In the last installment of this series, I directed readers to the short essay by J. Levenson, “Poverty and the State in Biblical Thought” (13 pp). Levenson is a Jewish biblical scholar and a favorite of mine. I think the article is important for helping us think about the relationship of the Israelite state to poverty as it’s discussed in the Hebrew Bible. I concluded in Part 4 that it’s evident that some of the oppression derided by the prophets (and so, God) involves political and judicial authorities cheating and abusing the poor. This article can help us think about how we might relate biblical thinking on social injustice to our own contemporary context.
Levenson begins his essay (p. 230) by asking some straightforward questions:
Was there, in biblical Israel, anything analogous to modern development called the welfare state? If so, what were the assumptions that underlay it, and how do they differ from those of the contemporary democratic socialist one? What was the place of this biblical “welfare state” within the structure of religious tradition of ancient Israel? Finally, what limitations do these structural concerns impose upon efforts in our day to argue from biblical society to our own situation?
Levenson makes it a point throughout his article to insist that what the Hebrew Bible says about social justice and poverty must be understood in its own context to be correctly comprehended. A hermeneutic that seeks to use the Hebrew Bible to legitimize any modern welfare system by simply quoting material outside the historical context of that material is misguided. In light of this emphasis, I want to track through the essay a bit, highlighting some of what Levenson says and then adding my own commentary.
Levenson spends a few pages detailing how sympathy for the downtrodden revealed in the Hebrew Bible was connected by the biblical writers to Israel’s own experience of bondage and oppression at the hands of Egypt. He is clear that this concern was personal and individual, and so the biblical teaching is overwhelmingly focused on individual responsibility, not state or political responsibility. Here are a few telling excerpts of importance (emphasis mine in italics):
The people Israel, then, not only lacked a state, but lived in a certain tension with the structures of statehood, which they saw as transient and without soteriological significance; they could not save. This is not to say that Israel was other-worldly or a-political. On the contrary, the covenant itself is an idea adopted from the world of diplomacy, where its closest formal analogues are to be found . . . Israel’s theology is intensely political, or, I should prefer to say, theopolitical, for, in Israel’s case alone, the act of accepting the covenant was an acclamation of God’s kingship.” (233)
And when the Israelites, disgusted with their unique theopolitical situation, demand a king “like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5), God comforts a spurned and disheartened Samuel by telling him: “They have not rejected you; they have rejected me from being their king” (1 Sam 8:7). The idea is simple, but pregnant with meaning for the future of Israel’s thought; in fact, for the future of the whole West. Divine kingship and human kingship are incompatible. Human statehood is an affront to divine rule, an act of rebellion against the sovereign with whom Israel in in covenant. Now do you see why the laws of Israel are addressed to the individual or the clan, but almost never to the bureaucrat or king distinctively? (234)
The laws which protect the poor, then, are addressed to the individual and the clan, the local, highly organic unit of social organization. These laws are, thus, religious commandments, rather than state policy. They are obligations established by God and owed directly to the poor and not to the government as a mediator between rich and poor. (235)
To be sure, biblical thought, too, hopes that the earthly ruler will be just and compassionate, while the prophets praised those who were so and condemned those who were not (e.g., Jer 22). In fact, it may well have been customary for the king, perhaps at his coronation, formally to promote just behavior (Psa 101). Still, biblical thought does not tend toward optimism about earthly governments. (235-236)
Biblical thought mandates, but does not expect, the abolition of poverty within history. Instead, it expects these commandments of generosity will continue in force, that they will triumph over the need for them. . . . The existence of poverty, then, is not due simply to the negligence of one generation, It is systemic. Even the best mortal government will not eliminate it. Something in human nature, something in the way that men relate to each other in their collectivities, produces poverty, even where intentions are the best. . . . although we cannot eliminate poverty, we can diminish it; we can help the poor man get by, perhaps not for his lifetime, but at least for a day, or for one meal, or for part of one meal. (236)
When commenting on the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:4-8), Levenson notes that some would see an analogy with Marxist thinking. He notes it does sound like “Marxist eschatology,” be quickly adds his thoughts as to how this would be misguided, as Scripture’s solution to poverty is God and God acting through his people who are obedient to His commands of compassion for the poor, not the state:
