The Dignity of the Poor Under the Law

10 Dec

Hammurabi CodeOnce we understand that it was God’s desire to eliminate poverty in the land (Deuteronomy 15:4), the Scriptures that concern servitude take on new meaning, especially when one considers that in the year of release (every 7th year) the master was to load down the released servant (the poor) with gifts (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).[1] In other words the wealthy were called upon to offer an image of God in their persons, in that, because their ancestors were once bondservants in Egypt and God released them, so they were to do for their servants as God had done for their ancestors. Therefore and unlike accusations coming from the new atheists meant to denigrate God, great dignity was afforded the poor, just as Israel was given great dignity in the eyes of the Egyptians when God redeemed his people from bondage in Egypt.

As I said previously in another blogpost, God didn’t relegate the treatment of servants (the poor) to the end of the Mosaic Law as other ANE nations did in their law codes. Rather, he emphasized the importance of the problem of the poor by addressing it immediately after his thundering of the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai in Exodus 20 (Exodus 21:1-11). One of the most significant revelations in Scripture is that God created mankind (including the poor / servant) in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). However, in other ANE cultures the king was often worshiped as the image of one of their deities.[2] Certainly the poor weren’t considered images of ANE deities, yet in Israel they were so understood—all mankind was created in the image of God according to the Hebrew Scriptures. Knowing this, we are better able to understand Job’s remarks concerning his own servants in Job 31:13-15. He feared God and recognized that he would be judged in accordance with how he treated those who served him.

Under the Mosaic Law, the poor (servants) were given legal / human rights, unprecedented in that day for the nations around Israel. Other ancient nations often branded or tattooed their slaves to show property ownership,[3] but, in contrast, Israel had no such tradition under the Law of Moses (cf. Exodus 21:5-6). In fact, runaway slaves from other ANE nations were given refuge in Israel, as Canada did during the 19th century for American slaves. While other ANE nations demanded the return of runaway slaves,[4] Israel was commanded by the Mosaic Law to protect them and give them refuge (Deuteronomy 23:15-16).

Under the Law of Moses no one was permitted to kidnap anyone else to force them into servitude (Exodus 21:16). Whether the victim was found sold into slavery to another or serving as a possession of the kidnapper, the kidnapper was to be executed under the law. So, even if the poor was slow in paying his debts but didn’t volunteer to serve his debtor until the year of release, he could not be forced to do so. The Mosaic Law gave no such authority to the wealthy creditors in Israel.

Some ANE nations permitted the master of his slave to cut off the ear of the slave in the event of disobedience.[5] However, in Israel, if the master of his servant accidentally maimed his servant while he was disciplining him (cf. Exodus 21:26-27), that servant went out free and his debt was cancelled. However, if the master killed his servant while disciplining him, the master was liable and he was to be executed under the Law of Moses. God, through the Mosaic Law, held men in authority accountable for their charges, and such was not the case under other ANE traditions.


[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 HERE.

[3] See HERE.

[4] See Code of Hammurabi S. 18. This law rewarded the man who returned a runaway slave (S. 17), but executed the man who harbored one (S. 16).

[5] See Code of Hammurabi S. 282

Comments Off on The Dignity of the Poor Under the Law

Posted by on December 10, 2015 in apologetics


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: