Theology 101

What Does the Old Testament Say About Poverty and Riches?

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According to the count of Rick Warren, a well-known pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, two thousand verses deal with the issue of the poor in scripture, even though the actual use of the term “poor” appears just over two hundred times in the Authorized King James translation.

Warren was surprised when he first discovered these two thousand references to the “poor” and their parallel terms. Up to that point in time, no one had brought to his attention this huge number of verses, despite the fact that he is seminary-trained and holds a Doctor of Ministry degree.

A point is to be garnered from these two thousand references to the poor: it is time that the believing community reconsider what scripture has to say about the poor, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, and about poverty itself.

The Torah on Poverty and Riches

The basic thought of the Torah is that Yahweh is the protector and defender of the poor (Ex. 22:25; 23:3; Lev. 19:10; 23:22). God does not want his kingdom to have poverty, though he knows that because of sin this goal will not be accomplished until he returns.

However, while on this earth, the Bible has express commands for Christians to follow that can help the plight of the poor. Such commands span the Torah.

In Exodus, God strictly forbids exploitation of the poor, stating,

Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan (Ex. 22:21-22).

Instead, the community was commanded to treat the poor with open hands, rather than manifest tight fists (Deut. 15:7,11).

Other examples commanding believers to treat the poor with justice include:

  • “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of a widow as a pledge” (Deut. 24:17).
  • “The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you” (Ex. 12:49).
  • “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field…Leave them for the poor and the alien” (Lev. 23:22).

This last example is paired with what is commonly called the “gleaning law,” which states,

If you enter your neighbor’s grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain (Deut. 23:24-25).

Permission was granted to satisfy one’s hunger, but not to use this as an occasion to load up on produce from another person’s property and then cart it back home.

This law was unique, for there are no other instances of such legislation in the ancient Near East. The point was that concern for the needs of the poor took a significant position in defining the property rights held by the owners of the land. These regulations, therefore, were not intended to produce a welfare state but instead were intended to protect what were otherwise known as an enterprising people during exceptional times of difficult circumstances.

The Wisdom Literature on Poverty and Riches

While the Torah talks more of exploitation, justice, and cheerful giving, the wisdom literature of the Old Testament answers the question, “What should one do when someone falls into hard times?”

The wisdom writings urge diligence and hard work as part of the individual cures for poverty. They do not suggest an attitude that sits back and waits for wealth redistribution from the rich so that all can benefit at the same time and at the same level.

Here are a few examples:

  • “Lazy hands make a person poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Prov. 10:4).
  • “Laziness brings on deep sleep and an idle man goes hungry” (Prov. 19:15).
  • “He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored” (Prov. 13:18).

A poor or hungry person must do all that he can to care for his needs, but the believing body is not given a pass and excused from sharing the hurts and needs of these living, wounded souls. We see this from the Torah scripture.

Given the Old Testament Scripture, it is clear the Bible calls the rich to help the poor, but also calls the poor to help themselves.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty. Today’s post begins Dr. Walter Kaiser’s chapter entitled “Poverty and the Poor in the Old Testament,” which examines some key Old Testament passages about poverty and poverty relief.

On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This article was previously published on Oct. 14, 2013.

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