Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

What Does the Old Testament Say About Poverty and Riches?

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Editor’s Note: Today we continue our series of excerpts from IFWE’s forthcoming 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.

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.

This blog series on a biblical answer to poverty is an attempt to do just that. I won’t reference all two-thousand verses, but I will take a look at what the Old Testament has to say about the poor and how Christians should respond. David Kotter will extend this series to the New Testament in the following weeks.

The Torah on Poverty and Riches

The basic thought of the Torah is that Yahweh is the protector and defender of the poor (Exodus 22:25; 23:3; Leviticus 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 (Exodus 22:21-22).

Instead, the community was commanded to treat the poor with open hands, rather than manifest tight fists (Deuteronomy 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” (Deuteronomy 24:17).
  • “The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you” (Exodus 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” (Leviticus 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 (Deuteronomy 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” (Proverbs 10:4).
  • “Laziness brings on deep sleep and an idle man goes hungry” (Proverbs 19:15).
  • “He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored” (Proverbs 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. In the past, how have societies dealt with this issue? We will discuss that idea in my next post.

How can we apply these Scriptures to our work with the poor today? Leave your comments here.

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  • Helena

    I know this is 3 years old, but I thought I’d comment.

    Thank you for your post on this topic. The Old Testament brings up some interesting questions regarding poverty and the poor.

    I’ve been going through the Old Testament (I’m up to Numbers) on my own to see what God says about the “poor” (which is usually the the alien, widow and orphan). I wanted to do that instead of doing a word search, because many times you miss what else is going on and what God is actually doing.

    What has struck me is actually how little God mentions the poor. He does makes allowances for their sacrifices/offerings, sets up gleaning and the jubilee year, and makes it clear in Deuteronomy that the Israelite should take care of their own that falls on hard times (by not charging interest on loans or increase food prices for a profit).

    What has intrigued me is how most of scripture is spent on God, who He is, what He’s doing, what He’s calling us to do, how He calls us to behave, how we should worship Him, how we are to live in community, etc. There is this expectation that the Israelites will be successful as they obey Him and have faith. This causes me to ask the question, “have we as a Christian community/body been focusing on God or doing things for God”.

    I’ve been studying poverty alleviation and community development for a long time, so I’m all for helping those in need. As I continue to dive deeper more questions come up like these.

    • Marcelo

      To be very honest with you, I’m not a Christian. I am pretty much of an atheist now, but anyway I took to reading the Bible and I’ve read a number of books in the OT by now. There are allusions to poverty scattered here and there in the OT. The ones mentioned in this article are some, but not all. Proverbs 14:31, for example, warns against oppressing the poor. For a better look at the subject you will probably be better off doing a google search on the subject on various websites.
      I come from Argentina. I don’t know if this happens in your society, but here I’ve repeatedly heard people say that if you are a good person you will prosper (financially, in love, in health, etc.), and conversely, if you are a bad person you will be punished (again, financially, in love, in health, etc.). It strikes me as odd, since I’ve discovered the Old Testament itself warns against this way of thinking (Job and Ecclesiastes are stern warnings against blaming those who suffer for their suffering). And yet, I hear comments like that all the time. I find it appalling, to say the least. Just wanted to share this. Kind regards.

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