by Lois Tverberg
Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)
Our understanding of the word “righteousness” (tzedakah – tzeh-dah-KAH) doesn’t come near to understanding the wide, rich meanings of the idea in Hebrew, and sometimes confuses us when we read the Scripture. Our traditional understanding of this idea is correct performance of regulations and legal perfection. When we hear about the “righteousness of God” we cringe, thinking that out of righteousness, God is angry with us when we cannot measure up.
It may surprise us, then, that the phrase, tzedkot Adonai (righteous acts of God) in Jewish versions of the Bible is translated as “kindnesses,” “abundant benevolences,” “gracious acts,” and “gracious deliverances.” This is because the word tzedakah means more than just legal correctness: it refers to covenantal faithfulness, often resulting in rescuing those in distress and showing mercy to sinners.
This is why King David says to God, “Judge me, O LORD my God, according to Your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me” (Psa. 35:24). He is actually appealing to God’s mercy to those under his covenant, rather than his legal judgments.
This idea of tzedakah as mercy is even found in Jesus time. A common idiom in use by Jews from that time (and still used today) was to use the word tzedakah to refer to charity and almsgiving. Jesus uses it this way when he says not to do your “acts of righteousness” in front of others, and then he goes on to speak about giving to the poor (Mt 6:1-4).
We see now that the word tzedakah goes beyond “legal perfection.” But we might wonder why many people are spoken of as righteous in the Old Testament, even though they are hardly perfect. How can we be called righteous too? One commentary says that a better way to define the righteous, biblically, would be:
“…those who, in humility and faithfulness, trust in the Lord, despite persecution and oppression; those who seek to live uprightly and without pride of heart, depending on the Lord for protection and vindication. `Righteousness’ here is not ethical perfection, but that obedience and uprightness of the faithful who plead with God for a favorable decision, not always in order to be `justified’ against an adversary, but often, in an absolute manner, to be accepted and saved.”
See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.
For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).