign of King Ahab. Ahab wanted to
have the vineyard of Naboth to make into a vegetable garden for himself, but land could
not be transferred according to the original covenant code. Naboths answer to Ahab
was: "Yahweh forbids that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors."
Naboths fate, however, was death, and his land was stolen for the
king through the scheming of Jezebel, who ordered the elders and nobles of Naboths
town to proclaim a fast and place Naboth at the front of the people. When this was done,
two accomplices stood in front of him and made their accusation: "Naboth has cursed
God and the king." They then took him outside the town and killed him with stones.
Word was sent to Jezebel that "Naboth has been stoned to death. ...When Ahab heard
that Naboth was dead, he got up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth of Jezreel and take
possession of it."
In Naboths story, the covenant code has been totally ignored and
disregarded, and the people have become victims of the greed of the powerful. In addition,
a significant footnote must be added to this story, for Jezebel represents not only greed
and power in this story but also the religio-political "ideology of dominant
power" in Canaan - Baalism - the religious-political cult that justified the
dominating powers of the kings in Palestine around the time of the kingdom of Israel. It
was for this reason that the prophet Elijah championed Yahweh and Yahwehs covenant
with the people of Israel. This, of course, brought Elijah into confrontation with
In the context above, the covenant between Yahweh and the people was
essentially made to protect the rights of the poor as a basic guarantee for the liberated
community of the Exodus. Thus, the story of the poor became the central focus in the
involvement of Yahweh in the history of the people of Israel. It is here that the
prophetic movement finds its proper place.
Who are the poor? They are those who are destitute of material
possessions in society. The poor formed a much broader social strata than the slaves, and
their antagonists included the rich, as is well illustrated in the speech of Nathan to
The widows were the poor because they had no right of inheritance, and
they were an object of harsh treatment.
The fatherless were the poor, especially fatherless daughters because
they had no inheritance unless their father had no sons. It has been suggested that the
"fatherless" were the female children of sacred prostitutes, who obviously had
no identifiable father.
The sojourners were the poor, for they did not have the protection and
benefits which were usually taken for granted in their native lands. They were people who
had escaped natural calamities, wars and other disasters in their native places, who lived
elsewhere than their own native community. They were refugees. The people of Israel
regarded themselves as having once been sojourners in Egypt. Sojourners were classified in
the same status as widows and orphans. They were totally dependent upon acceptance by the
community, which determined whether they were invited in.
Thus, the poor are those who are economically destitute because they
have lost their property, because they lacked an inheritance or because they were robbed
by the powerful and rich.
In the Biblical literature, the poor are defended by the covenant
codes, by legal statutes and by the prophets. The poor are truly the central figures in
the historical drama that unfolds between Yahweh and the people of Israel. The poor are
the protagonists while the rich and powerful are the antagonists. The rich are identified
with the wicked: "Seizing the field that they covet, they take over houses as well;
owner and house they confiscate together, taking both man and inheritance (Mic.
The poor have a special place in the covenant relationship between God
and the people of Israel, just as the slaves were protagonists in the liberation history.
The poor are a special charge of God in the Old Testament. God through the Moseic
legislation and the prophetic exhortations seeks social justice for the poor (Deut.
10:17-18,11 Sam. 22:28, Isa. 25:4, Amos 2:6 and 4:1, etc.). Many laws concerning the poor
are found in Leviticus 19-23 and Deuteronomy 14-15 and 25. The poor have a special
"privilege" in the covenant community, and it is not merely an eschatological
one. Widows, the fatherless, sojourners and other weak people are protected, and the
Hebrew judges are to give the poor full protection (Exod. 23:3, Deut. 16:19, Ps. 82:3,
Special attention should be given to the fact that the poor have a
special and privileged status under the Messianic Reign. The Gospel is given to the poor,
whereas often anathema is preached to the rich and powerful dominators. In the prophecy of
Isaiah, it is written: "The spirit of the Lord Yahweh has been given to me, for
Yahweh has anointed me. He has sent me to bring Good News to the poor...(Isa. 61:1)."
