Biblical Rights 1

Earlier, in Post 3, Rights 2, I shared the story of a Christian mentor suggesting the disparity between a biblical view on rights and the post-enlightenment, American view of rights I held at that point in life. I now look back on that combination of faith and rights as the period of my “American Civic Faith.” I was in my early to mid-40’s by the time of that conversation. One key reason he was able to blow me away so quickly, so completely, and with so little being said on the topic is this: I had sufficient biblical background to instantly see just how incredibly right he might be. If I hadn’t already had a such a background with the Bible at that point, his comments would have seemed so goofy – so disconnected from my personal experience – that his perspective would have been dismissed. At the very least I’d have used the rest of our time together that day asking him to defend that crazy thought; the idea that Christians might have given up their rights when they chose to be Christian. But because I did have an extensive life-history with the Bible – it required very little input from him – just the right small key – to enable me to see the strong likelihood of what he was suggesting. I had the background to see he was only connecting a link I had completely missed. It’s as if, for 10-15 years you’ve been wrestling with a whole range of issues that are crucial-to-you in life, and one day someone drops a paragraph that just changes the whole wrestling tournament into a figure skating competition. You’ve spent 15 years trying to figure skate on a wrestling mat. No wonder you couldn’t get it to work it out. It’s having that kind of realization. Or like you’ve spent 15 years trying to snow ski the moguls on a chess board. 

So now, 15-20 years later, in this post and the next couple, I will attempt delivering a short form working-out of the dawning realization his comment fostered for me that day.

So, in an effort to capture the biblical contribution to rights thinking, I used my protestant version phone NIV bible app. Its search feature may be lacking, or it may just be my understanding of how to use it effectively. But when I search for “rights” across the entire text of the bible, I net a total of 19 verses, with 4 of those in the New Testament (Christian), and 15 of them found in the Old Testament (Hebrew, Pre-Christian). Note that the search is for “rights” plural, so is very likely yielding results for the kind of rights we’re talking about here.

When searching for “right,” singular, the word right is also part of “rights,”, “rightly,” “righteous,” “righteousness,” “righteously,” and “rightfully.” The search for “right” brings up hits for all 7 of those words, with a total verse count combined at 922 verses.

So, we have 19 total verses that are very likely mentioning the kind of “rights” we’re talking about here. By doing various search gyrations and accommodating calculations, I arrived at 415 verses that at least include the word “right.” However, not nearly all of those are the kind of “right” we’re talking about in a discussion of rights. It’s surprising how many different ways we English users can use one word. But working through those 415 verses that could be a “right,” in the way we’re using it here, I arrive at 26 verses with the word right. So, between “rights” and our kind of “right,” there are 45 uses throughout the bible. I afterwards recognized “birthright” as a hit I was not getting in my searches, so searched for that and found 6 more, added at the end of this list, for a total of 51. In the list, the asterisks followed by count denote use of “rights,” plural.

1: Ex 21:8 / No right to sell Hebrew women to foreigners

2: Ex 21:9 * 1 / Provide Food, Clothing, Marital Rights – or wife free

3: Ex 21:10 * 2 / Provide Food, Clothing, Marital Rights – continued from above

4: Lev 25:29 / Sell house within city walls, 1 year Right of redemption

5: Lev 25:32 / Redeeming house within city walls, continued from above

6: Lev25:48 / If Hebrew sold to foreigner living in Israel, right of redemption

7: Dt 21:16 * 3 / Rights of firstborn

8: Dt 21:17 / Right of firstborn

9: Jdg 11:23 / Amorites no right to disputed territory

10: Jdg 15:3 / Samson claiming right to harm the Philistines

11: Ru 4:4 / Kinsman, guardian-redeemer succession right, property widow / marriage

12: 1Sa 8:9 * 4 / Warning King will claim rights over the people

13: 1Sa 8:11 * 5 / Repeat warning rights of king over the people

14: 1Sa 10:25 * / Noting Samuel explained rights of king – but no note of what they were

15: 2Sa 19:22 / King David chastising “no right to interfere”

16: 2Sa 19:28 / Saul’s grandson, stating he has no right to ask anything more from King David

17: 2Sa 21:4 / Gibeonites telling David they have no right to ransom, or to kill anyone

18: 1Ch 5:1 * 7 / Historical note about Ruben (Israel’s bio-first born) losing firstborn rights

19: 1Ch 5:2 * 8 / Continuing story above about Ruben / sons of Joseph & firstborn rights

20: Ne 2:20 / Fellow-subjected foreigners, no claim of right to Jerusalem

21: Est 8:11 / King grants Hebrews right of self-defense against prior edict for their slaughter

22: Job 36:6 * 9 / God gives (sees to / delivers on) the rights of the oppressed


23: Pr 31:5 * 10 / Charge not to deprive oppressed of their rights

24: Pr 31:8 * 11 / Charge to speak up for rights of destitute

25: Pr 31:9 * 12 / Charge to speak up, judge fairly, defend rights of poor and needy

