Summary: Where in history do we first hear of “human rights”? Some will tell you: in the Enlightenment (the 17th and 18th Centuries). In fact, the idea is much older than that. The concept of rights that belong to all people is already present in the Scriptures.
Declaration of Human Rights
In 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was an historic accomplishment the likes of which had never been achieved before. In wake of World War II with its racist-based genocide, the nations gave their assent to this declaration. Here is Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Bear in mind that many governments to this point would not have agreed to such a statement. Now, before all the world, the nations admitted that human rights were real, undebatable and enforceable. From now on decisions reached by the nations of the world would acknowledge and uphold human rights, rather than transgress or diminish them.
Almost two centuries earlier, Thomas Jefferson wrote: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (Declaration of Independence).
It is of the greatest significance that Jefferson grounded human rights in the Creator. This was no accident. Here was both a recognition and an assertion that rights cannot be taken from individuals by powerful persons or governments. Rights are from God. As such they are beyond the reach of humans. This is self-evident, beyond argument or denial.
But consider what Paul the Apostle had written seventeen centuries earlier. In the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans Paul says that what is right and wrong, just and unjust, good and evil, should be self-evident to all because these things are plain in nature, in the world created by God. When humans allow their religion to become corrupted—worshiping idols of their own making—their behavior becomes corrupted as well. The “debased mind” (v. 28) generates injury and misery.
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. – Romans 1:29-30 (ESV)
Long before Jefferson, the Apostle stated that corrupt belief and the harm which flows from it come from rejecting God’s self-evident truth. There is a law evident in nature, and it condemns injury to others.
Human rights are presupposed and defended in the Bible, even if they were not yet developed into the philosophical concept they would become later. Human rights live and breathe in the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. They underlie the behavior standards of believers in the New Testament, Jew and Gentile alike. They are what we innately demand to have and to hold for ourselves, giving meaning to “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Everyone deserves to be treated with justice. That requires maintaining what we today call rights.
Image of God
As the Bible opens with Genesis, God creates the man and the woman in his image. In Bible times the image of a king might be left on territory he ruled to be a sign of his ownership. At the heart of this image-of-God language is that same idea. Humans are in God’s world to represent God as they care for the creation that belongs to him. That’s the original idea, and theologians have developed it further through the centuries.
Common to all discussions of the image of God is an acknowledgement of the high status of the human being. “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). Rights become presupposed as part of what sets humans above all other creatures.
Law of Moses, The 70
In the Law of Moses given on Mt. Sinai it is clear that rights of individuals are presupposed. “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous” (Deut. 16:19) Again, the rights of individuals are presupposed as paramount.
The prophets demanded righteousness from God’s people. Righteousness is a concept coming from the language of the Old Testament. The word for righteous is zedek. It is applied to things that work well for their intended purpose. For instance, a sharp knife is a zedek knife. The righteousness of a society is the quality of the society that makes it work well, with judges deciding cases typically in the city gate. The lawless are thwarted. The powerless are defended. The call for righteousness in the whole prophetic tradition presupposes human rights.
Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. – Amos 5:15 (ESV)
The story of Naboth´s vineyard in 2 Kings 21 illustrates that justice in Israel was to be for rich and poor alike, and that powerful kings had no authority simply to usurp what belonged to another. Presupposed again are the rights of individuals, no matter how insignificant they were in terms of wealth or status. King Ahab faced the condemnation of Elijah for Queen Jezebel’s crime of securing a man’s vineyard by setting him up to be stoned for a crime he did not commit.
In the history of the world children have been the most vulnerable people of all, without the strength, the means, or the knowledge to defend themselves. In the Old Testament period the Canaanites and others sacrificed children to the god Molech. This idol was made of bronze and apparently had a chamber within it where a fire was built to heat the metal before the child was placed in it. This practice was strictly forbidden for God’s people, though some of them descended to that level of evil.
Through Jeremiah the Lord addressed this sin: “They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin” (Jeremiah 32:35).
But wasn’t Isaac sacrificed by Abraham? The answer is: no, he was not. That story in Genesis 22 was never meant as a call for child sacrifice, nor a justification for it. It begins with a practice already in the world, and demonstrates that God does not desire the killing of children.
…they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. – Jeremiah 5:28 (ESV)
Slavery is one of the worst violations of human rights. In the Old Testament we do not find God or the nation called by him celebrating slavery. Within Israel indentured servants could be found, but they were in contractual arrangements with their masters in order to have their basic needs met so they could live. The master did not “own” the servant as in the pre-Civil War USA.
Further, the sabbatical year brought these arrangements to an end every seventh year. Even indentured servitude had limits placed upon it. In Babylonia fugitive slaves were to be returned to their owners on pain of death if they failed to do so. In contrast, it was in Israel that persons were forbidden by the Law of Moses to return a runaway slave.
Isaiah writes of Cyrus the Great. He is referred to as God’s anointed, i.e., messiah, even though Cyrus was unaware that God had taken him by the hand and sent him to do marvelous things for Israel (Isaiah 45). This remarkable Persian conqueror brought to an end the Babylonian Empire. The city of Babylon opened its gates to him when he arrived there, rather than fight. Cyrus did things unheard of. He set slaves free, and he sent conquered peoples back to their homelands from which they had been forcibly removed. God’s anointed leader Cyrus upheld the rights of human beings.
What about the rights of women in the Bible? Many have found fault with the Bible for standing in the way of women. Most of them have never heard of the daughters of Zelophehad, but their important story is found early on in the Bible (Numbers 26 – 27). In a world where women were regarded as men’s property, these five sisters approached Moses with a plea to inherit land. It would have been the land assigned to their father, but he had died. Moses heard their case, and put the matter before the Lord, rather than decide it himself. It was the decision of the Lord that these women should indeed inherit land.
Further, if a man had no sons, his wife and daughters were to inherit his possessions rather than his brothers. There was more change to come for women, but already in the years immediately following the Exodus, women’s rights were being recognized and established in the Law.
A Monumental Event
The United States will now be celebrating Juneteenth as a national holiday each year, remembering the freeing of all slaves through Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. There is an important part of that story which isn’t taught in schools. The Civil War had gone badly for the North until a recent victory at Antietam. President Lincoln met with his Cabinet on the 22nd of September, 1862. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase asked the President to repeat what he had just said. “I made a solemn vow before God, that if General Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” So God, working in the life of a Bible-student and believer, brought about the event celebrated as the end of slavery.
In the world of the New Testament the young church had no power to change anything about the government of the Roman Empire. That included slavery which was practiced across the Roman Empire. But at least some of those Christians saw things differently. Paul lists enslaving people as one of the terrible practices God established the Law against (1 Timothy 1:10). Christians did not own slaves in the Roman world. Those first Christians also saved abandoned infants, raising them in their own homes so that they might live complete and rich lives. They valued life, and we can see by their actions that they presupposed what we call today human rights.
We might wish there had been earlier victories in recognizing and defending rights on the part of God’s people. But human rights are presupposed in the Bible, even if humans have at times been slow to see that. We have reason to keep thinking.