Against the tyranny of the rich, the prophet Micah proclaims, "So
Yahweh says this: Now it is I who plot such mischief against this breed as your neck will
not escape nor will you be able to walk proudly, so evil will the time be. On that day
they will make a satire on you, sing a dirge and say, We are stripped of everything; my
peoples portion is measured out and shared; no one will give it back to them; our
fields are awarded to our despoiler. Therefore, you will have no one to measure out
a share in the community of Yahweh (Mic. 2:3-5)."
Hosea also proclaims, "Canaan holds fraudulent scales in his
hands; to defraud is his delight. How rich I have become! says Ephraim.
I have amassed a fortune. But he will keep nothing of all his profits because
of the guilt that he has brought on himself (Hos. 12:8-9)."
Isaiah laments about the sins of Jerusalem: "What a harlot she has
become, the faithful city, Zion, that was all justice! Once integrity lived there, now
assassins. Your silver has turned into dross; your wine is watered. Your princes are
rebels, accomplices of thieves. All are greedy for profits and chase after bribes. They
show no justice to the orphan; the cause of the widow is never heard (Isa. 1:21-23)."
In the New Testament, the poor are given an even more prominent status:
the poor occupy the central place in the Messianic Kingdom, that is, the Kingdom of God.
Jesus pronounces, "How happy are you who are poor: yours is the Kingdom of God. Happy
are you who are hungry now:
you shall be satisfied. ...But alas for you who are rich: you are
having consolation now. Alas for you who have your fill now: you shall go hungry (Luke
Jesus lived among the poor, unconditionally in communion with them,
sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God. In the experience of the early church, Jesus
established an eschatological identity with the poor and hungry (Matt. 25:31- 46). Indeed,
the poor are the privileged guests at the Messianic banquet (Matt. 22:1-14, Luke
III. The Story of the Oppressed and Captive
The story of the oppressed and the captives reveals them to be the
political victims of the oppressive powers of kingdoms and empires. Here the antagonists
are the political powers that oppress people and dominate nations. The most penetrating
description of the oppressed is found in Isaiah 53: the Song of the Suffering Servant.
"He is despised and rejected by men - a man of sorrows and
acquainted with grief, and we hid...our faces from Him. ...Surely He has born our griefs
and carried our sorrows, yet we did not esteem Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the
chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes, we are healed. All we, like
sheep, have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on
Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He is afflicted, and yet He opened not
his mouth; He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter; and as a sheep before her shearers
is dumb, so He opened not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who
shall declare His generation? For He was cut off out of the land of the living; for the
transgressions of my people was He stricken."
This story is representative of the experience of oppression and exile
of the people of God under the powers, especially the Babylonian, Assyrian and Egyptian
empires, to which the people of Israel and Judah were deported and exiled. There were
three deportations of the people of Israel to Babylon.
"At that time, the troops of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon,
marched on Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. ...Then Jehoiachin, king of Judah,
surrendered to the king of Babylon -he, his mother, his officers, his nobles, his eunuchs
- and the king of Babylon took them prisoner. ...The latter carried off all the treasures
of the Temple of Yahweh and the treasures of the royal palace and broke up all the golden
furnishings that Solomon, king of Israel, had made for the sanctuary of Yahweh...He
carried off all Jerusalem into exile, all the nobles and all the notables, ten thousand of
these were exiled with all the blacksmiths and metal workers; only the poorest people in
the country were left behind (II Kings 24:11- 14)."
The most dramatic social biography of the people of Israel under the
Babylonian captivity, however, is told in Lamentations.
"Oh, how lonely she sits,
the city once thronged with people,
as if suddenly widowed.
Though once great among the nations,
she, the princess among provinces,
is now reduced to vassalage.
She passes her nights weeping;
the tears run down her cheeks.
Not one of all her lovers remains to comfort her.
Her friends have all betrayed her
and become her enemies.
Judah is exiled after her downfall
and harsh enslavement.
She dwells among the nations now
but finds no relief there.
Her pursuers all overtake her
in places where there is no way out.
The roads to Zion are in mourning;
no one comes to her festivals now.
Her gateways are all deserted;
her priests groan;
her virgins are grief-stricken;
she suffers bitterly.
Her oppressors now have the upper hand;
her enemies enjoy prosperity;
Yahweh Himself has made her suffer
for her many, many sins;
her little children have left her prisoners
driven in front of the oppressors.
Her oppressors looked at her
and laughed at her downfall.
