The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: Lending Money to the Poor

The present post, dealing with lending money to the poor (Deut. 15:7-11), is a continuation of my studies on the social concerns reflected in the laws of the book of Deuteronomy. For previous studies, see the links at the end of this post.

The elaborate social provisions found in the book of Deuteronomy reflect the concern of those who led the religious and social reforms in the days of Josiah to address major social problems present in Israelite society in the seventh century B.C.

In addition to the religious reforms instituted by Josiah, the reformulation of old laws and the promulgation of new ones was probably a response against the oppression of the poor, the formation of great landed estates, the luxurious living of the rich, and the avarice that motivated some people to exploit the less fortunate.

Deuteronomy emphasizes the covenant which Yahweh made with Israel on Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy teaches that God’s law should to be implanted deeply in the hearts of the people as an inward guide for their dealings with one another.

The intent of the reformers was to exhort the people to allow God’s law to regulate all matters of social life. It is clear from the book’s denunciation of economic oppression that the social concern of the Deuteronomic reform was an attempt to embody the formulation of prophetic ideals which called for just social conditions among the members of the covenant community.

Lending Money to the Poor (Deut. 15:7-11)

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. [8] Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. [9] Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. [10] Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. [11] There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

The law about the forgiveness of debts was an appeal to the generosity of each Israelite citizen to be charitable with the poor people in Israel. That law was also an attempt to promote a spirit of liberality toward the needy people who lived throughout the cities of Israel.

The Deuteronomic ideal was the elimination of poverty from Israel. But the reality was that there were many poor people in Israel. For this reason, none should harden their hearts or be tightfisted toward a poor person.

The Deuteronomic legislator, confronted with the problem of poverty in Israel, taught how those prosperous Israelites should deal with the problem of poverty: “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother” (Deut. 15:7).

Confronted with the reality that there was poverty in Israel, each Israelite who lived under the promises and demands of the covenant was required to help another Israelite, especially those who were poor and needy, help them with liberality and joy.

The true evidence of the philanthropic spirit of each Israelite would be known when an Israelite requested financial help at a time near the year when debts were forgiven. At that occasion, the generous person could not allow in his heart a wicked thought and refuse to lend to a needy person: “Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin” (Deut. 15:9).

In Hebrew, the expression, “wicked thought” is “word of Beliel.” The “word of Beliel” was the decision of a wicked person (see 13:13). The person who refused to help a Hebrew brother was a “son of Beliel,” a wicked and evil person.

To lend money to a poor person in the days and months before the sabbatical year was practically making a gift to the one requesting the loan, because he would not have enough time to pay his debt before the sabbatical year. Under these circumstances, it was easier not to give the loan and allow the poor to go without financial help.

But it is precisely in this situation where the generosity of God’s people should be evident. At that time, in the days and months before the sabbatical year, the year when debts were forgiven, when the well-to-do Israelite refused to help the poor person, then that poor person would appeal to Yahweh, and Yahweh would hear him.

In the Old Testament, God appears as the helper and the protector of the poor and the oppressed. Yahweh is the one who defends the cause of the needy: “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).

As the defender of the oppressed, Yahweh will hear the cry of the needy asking for help. The person who refused to help will be found guilty, because the refusal to help a needy brother or sister is a sin against Yahweh. Any person who loves the Lord and obeys his word would help the needy without delay.

Even though the Deuteronomic ideal was the elimination of poverty from Israel–”There shall be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4)– the reality was that “There will always be poor people in the land” (Deut. 15:11). It is for this reason that Yahweh commands his people to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy.

In a society that decides not to obey God’s law there will be needy and poor people. The reality was that poverty would always exist in Israel because Israel would not live by the good laws of Yahweh and in its disobedience would not obey the laws that could eliminate poverty from its society.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

Posts on This Topic:

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy – Part 1

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Law of the Sabbath

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Forgiveness of Debts

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One Response to The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: Lending Money to the Poor

  1. Pingback: Lending Money to the Poor | Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament

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