Summarizing the Old Testament Material
To this point in our social justice series we’ve tracked through the OT vocabulary for poverty and the poor. We supplemented the study of the vocabulary to include an article by J. Levenson about Israel’s state economy and the poor. Our goal was seeking answers to some fundamental questions:
(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 those exploiting the poor in some of these passages? Are they wealthy private citizens (as opposed to government officials)? Are they state officials? Are they even always wealthy?
(3) Is there anything taught in these verses that provides a biblical axiom along the lines of “wealthy people inevitably cause oppression”?
(4) Do passages about poverty provide a scriptural warrant for a welfare state?
Having gone through the material, I’ve drawn several conclusions by way of summation to this point:
(1) The poor can be described as poor because of their own laziness, lack of wisdom, or other self-induced circumstance.
(2) Some passages do involve both private wealthy individuals and wealthy state officials exploiting the poor.
(3) There is no scriptural justification for presuming 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.
(4) Biblical thoughts on poverty and economics were linked to the covenant relationship between Yahweh and each Israelite. Each Israelite is responsible for the poor individually. Consequently, a biblical theology of poverty is focused on the individual being compassionate to the poor. There is no sense of handing this responsibility off to an impersonal state. Also consequently, this responsibility should not be usurped by the state for its own manipulation and power, such as creating dependency on itself.
(5) 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.
(6) The question therefore becomes, What should Christians strive for and support when it comes to alleviating poverty? What is “biblical social justice”? The answer is not the act of blessing the operation and growth of the welfare state as a solution to poverty. Rather, it is the a response of individuals, motivated by compassion and a desire to obey the commands of God to take care of the poor.
(7) 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.
(8) Lastly, it is quite inconsistent for activists, politicians, or anyone else to proof-text 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.
Moving Into the New Testament
Toward moving into the New Testament teaching on poverty, I’d like those interested in the topic to read two essays:
“Poverty and Poor: New Testament” from Anchor Bible Dictionary
“Rich and Poor” from the dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels
As you read, consider the following questions / issues:
(1) Are there statements made in these essays about OT teaching that seem misguided in some way? (i.e., that aren’t consistent with the data we’ve looked at to this point – perhaps bringing modern political ideas to these texts)
(2) Do the essays engage all (or most) of the uses of NT vocabulary for the poor?
(3) Does the NT vocabulary (at least the discussion of it offered) provide clarity with respect to our four “fundamental questions” asked above?
We’ll start there!