All those who used to honor her despise her;
they have seen her nakedness.
While she herself groans
and turns her face away.
Her filth clings to the hem of her clothes.
She had never thought of ending like this,
sinking as low as this.
She has no one to comfort her.
All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they barter their valuables for food
to keep life in them."
The people of Israel suffered from deportation, exile and colonial
domination under Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria and the Greek and Roman empires. These
powers were antagonists in the story of the people of God. These powers are classical
powers of oriental despotism with absolute claims of deity and the imperial arrogance of
power. Under these powers, not only did the people of Israel suffer, but all the people
were victimized. The cruelty of these powers was legendary. The valley of dry bones in
Ezekiels vision (37:1-14) indicates a death-filled land of fallen soldiers under the
siege of the Babylonian army.
Isaiah describes the arrogance of the Assyrian king in the following
"By the strength of my own arm, I have done this and by my own
intelligence, for understanding is mine; I have pushed back the frontiers of peoples and
plundered their treasures. I have brought their inhabitants down to the dust. As if they
were a birds nest, my hand seized the riches of the people. As people pick up
deserted eggs, I have picked up the whole earth with not a wing fluttering, not a beak
opening, not a chirp."
The prophet Habakkuk also describes the might of Babylonian power:
"Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves in
the dark; their horsemen gallop on; their horsemen advance from afar, swooping like an
eagle to stoop on its prey. They come for plunder, all of them, their faces scorching like
an east wind; they scoop up prisoners like sand (Hab. 1:8-9)."
Under the power of Antiochus Epiphanes, Jerusalem was left in shambles,
and he left uttering words of extreme arrogance. Therefore, there was deep mourning for
Israel throughout the country:
"Rulers and elders groaned;
girls and young men wasted away;
the womens beauty suffered a change;
every bridegroom took up a dirge;
the bride sat grief-stricken for its inhabitants;
and the whole House of Jacob was clothed with shame
(I Mac. 1:25-29)."
In a similar way, the power of the Roman Empire also victimized the
people. The most dramatic story is that of the massacre of little children around the time
of Bethlehem. Herod was furious when he realized that he had been outwitted by the wise
men; and in Bethlehem and its surrounding districts, he had all of the male children
killed who were 2-years-old or under. It was then that the words spoken through the
prophet Jeremiah were fulfilled:
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loudly lamenting:
it was Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted
because they were no more!"
The culmination of the oppression of the Roman Empire was expressed in
Pontius Pilates act of crucifying Jesus on the cross. The death of Jesus represented
the fate of the oppressed people in Israel, and Jesus consciously identified Himself with
the suffering people. Jesus dwelt among the people (Minjung) in Galilee, sharing
their life and destiny. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus clearly identifies Himself with the
suffering servant at the point of crucifixion (Mark 8:31-33). In Matthews view also,
Jesus identifies with the poor, oppressed and hungry (Matt. 25:31-46). The subsequent
martyrs who followed in the footsteps of Jesus and who were extinguished by the power of
Rome continue the social biography of the people of God, the oppressed and captive people.
The nature of the power of the Roman Empire is described in Revelation:
"Then I saw a beast emerge from the sea: it had seven heads and 10
horns with a coronet on each of its 10 horns, and its heads were marked with blasphemous
flUes. I saw that the beast was like a leopard, with paws like a bear and a mouth like a
lion; the dragon had handed over to it his own power and his throne and his worldwide
authority. ...It was allowed to make war against the saints and conquer them and was given
power over every race, people, language and nation; and all people of the world worshiped
it...If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear: captivity for those who are destined for
captivity; the sword for those who are destined to die by the sword (Rev. 13: 1-10)."
We have outlined the social biography of the people of God on various
levels: on the socio-economic level, the slaves and poor; on the political level, the
oppressed and the captives. One cannot separate different levels of the story of the
people, and yet we have differentiated in terms of these foci in order to clarify the
nature of the antagonists, which stand against the people of God, the protagonists in the
IV. The Story of Leading People
The Bible contains not only the social biography of the slaves, the
poor, the oppressed and the captured but also the social biography of many leading people,
such as Moses, Abraham, Ruth, the prophets, etc. What we are contending here is that these
stories of individual people are not isolated stories but accounts that are closely
related to the people of God. In reality, their stories are, indeed, part and parcel of
the stories of the people of God. These individual people play their role in the context
of the story of the people of God. Some stories are more akin to the social biography of
the people of God than others. Some symbolically represent the story of the people.
