James as Commentary on Leviticus
and Psalm 12
Some scholars have argued that James
extensive allusions are because he was writing midrash
on Leviticus, chapter 19, or on Psalm 12, verses 1-6. Midrash
is essentially commentary on a earlier text, interpreted to meet
the needs of a specific audience and community (Wall 21). There
are specific forms of midrash, but the point here is not that James
follows a form, but rather that his writing has an intertextuality
with the older writings. James uses citations, illusions, echoes
and cues that will bring the Leviticus or Psalm 12 to mind when
the letter is read (Wall 21).
At least one scholar claims that James goal was to write a commentary
on Psalm 12. In fact anyone who knew the Psalm would quickly note
the similarities. Psalm 12, especially verses 1-4, complains about
flattering lips, boasting and lying, double-minded and confident
of their own worth. James addresses these same issues repeatedly:
in 1:8, 1:19-27, 3:1-12, 4:11-12, 4:13-16 and 5:12. James and the
Psalmist are both concerned that no one can tame the tongue—a
restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:8).
But beyond taming of our tongues, it is clear in Psalm 12 that
those with boasting lips are wealthy or powerful. The promise of
the Psalm is that the LORD will rise up against them, and in the
defense of the poor (Psalm 12:5). In the same way, the promise of
James is that God will reverse the situation and bring joy to the
persecuted. James opens with this promise in 1:2 and 1:9-11, and
then repeats it more forcefully at the closing in 5:1-6.
“Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy
groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will
place them in the safety for which they long.” Psalm
Leviticus 19:15 defines the sacred community as one that does not
favor rich over poor (Wall 106), and thus gives them the safety
for which they long. The entire chapter is considered key to
the Holiness code, found in Leviticus 18-26 (Fox 502). It also may
refer to the Ten Commandments. The text is extending sacred law
into a law for ordinary life, mostly about ethical relations between
people (Fox 600). Leviticus 19 is in some ways a summary of the
whole of the Law, and James commentary encourages readers back to
James looks closely at the law in 1:25-2:12. This section opens
and closes with reference to the Law of Liberty, and uses
the term Royal Law in 2:8. For the Royal Law James
quotes Leviticus 19:18 You shall love your neighbor as yourself,
but he does not give direct explanation of the term Law of Liberty.
This section of James is about care of widows and orphans, and the
preferential option for the poor (Wall 94), and calls to mind Leviticus
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be
partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall
judge your neighbor.
Wall argues that the use of the word liberty links this
section to Leviticus 25 and the concept of Jubilee (Wall
92). The letter mentions equal treatment and offers hope for the
poor and persecuted, but is also calling the congregation back to
the law. Jubilee requires that fields are left unplanted, debts
are forgiven, and land lost in bad times is returned to its owners.
Leviticus clearly has a strong preferential option for the poor,
and James is alluding to this part of the law.
James makes references to many verses of the law in Leviticus 19.
Above we have noted James 2:1 and 2:8 allude to Leviticus 19:15,
16, and 18. James 4:11 calls for fair treatment and honesty with
your neighbor, also the message of Leviticus 19:11 and 19:13. Leviticus
19:13 and James 5:4 require that we pay laborers every day. James
insistence that our yes be yes, without swearing, and 3:10-12 refers
to Leviticus 19:12.
James knows the scripture of time, what we call Old Testament,
intimately. We do not know whether his goal was to write a commentary
on those texts. But it is clear that he considers these texts relevant,
and that the message of Psalm 12 and of Leviticus inform his letter
to this new Christian community.
Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, (New York: Schocken
Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James,
(Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).