“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17).
Poverty is a tragedy that affects people in every country of the world. The poor are individuals who lack the necessary means to provide for their basic needs. In an ideal world, poverty would never exist. This is the view taken by the author of Deuteronomy: “There should be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).
However, there is a basic condition if poverty is to cease in the world: “If only you obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow every one of these commands I am giving you today” (Deuteronomy 15:5). The reason for this caveat is because unless one learns from God how to be as generous as he is, people will fall in love with possessions and will do everything to increase their wealth. This is the kind of person “who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth” (Proverbs 22:16).
Fallen human nature is the reason the wise man took a realistic view of life: “There will never cease to be poor people in the country, and that is why I am giving you this command: Always be open handed with your brother, and with anyone in your country who is in need and poor” (Deuteronomy 15:11).
Poverty was a painful reality that affected many individuals and families throughout the history of ancient Israel. The reason many laws dealing with poverty were enacted by the community was because poverty was a fact of life in Israel and the number of people who became poor increased with the passing of time. These laws urged Israelites to be “open handed” with people in need.
There were many reasons for poverty in Israel. Most Israelites were farmers who lived from the produce of the land. Although natural disasters would bring times and situations in which Israelite farmers would be deprived of food and the benefits of their work, most Israelites had enough to survive and to maintain their families.
It was the establishment of the monarchy in Israel that changed the way Israelites related to the land. In the beginning, Israel was a communal society. An Israelite had to produce only enough to sustain his family and maybe to sell or trade with others for goods that he could not produce.
However, with the establishment of the monarchy, Israel became an exporter of goods and for this reason, Israelite families had to produce more goods in order to pay their taxes to the government. It is here that poverty took a turn for the worse, because now the average Israelite had to produce for his family, for small trade, and then produce more than they needed for personal consumption to pay taxes to the king.
And kings do not live on little. As Samuel warned the people: “He [the king] will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive orchards and give them to his officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and wine and give it to his aids and officials” (1Samuel 8:14-15). The government does not produce anything. Rather, government distributes the wealth of the people by taking it from some to give it to others.
When people were unable to pay their taxes to the government because of poor crops and other situations that did not allow them to produce a supply of goods, the government intervened and confiscated the land. In times of economic hardship, people had to borrow money to pay their taxes. Often people had to get loans to provide for their families.
Many times when people borrowed money, if their situation did not improve, they became unable to repay these loans. When that happened, the debtors were taken to court where dishonest judges ruled against them, took their land, and gave their land to the creditors. Since the land of Israel was an arid land and droughts happened from time to time, this situation probably was repeated many times.
The laws about poverty in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus were enacted in order to address this sad situation that existed in Israelite society. When one compares the laws dealing with poverty in these books, one notices that the laws were changed and modified in order to address economic and social conditions that grew worse with the passing of time.
The ideal about the poor and poverty in Israel is expressed in Deuteronomy when the writer said that there should be no poor people in Israel. However, the same writer recognized the reality of Israelite society and affirmed in the same text that the poor would always be present in Israel.
Poverty could have been eliminated from Israel if the Israelites had lived by the demands of the covenant. Because they failed to become the kind of people God expected them to be, poverty remained in Israel.
One aspect of the law of poverty in Israel was that helping the poor was always the responsibility of individual Israelites, never the responsibility of the government. Another thing in these laws about poverty was that these laws required the poor to work for their food. This is completely contrary to what is done in our society today, where poor people become dependent on the government and do not work for what they receive.
The Bible presents a realistic view of poverty, but it does not mean that God approves poverty or that poverty should be accepted by society as a way of life. God urges his people to be generous with the poor. As the wise man said, “He who is generous to the poor makes a loan to the LORD; He will repay him his due” (Proverbs 19:17 ). Jesus said: “Give to the poor and you will have a treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Tags: Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, Poor, Poverty, Proverbs