The story of the prophet Jeremiah is one of those stories that express
the deepest experience of the people of God at a time of crisis. There is a total sense of
identification of Jeremiah with the destiny of the people of Israel. Jeremiah laments
about his own destiny:
"A curse on the day when I was born;
no blessing on the day my mother bore me!
A curse on the man who brought my father the news:
A son, a boy, has been born to you!
making him overjoyed.
May this man be like towns
that Yahweh overthrew without mercy;
may he hear alarms in the morning,
the war cry in broad daylight
since he did not kill me in the womb.
My mother would have been my tomb
while her womb was swollen with me.
Why ever did I come out of the womb
to live in toil and sorrow
and to end my days in shame!
Jeremiah is persecuted because of his witness to the justice of God,
struggling against the false prophets, who are ideologues of the status quo. Jeremiah was
arrested, and "the officials...had him beaten and shut up in the house of Jonathan,
the secretary, which had been turned into a prison. Thus, Jeremiah found himself in an
underground cell. And there for a long time he stayed (Jer. 37:15-16)." They tried to
kill Jeremiah. "So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the well of Prince
Malchiah..., letting him down in ropes. There was no water in the well, only mud, and into
the mud Jeremiah sank (Jer. 38:6)."
Jeremiah laments the suffering of his people, furiously pronouncing his
prophecy of the justice of God against the corruption of Israel, against the invasion of
Babylon and Egypt, against their oppression of the people of God and finally proclaiming
Gods final vindication of the people of God. His laments about the suffering of his
people are most profound:
"Sorrow overtakes me;
my heart fails me.
Listen, the cry of the daughter of my people
sounds throughout the land:
Yahweh no longer in Zion?
Her King no longer in her?...
"The wound of the daughter of my people wounds me too;
all looks dark to me; terror grips me.
Is there not balm in Gilead anymore?
Is there no doctor there?
Then why does it make no progress
this cure of the daughter of my people?
Who will turn my head into a fountain
and my eyes into a spring of tears
so that I may weep all day, all night,
for all the dead out of the daughter of my people?
Jeremiah shares the deep wounds and sufferings of his people. He shares
the destiny of his people to the point that he is sometimes compelled to complain against
Yahweh: "You have right on your side, Yahweh, when I complain about you. But I would
like to debate a point of justice with you. Why is it that the wicked live so
prosperously? Why do scoundrels enjoy peace? ...Drag them off like sheep to the
slaughterhouse and reserve them for the day of butchery (Jer. 12:1-3)."
Jeremiah, however, is the prophet who seeks to restore a new covenant
between Yahweh and Yahwehs people as described in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
"See, the days are coming...when I will make a new covenant with
the House of Israel and the House of Judah but not a covenant like the one I made with
their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
...Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. Then I will be their
God, and they shall be my people."
In addition to Jeremiah, the story of Hosea and his wife, Gomer,
represents the story of the people of God. In this manner, one can link organically the
story of the prophets and the social biography of the people of God.
It is our contention that the social biography of the people of God is
essentially intertwined with the story of Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus the Suffering
Servant, Jesus the Pascal Lamb and Jesus the Crucified are intrinsically intertwined with
the stories of the ochlos, the poor, the sick and imprisoned. Therefore, just as we
cannot fully understand the story of the people of God, so We cannot fully understand the
story of Jesus outside the context of the social biography of the people of God.
V. The Social Biography of the Minjung and Theology
Now the question is: Who is God and how are Gods agents involved
in the social biography of Gods people? And how do the people of God respond to
The action of Yahweh in response to the fate of the Hebrew slaves in
Egypt was: "I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard their
appeal to be free from their slave drivers. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings. I
mean to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians and bring them up out of that land
to a land rich and broad, a land where milk and honey flows (Exod. 3:7-8)."
This action of God became the basis of the covenant of God with the
Hebrew people that was formalized on Mt. Sinai and subsequently codified as the covenant
code in the context of the political oppression within the kingdoms of the people of God.
