Considering the Value of the Honor-Shame Paradigm in Ancient Israel

By Victor H. Matthews
Department of Religious Studies
Missouri State University
May 2013

There can be no honor in a society that cannot grasp the concept of shame. These two polar opposites function as the foundation of a social control mechanism designed to value honorable behavior and speech and to avoid whatever may result in shame. Realistically, it is also possible that if a person is certain that their bad behavior cannot be detected or found out, then the likelihood that they will engage in dishonorable behavior is increased. However, even without the possibility of others knowing about their actions feeling guilt or shame can still cause us to be able to interrupt actions that violate derived social standards. If a person is capable of listening to their inner voice, then incorrect or inappropriate action can be prevented.

When there is a clear sense of shame present and functioning within a society, it is susceptible to abuse by individuals, the community, and those in authority that wish to regulate behavior. Conformity is not always personally beneficial and there are some actions such as charging into battle that do not protect the self or one’s life. But feelings of shame can be enforced on persons who are convinced that it is better to conform to authority than to face charges of cowardice, treason, or some other negative label.

Still, it is necessary for the community to define what is honorable in order to determine what is dishonorable. That in turn suggests that cross-cultural conceptions of shame between Western and Eastern societies are problematic since cultural variables differ quite widely between individualized and collectivized communities. Cultures that emphasize the identity and worth of the individual and the priority of personal goals differ widely from collectivized communities such as that of ancient Israel or in Asia. Since ancient Israel also has been identified as a “shame culture,” it is necessary to add the determination that the desire for public esteem is the greatest good, and to be ill spoken of is the greatest evil.1

To illustrate this point, I want to examine two laws dealing with the fair treatment of poor day laborers (Deut 24:12-15). While it is possible that these individuals were simply hired by the day or the season as some workers are hired today, there is precedence for a tenure of three years for day laborers and that would add to both the relationship between worker and employer and to the obligations both had for the other (see Isa 16:14). The first case addresses the acceptance of a garment in pledge, either for a loan or as noted in Amos 2:8 as surety for a full day’s labor. The premise is that the peasant involved is so poor that his only piece of property is his outer robe. It is hard to imagine such poverty, but the robe also had symbolic value since it represented the difference between a free man and a slave in their society. As long as he owned a robe, he was not dependent on a master to provide him with clothing, but clearly he is on the very margin and could easily slip into such financial exigency that he must sell himself or members of his family into debt slavery (see Exod 21:2-11). The plight of the poor in such circumstances is at least partially protected in this legal statement since it guarantees the return of the robe at sunset each day so the individual may sleep in comfort as a free man through the night. The reward for extending care to destitute debtors or day laborers is the blessing offered up to Yahweh by the poor man.

It should be understood, however, that it is very likely that a law such as this is framed in response to a real situation or because of the potential for abuse (see Eliphaz’ charge against Job that he has “exacted pledges … and stripped the naked of their clothing [Job 22:6]). Day laborers were at the mercy of large landowners and in many cases the only way to protect their rights was through a process of public shaming. That becomes clear in a seventh century B.C.E. Israelite inscription found on a piece of broken pottery (see inset) at Yavneh Yam (a coastal town located about 7 miles south of Joppa). Written to support a claim of unjust treatment, this document demonstrates that there was an appeals process and that even a poor day laborer could call on the local administrator to hear his case (compare the Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant).2 The very fact that the document exists also points to the effort to indict and shame the harvest foreman by making his unlawful actions public.

Yavneh Yam Ostracon

Several days ago, your servant was harvesting in Hasar-asam. The work went as usual and your servant completed the harvesting and storing of my quota of grain …. Despite the fact that your servant had completed his assigned work, Hoshaiahu, son of Shobai, kept your servant’s cloak. He has held my cloak for days. All my fellow workers will testify – all those who work in the heat of the day will certify – that I am not guilty of any breach of contract. Please order my supervisor to return my cloak either in fulfillment of the law or as an act of mercy. Please do not remain silent and leave your servant without his cloak.

