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Helping the Poor in Ancient Israel

08 Dec
Women Reaping the Fields

from Google Images

The problem of the poor is with us even today.[1] I wonder, in the event that someone is able to show he is qualified to judge, who met or meets the need of the poor better—affluent America or ancient Israel under the Law of Moses. Certainly, neither America nor Israel can be held up as offering the ideal problem-solving method, because the poor existed throughout Israel’s history, and they still exist in America today. No nation in history has ever solved the problem of the poor in their societies. Even if many were cared for, many were not. Even if many were fed, clothed and sheltered, few (if any) were taught to feed, clothe and acquire shelter for themselves. So, which method is better, and who is qualified to judge?

I find it interesting that almost immediately God, through the Law of Moses, addresses the problem of the poor (the servant),[2] while other ANE codes tack them on at the end. It seems that God placed significant priority upon how the poor were to be treated in Israel—how the vulnerable and powerless (servants) were to be treated. This is in contrast with how I mentioned Harriet Beecher Stowe described the plight of the African slave in 19th century America: “The legal power of the master amounts to an absolute despotism over body and soul… there is no protection for the slave’s life.[3] Nevertheless, the Law of Moses governed potential abuses of its system and protected those who had sold themselves to another to attain a livelihood.

According to the Law of Moses, both debts and Hebrew servants were released in every seventh year (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:1-2). If anyone had mortgaged /sold his property for any reason, it was released back to him or his family, debt free every jubilee year (Leviticus 25:10-16). So, God had never intended servitude to become an established institution in Israel. Even if any of his people had become poor, it was often unnecessary for them to sell themselves to obtain the necessities of life, because they could glean the edges of the fields or pick what was left on the fruit trees free of charge (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:20-21; cf. Luke 6:1). Afterward the poor could either eat what they harvested or sell it for money to obtain other necessities. The poor might even borrow from a wealthy brother or neighbor without having to pay an interest fee (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37), and, of course, such debts were considered cancelled in the year of release, whether or not they were completely paid off (Deuteronomy 15:4). Not only so, but the wealthier people were not to consider how close to the seventh year they were when they loaned to the poor (cf. Deuteronomy 15:9-10), so the poor were given every opportunity to remain independent without ever selling himself to obtain the necessities of life. It only occurred when they had become completely destitute, and thus the Law provided them with food and shelter when they couldn’t provide that for themselves.

While some may point to the releases granted Israel and other captive nations by the kings of Persia (such as Cyrus in Ezra 1:1-11 and Ahasuerus in Esther 2:18), but these releases were sporadic at best and should not be compared with the releases at fixed intervals (every 7th and 50th year) in the Law of Moses. The ideal was for every man in Israel to be free of debt and indentured servitude (Deuteronomy 15:4), but God is a realist (Deuteronomy 15:11). Nevertheless, the reality was to be fought not institutionalized, until more and more it resembled the ideal.

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[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] See Exodus 21, which immediately follows the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). While Deuteronomy 15 goes into more detail in such matters, God begins in Exodus 21 with the plight of the poor Hebrew who sells himself to another to pay off a debt or to gain food and shelter.

[3] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; presenting the Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded, together with Corroborative Statements verifying the Truth of the Work (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1853), I.10, 139.

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Posted by on December 8, 2015 in apologetics

 

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