God was the ultimate judge of justice for the poor. Kings were to be servants of Yahweh,
who gave the law, that is, the covenant, to protect the poor and the weak. The kings
though did not fulfill their proper role and instead oppressed the people, as in the cases
of David and Solomon and all the other kings. They were under the judgment of God. The
prophetic movement was to expose the injustice of the powers of the kings in light of the
justice of Yahweh. Naturally, therefore, the prophets were the champions of Yahweh and at
the same time the champions of the poor and the weak, who were oppressed by the power of
the kings and their allies.
When the people of God were the captives of the imperial powers of
Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome, God acted as the judge of those empires. God has
judged universal history to protect and rescue the people of God. The prophet Micahs
description is very apt:
"Yes, I am going to gather all Jacob together;
I will gather the remnant of Israel,
bring them together like sheep in the fold,
like a flock in its pasture;
they will fear no man.
He who walks at their head will lead the way in front of them;
he will walk at their head; they will pass through the gate and go out by it;
their king will go on in front of them
Yahweh at their head
The prophet Isaiah describes the vision of the rule of the Messiah in the midst of the
dark oppression of Judah under the Assyrian Empire:
"A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse;
a scion thrusts from his roots.
On Him the Spirit of Yahweh rests,
A Spirit of counsel and power,
a Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh.
He does not judge by appearances;
He gives no verdict on hearsay
but judges the wretched with integrity
and with equity gives a verdict for the poor of the land.
His word is a rod that strikes the ruthless;
His sentences bring death to the wicked (Isa. 11:14)."
The prophet Ezekiel envisions the work of Yahweh in his dream:
"He said to me, Son of man, can these bones live? I said, You
know, Lord Yahweh. He said, Prophesy over these bones. Say, "Dry bones, hear
the word of Yahweh. The Lord Yahweh says this to these bones: I am now going to make the
breath enter you, and you will live. I shall put sinews on you; I shall make flesh grow on
you; I shall cover you with skin and give you breath; and you will live; and you will
learn that lam Yahweh." ...I prophesied as he ordered me, and the breath
entered them; they came to life again and stood up on their feet, a great, an immense army
In the New Testament, the vision of the New Jerusalem, of the New
Heaven and New Earth, is classical; and this vision has risen among the faithful, who
suffered the harsh oppression of the Roman Empire.
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: the first heaven and the
first earth had disappeared now, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the holy city and
the new Jerusalem coming down from Cod out of heaven as beautiful as a bride all dressed
for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice call from the throne, You see this city?
Here God lives among people. He will make His home among them; they shall be is people,
and He will be their God; His name is God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from
their eyes; there will be no more death and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the
past has gone (Rev. 21:1-4)."
The vindication of God for the suffering people is the basic matrix of
the social biography of the people and God. The justice of God does not allow for the
people of God to suffer under any power, and yet the social biography of the people of God
is the story of the suffering of the people. When they suffer under the oppression of
power, the people are bound to have a vision of the justice of Cod realized. Here the
justice of God and the suffering of the people are contradictory to each other.
In this drama, the unfaithfulness of the people toward God enters into
the story of the people. The rebellion of the people, the apostasy of the faithful and
peoples breach of the covenant with God becomes the problem in the drama of the
covenant between God and the people. This unfaithfulness of the people to their God is
nothing but their subjugation to the imperial powers of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria and Rome,
which claim the allegiance of their subject people. Slavery and exploitation are
peoples subjugation to an unjust and oppressive relationship that is contrary to the
covenant and covenant codes.
In this drama, the suffering people are the protagonists. God
vindicates them. This means that God judges against the oppressive and dominating powers,
that is, the antagonists, on behalf of the poor, oppressed and injured. The problem is how
to restore the relationship between the people and God that has been broken and alienated.
During the period of the kingdoms, the covenant framework was still
intact. The task though became the restoration of the covenant in the cornmunity of the
people of God. The task was a prophetic one. The role of the prophets, therefore, was
dominant. The restoration of the relationship between God and the people and the healing
of the broken and injured community was still necessary, yet it was secondary.
When the covenant, however, had been broken completely under the
domination and occupation of the empires and when obedience to Cod and the keeping of the
covenant with Yahweh was neither recognized nor allowed, the role of the priest was
prominent in establishing a new basis for the covenant. The establishment or restoration
of the community by returning to Jerusalem, or new Jerusalem, was the crux of the matter.
