In Part 3 of this series, I had assembled a list of verse references drawn from the ABD article (linked in Parts 2 and 3) on the poor / poverty which its author categorized as involving oppression of the poor in legal (and hence political) contexts. I then put an exercise before myself and readers. I have earlier noted that many passages on the poor /poverty were pretty ambiguous as to two issues:
(1) What causes the poverty in these verses? For example, are they clear that the poverty of the victims was caused by economic exploitation as opposed to their own ineptitude or laziness, a military invasion, or some other unfortunate apolitical circumstance?
(2) What can we say about the abusers in these passages? Are they always wealthy? How can we tell? Are they state officials (as opposed to some random wealthy person)? Is there anything taught in these verses that provides a biblical axiom along the lines of “wealthy people inevitably cause oppression”?
I’ve gone through all the verses now. I can’t say I’ve done any deep exegesis. I’m just looking at each one in view of the surrounding (literary) context. Generally, I don’t see any indication of the cause of the poverty-stricken in any of these passages. The oppressed in these passages are already referred to as the poor. That said, I’d say there is a clear sense in some of the passages that judicial and political oppression kept the poor in their stricken condition or made their poverty worse. I also don’t think it can be accurately argued that all these verses always have wealthy people in mind when describing oppressors, though some clearly do. The same goes for identifying the evildoers as state officials (as opposed to some random poor or wealthy oppressor). Consequently, I don’t see any basis for the idea that wealth is some sort of inherent corrupter of persons that invariably prompts them to oppress the poor or that always peripherally leads to the oppression of the poor.
What follows are some notes I took while reading. I’m labeling with (P) any that seem to justify the conclusion that political corruption and injustice are at least partly in view. At the end of the list, I’ve linked to an article that deals with the relationship of the Israelite state and poverty. It’s our next launching pad. You’ll see in my comments that it’s evident some of the oppression derided by the prophets (and so, God) involves political and judicial authorities cheating and abusing the poor. I raise some questions about how to understand precisely what’s going on and how to transfer the ideas to our own time. The article will help us think about that.
(v. 8): Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord, defying his glorious presence; (v. 9): “they have brought evil upon themselves”; (v. 11, 14): “Woe to the wicked . . . the spoil of the poor is in your houses; (vv. 18-26): description of wealth.
It seems obvious that the wealthy were abusing the poor. There is no indication that all the wealthy did this, or that having wealth axiomatically resulted in this abuse. There is also no reference to the role political leaders played in this. Were they among the guilty? Did they know of abuse and do nothing? Did they endorse it? I’d file these ideas under “possible but uncertain from the text” with respect to this passage.
Isa 10:2 (P)
The first verse refers to those who “decree iniquitous decrees” and the “writing of oppression”; seems a clear reference to those with the power to make laws and law codes (i.e., political rulers). Consequently, this seems a clear reference to the fact that laws were being put in place that abused the poor. The chapter follows a negative reference at the end of ch. 9 to Manasseh and Ephraim (i.e., the northern kingdom of Israel) but that alone is inadequate to argue that it is the northern authorities / kingdom that are targeted in ch. 10. Better for that is the reference to the day of punishment in 10:3 and the fact that Isaiah lived in the 8th century BC. These elements make for a coherent argument that the evildoers in Isa 10 are those of the northern kingdom, as it would soon be destroyed by Assyria (722 BC). The judgment of Assyria itself is mentioned in 10:5ff. So, while the OT repeats countless times that the judgment of exile (cf. the curses at the end of Deuteronomy) was due to idolatry and disloyalty toward Yahweh, wickedness in terms of righteous rule was also a factor.
Isa 11:4 (P)
The messianic (“Branch”) character of the passage and verse 4’s characterization that the Branch of Jesse will judge the poor fairly makes righteous treatment of the poor a political / governmental issue. That much is clear. What isn’t clear is just what constitutes righteous treatment. OT law does not call for all Israelites to have the same stuff or same level of wealth, so any conclusion along those lines is illegitimate. OT law calls for equal status before the laws within it (i.e., one’s level of wealth was not to be a factor on how one was judged in terms of guilt or innocence, or with respect to remuneration, which was spelled out, at least in the cases listed in the OT law).