26: Ecc 5:8 * 13 / Don’t be surprised at rights denied to poor and oppressed in corrupt situations

27: Isa 10:2 * 14 / Condemns withholding rights and justice from poor and oppressed

28: La 3:35 * 15 / The Lord sees it if people denied justice and rights

NEW TESTAMENT / Beginning of Gospels

29: Mt 20:15 / Jesus’s parable of vineyard workers and farmer’s right to generosity

30: Jn 1:12 / Right to become children of God

31: Jn 18:31 / Jews protesting to Pilate that they have no right to execute anyone

NEW TESTAMENT / End of Gospels

32: Ac 25:11 / Paul protesting no Roman right to turn him over to Jews / appeals to Caesar

33: 1Co 6:12 / Freedom in Christ, right to do anything, but warning not all beneficial

34: 1Co 8:9 * 16 / Warning against allowing one’s own rights to cause problems for others

35: 1Co 9:5 / Paul declining rights for benefit of Gospel

36: 1Co 9:6 / Paul and Barnabas “lacking right to not work for a living” – Rhetorical

37: 1Co 9:12 / Paul declining rights for benefit of Gospel

38: 1Co 9:15 * 17 / Paul declining rights for benefit of Gospel

39: 1Co 9:18 * 18 / Paul declining rights for benefit of Gospel

40: 1 Cor 10:23 / Freedom in Christ, rights to all, but not all beneficial

41: Heb 12:16 * 19 / Reference back to Esau selling birth rights in Gen 25:31-27:36

42: Heb 13:10 / Altar / those who minister have no right to eat.

43: Rev 2:7 / Right to eat from tree of life / be children of God

44: Rev 3:21 / Right to sit with Jesus on throne as he sat with God on His throne

45: Rev 22:14 / Right to tree of life, into heaven city, eternal life


46: Ge 25:31 Jacob/Esau

47: Ge 25:32 Jacob/Esau

48: Ge 25:33 Jacob/Esau

49: Ge 25:34 Jacob/Esau

50: Ge 27:36 Jacob/Esau

51: 1Ch 5:1 (Later reference to Ruben, son of Israel losing birthright)

Birthrights (plural), no hits.

My 1983 NIV Thompson Chain Reference Bible comes in at 1272 pages, from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21. Between the kind of “right” and “rights” we’re discussing here, there are a total of 51 mentions throughout the 1272 pages. That’s an average of one reference every 24.9 pages.

Including rights of primogeniture, rights make any appearance whatsoever in only 21 of 66 books of the (Protestant) bible.

Rights make no appearance in the Psalms.

In the 4 New Testament gospels, rights make only 3 appearances: once for the claim that God has granted practicing believers the right to become his children, once in a parable explaining God’s right to generosity, and once for the Jews to protest to Pilate that they don’t have the (Roman) right to execute Jesus.

The only appearance of rights in the discourses of Jesus is found in the parable of the vineyard workers, where he’s teaching about God’s right to generosity.  

Of 14 New Testament mentions of rights:

4 have to do with the God granted, eternal rights of practicing Christian believers.

5 are Paul discussing rights he foregoes for purpose of advancing Gospel

2 have to do with the Jews under Roman occupation lacking rights to execute people (Jesus and the Apostle Paul, specifically).

2 (at least) are warnings against allowing one’s use of rights cause problems for others

1 refers back to Esau (Gen 25-27) selling his birth right for a meal – don’t make his mistake

Now, 15-20 years ago, my biblical familiarity was inclined toward the New Testament. As a Christian (Protestant, at least), I tend to look to the New Testament first. So, if you pause to think about what the New Testament actually says about rights, it doesn’t sound all that “American.” And this is the dawning I had that day all those years ago with my mentor. When he drew me up short with the comment that my American rights thinking was not very Christian in its orientation, I was already well enough acquainted with the New Testament to realize that he likely had a hard-for-me, but valid point. Relying on the New Testament for an intellectual defense of American rights thinking requires some hyperactive mental gymnastics: distortions. And just from that little comment of his, I immediately saw the probable veracity of his suggestion.

In an earlier post I mentioned that the biblical documents were not from a pre-rights time, and parenthetically noted that it would be easier for me if that was the case. Plainly enough, by the time of old testament documents and stories, rights of various kinds were presumed (at least) from tradition and taken for granted as being rights, without any “philosophy” or rationale to support them. They were enculturated from long habit and practice, even to the point of the bible saying that God notices when people’s rights are denied them. One verse goes so far as to say God gives people their rights. I think that’s used in the sense of God “looks after” or delivers based on their rights. But even then, it’s presuming God assumes rights. And it presumes that God assumes a lot more rights than the ones I will propose going forward, toward a biblical libertarian philosophy.

In my second post at this website (No Rights Found Here), I delivered a short, broad sweep for the evolution of rights thinking from ancient times until now. In light of the Old Testament verses cited in this post, I see the need for a corrected, expanded summary for the evolution of early rights thinking. So, I will do that next.

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