. . . [W]e must not lose sight of the theistic nature of Hannah’s hymn. It does not speak of a practical political program. The transformation it describes is not effected through any human agency. There is apparently no social group whose hands are so clean that it can accomplish a final and complete victory of justice … (237)
Elsewhere Levenson comments on biblical laws and the state:
Until the meek inherit the earth (Psa 137:10-11), they must be protected from the rich and powerful. The laws of charity and of employment . . . provide some protection from the rich. What about protection from the powerful, principally, the central government? This (as well as protection from the rich) is afforded in the laws of the inalienability of land, which prohibit the final sale outright (Lev 25:23-24). Such laws served to limit the expanse of government at the expense of the governed. . . . To circumvent such strictures, the government had to resort to confiscatory taxation, something which the traditionalist had good reason to fear. His fear, in fact, is seen quite clearly in Samuel’s speech to the people as they demand a king, and he cites the greediness of the central royal administration as one reason to retain the old way: “Your fields, vineyards, and good olive orchards he will take to give to his aides” (1 Sam 8:13). This resistance to a centrally dictated taxation as a means of redistributing wealth played a significant role in Israelite history a few generations after Samuel’s prescient admonition when Solomon’s tactless son, Rehoboam, refused to relent on the issue of the amount of corvee owed by the North (1 Kings 12), thus bringing about the secession of the northern tribes. Later, this refusal to grant supreme economic hegemony to the royal administration was a major factor in sustaining the prophetic movement. In large measure, prophetic critique of the state depended upon the existence of private property. (238)
Anyone who would seek to apply Scripture should take note of these context-driven assessments. Many who comment on social justice today prooftext the Bible without these contextual signposts, in effect baptizing a preferred political model without concern for them.
Levenson is pessimistic that the biblical ideals can translate well to modern times since biblical thoughts on poverty and economics were linked to the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. A biblical theology of poverty is therefore theopolitical and individual (239-240). But these pessimistic thoughts are related to political application on a state level. Still, for the Christian, this seems less of an obstacle since believers (corporately and individually) are a new Israel, a new circumcision-neutral people of God. Believers in Christ are in fact in covenant relationship with God. Since a biblical theology of social justice is heavily stilted toward the individual and viewed the state as, at best, a transient and necessary evil, Christians can and must live out the biblical-theological notion that poverty must be diminished wherever possible. Obedience in these areas is not to be handed off to the state — or taken away by the state for its own manipulation and power. A welfare state should (for the Bible-believer) be viewed as a sign of the failure of the Church, not as a clever and useful creation of the human state so the Church can move on to more “spiritual” pursuits. As a consequence, the question becomes what Christians should strive for and support. What is “biblical social justice”? Is it the act of blessing the operation and growth of the welfare state as a solution to poverty, or is it the a response of individuals, motivated by compassion and a desire to obey the commands of God (given as they were to individuals, not the state) to take care of the poor? Put another way, which alternative reflects a biblical theology – the growth of the state, or the acquiescence or shrinkage of the state’s involvement in social justice in the wake of unrelenting charity on the part of believers (or simply individuals)? It is clearly the latter. We can all see, though, that the condition of the heart puts the poor in danger. I speak here of what we ought to strive for, not what is in place, or what is easily put in place. If the question is what is a biblical theology of the care for poor, the answer is the individual, or individuals operating as a like-minded group, under the guidance of biblical revelation from a God who hates poverty and injustice. The answer is not the empowerment of a corruptible state. That is the secular God-less answer. We ought not baptize the secular answer to make it appear biblical; that is a deceit. Lastly, it is quite inconsistent for activists, politicians, or anyone else to prooftext biblical material to prop up any view of social justice or of a welfare state and then simultaneously reject biblical statements (which have the same theopolitical context) on other points of morality and social responsibility. That’s just hermeneutical hypocrisy.
Until next time.