The second case requires that field workers receive their wages at the end of the day for “their livelihood depends upon them” (Deut 24:15a). Wages in ancient Israel consisted of a portion of the harvest or the right to certain services. These workers have no other means of feeding their families and paying their debts except the small payment they receive for their work each day. A similar version of the law appears in Lev 19:13, but it refers to the rights of all workers, not just those living on the edge financially. Apparently, the potential abuses that are contained in this legal stipulation are long-standing since the prophet Malachi, in the period after the exile (post-500 BCE) condemns those “who oppress the hired workers in their wages.” Failure to adhere to these humanitarian statutes protecting the poor (98% of the population) could result in the oppressed workers crying “out to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt” (24:15b). The presumption being that the one who violates the law would be publicly shamed before the community (see Job 31:38-39).

The possibility of bringing a case of injustice to Yahweh as well as to the community at large brings us back to the Psalmist. In Ps 25:1-3, a supplicant calls on Yahweh to prevent his household from being “put to shame” or to “let my enemies exult over me,” especially those who “are wantonly treacherous,” and who should therefore be shamed for their evil deeds. Since the assumption in these laws and supplications is that Yahweh is to be considered the ultimate patron of the powerless client, a petition addressed to the deity should bring both justice and retribution. Shame can be avoided by both parties if they each adhere to their contractual obligations. In that way they both benefit and obtain the honor due a diligent worker and a humanitarian employer.

It is to the advantage of the community and its leaders to inculcate social control methods and accompanying social values that inhibit petty or malicious self-indulgence and promote conformity to social expectation. The degree to which they are successful in internalizing cultural moral standards will determine the effectiveness of shame feelings as a social control mechanism. Like the laws regarding day-laborers, the Psalmist ties honorable behavior and the avoidance of shame to keeping Yahweh’s statutes. By clinging to these decrees and speaking of them before kings (presumably in defense of justice) “I shall not be put to shame” (Ps 119:1-6, 31, 46, 80). According to this social framework, governed by the desire to avoid shame and obtain honor, the society as a whole can achieve harmony.


1 Zeba Crook, “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited,” JBL 128 (2009), 598-99.

2 See translations of both texts in Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East, 3rd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006.

Comments (3)

The idea of a shame culture, versus a guilt culture, was developed with a much wider reference than to ancient societies or to ancient Israel. Is there anything particularly Israelite about the things you mention? There are references to shame but is there any indication that Israelites feared shame more than anyone else? There are references to shame elsewhere, as with Hector and the Trojans. The idea of a timocracy, based on honour and shame, was developed by Plato. There are religious poems about shame, as you mention, but I would have two questions here. Does the existence of these poems show that shame was a more religious concept among Israelites than among others? And are there not elements in the same range of poetry of at least the beginnings of a guilt culture? As to the first, the Yavneh Yam inscription has no religious element or atmosphere - but there again, is it really about shame? It is an example of litigation or at least complaint to a superior - and asking for a judgement in this fashion is not quite the same as appealing to general sentiment or widespread opinion. On the second point, we have the reference in Ps.19 to the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, which embodies at least an early form of the basic distinction between inward and outward that a guilt, rather than shame, culture depends upon.

#1 - Martin - 05/27/2013 - 15:57

I have most recently addressed the issue of ancient Israel as a shame society in: “Avoiding Shame in Ancient Israel,” in Robert Jewett, ed. The Shame Factor: How Shame Shapes Society (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 117-142.

Cross-cultural conceptions of shame between Western and Eastern societies are problematic since cultural variables differ quite widely between individualized and collectivized communities. Cultures that emphasize the identity and worth of the individual and the priority of personal goals differ widely from collectivized communities such as that of ancient Israel or in Asia. Zeba Crook (2009: 598-99) has made a good case for Mediterranean cultures, like that of ancient Israel, being collectivistic and therefore a shame culture. The ethics of a collectivized community that include feelings of loyalty, honor, respect, and duty are focused on protecting the household’s status and the community rather than on preserving the self or on maintaining personal liberty. Based on that finding, it can be said that as an honor-based, collectivistic society like the ancient Israelites made a point in their wisdom literature, their legal pronouncements, and in their extended narratives of extolling the community benefits derived from right behavior, cool-headed thinking, and appropriate and timely speech.

#2 - Victor H. Matthews - 05/29/2013 - 14:07


#3 - Edward Mills - 09/19/2013 - 22:47

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