In this setting, the expiation or sacrifice of the lamb was the mediation for the
restoration of the new covenantal relationship between God and the people. Here the
sacrificial lamb is the suffering servant, the suffering people, the crucified Jesus and
the martyred saint, who calls for the justice of Cod.
Finally the king of the people of God has a role to play, but his role
is diametrically opposed to the emperors of the empires, who make absolute claims of
deity. His role is as the servant of Yahweh; he is the shepherd of the people; he is to
protect the poor, the weak and the alienated. In this sense, he is the servant of the
One may hypothetically assume that the social biography of the people
of God in the Bible has various phases, that is, the phase of the slave, the poor, the
oppressed and the captured. The antagonists are manifested in different forms as well,
that is, the master of the slave, the rich who exploit the poor, the oppressive king, the
conquering emperor. In this drama too, the concrete manifestations of the justice of God
also take different modes, that is, as liberator, prophet, king and priest.
VI. Concluding Remarks
We have tried to illustrate that humanitys social biography is an
integral part of the Biblical stories of the people of Cod, that the historical nature of
divine revelation can be clarified in the context of the social biography of the people of
God and that mission (liberator, king, prophet and priest) can be understood in the
context of the various experiences of the people, that is, the social biography of the
people of God. We have used many direct quotations from the Bible because they are already
social biographical materials.
We have discerned several dimensions in the socio-biography of the
people of God in the Bible. As far as the human historical stages are concerned, it is the
people of Cod who are the subjective partner of the covenant with God, that is, the
protagonists in the historical drama. As the slaves, the poor, the oppressed and the
captives, they are the victims of suffering under the tyrannical master, the unjust king,
the greedy rich and the oppressive imperial powers, which are antagonists in the
These powers not only cause the suffering of the people, but they claim
absolute allegiance and loyalty to their authority, over and against allegiance and
loyalty to God. In this context, we must understand the power realities in the Bible. In
other words, it is essential to understand the political sociology of the kingdoms and
empires, not only to understand the social biography of the people of God, but also to
understand the nature of Gods revelation in history.
The revelation of God, or the saving acts of God, are understood in
light of the suffering of the people and in light of the oppressive powers. These two
dimensions are integral to the social biography of the people.
As to the question of the sins of the people of God, this is an issue
between God and the people of God. The people of God are suffering under the powers of the
master, the rich, the powerful kings and emperors. This is the objective historical
reality. Theologically, however, they are subject to the tyranny of those powers because
their relationship of covenant with God, who liberates them, protects them and judges on
their behalf, is broken because of the rebellion and unfaithfulness of the people of God
themselves. There is no romanticism about the people of God on the level of their
relationship with God.
However, it is the people who yearn for the justice of God. They dream
visions of the just rule of God that punishes the unjust and rebellious powers of the
world. It is the people with whom Cod relates. God hears them crying and moaning under the
oppressive powers; God liberates them and saves them from their bondage.
In this reflection on the Bible and the social biography of the Minjung,
there is double thinking about the people of God: the people of God are, on the one
hand, the victims of the oppressive powers; on the other hand, they are the messianic
people who bear witness to the justice of God for the peoples of the world, for they are
the real partners in the covenant with God; they are privileged to know and experience the
justice of God.
This double thinking about the people of God is also closely related to
the universal concept of the people of Cod, which is inclusive of all people - the slaves,
the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the captives, etc. The concept of the Hebrew, the
eschatological identification of Jesus with the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned and
the sick and the eschatological privilege of the poor in the Kingdom of God - all of these
illustrate both the inclusive and universal nature of the concept of the people of God and
their special theological status.
What this means is that the social biography of the Minjung today
provides a real historical context in which we read the Bible and hear the Word of God;
and from this experience, we can articulate the status of the Minjung as the
subjects of history - theologically and historically - and their role for the destiny of
human community - again, theologically and historically. On this horizon, we must
articulate the role of present-day leaders, such as prophets, priests and leaders of the
people, as the servants of the people as well as the servants of God.
This small article is dedicated to my teacher, who demonstrates
humility in his thinking and in his style of life: he is the lover of the Minjung because
he is gripped by his experience with them; he trembles before the Minjung because
he knows their awesome reality.