Very vague here; the humbled “inhabitants of the city” (v. 5) is vague; it doesn’t allow us to delineate specific classes or levels of wealth. I don’t see any evidence for political oppression here; that has to be inserted.
Isa 29:19 (P)
The meek and the poor of v. 19 are contrasted with the ruthless, the scoffer, the one who looks for opportunity to do evil. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any textual evidence for political oppression. Anyone, rich or poor, could be characterized by the terminology in v. 20. However, v. 21 suggests political oppressors are the referent, as the wicked of v. 20 are further described as those who “by a word” (a decree? testimony before a judge?) produce misery by labeling people as offenders (scoundrels); the reference to “the gate” (the word “plea” in ESV is not derived from a Hebrew term) certainly indicates a judicial context, as the “gate” was the place of legal transaction in a city (cp. Ruth 4). The wicked lay a snare in legal proceedings that result in the defeat of the person who is “in the right” (v. 21).
Vague here again; just a reference to “scoundrels.”
The collective “you” being referred to here are the people of Judah in Jer 2. There is nothing to specifically indicate judicial or political oppression.
Jer 5:28 (P)
The language here is (“judging”; “defending the rights of the needy”) speak of judicial / political oppression. In verses 30-31 there is reference to the prophets prophesying falsely and the priests ruling “at their discretion” (i.e., however they wanted to). The evils drew the wrath of God (v. 29). We don’t get any specifics beyond that.
Only a generic reference to the needy suffering at the hands of evildoers.
Jer 22:16 (P)
The passage contains overt reference to political leadership; it is directed to the sons of Josiah. Josiah judged the poor and needy righteously (v. 16), but his sons were ruthless. The opposition makes it clear that political and judicial oppression was a reality and God despised it. We aren’t given specifics other than general references to “dishonest gain” and violence.
Ezek 18:12 (cf. Deut 24:12; Ezek 22:29)
An important passage since it references specific acts of justice or injustice from the OT law. The cross references come mainly from Exod 22 and laws about debt servitude, extortion and usury. The actual verse reference is not to political powerholders but the citizen and his treatment of his neighbor. The opposite of the wickedness described is found in vv. 14-18, again describing OT laws abotu robbery, extortion, and care for the poor. Nothing specifically suggests political leadership per se.
The references are to a range of immoral and abominable behaviors committed in general by Israelites, including “trampling” the poor. Nothing specifically political or judicial.
Amos 4:1 (P)
The “cows of Bashan” reference are basically universally regarded as a reference to the wealthy women of Samaria. However, since fatted cows were generally regarded as a sign of abundance and well being, “cows of Bashan” may more generically refer to all wealthy. These wealthy were trampling the poor and therefore condemnded, therefore, included in the condemnation. Political leadership would by default be included. I rate this (P) mostly because of the chapter that follows.
Amos 5:11-12 (P)
Overt references to the “house of Israel” (dynastic leaders). They are guilty of “trampling” the poor through taxation policies, taking bribes, and oppressing the needy in judicial settings (“the gate”). God would have them hate evil and to do good, one item of which concerns “establishing justice in the gate” (v. 15).
General oppression of the needy and poor is described; the general population (“my people Israel”; v. 2) is in view.
General oppression is in view again. It isn’t clear to me that the “witnesses” of v. 11 (ESV) speaks of a judicial context, as opposed to generic enemies and their accusations.
Job 24:1-4 appears to speak of general cheating and injustice. I don’t see how the language could be isolated to the political or judicial, or how that is of necessity what is in view. Job is set (but likely not written) in a pre-Mosaic law context anyway, and so political justice really isn’t in view.
Eccl 5:7-8 (P)
Verse 8 sets the context as one involving political officialdom. The verses that ensue seem to broaden the oppression to the more general population, but political and judicial corruption is certainly included.
Here’s the article I mentioned earlier:
J. Levenson, “Poverty and the State in Biblical Thought” (13 pp)
Until next time!