This paper, “God: The Defender of the Oppressed,” was written by Stephanie Franco, one of my students in the course“OT 458 Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament.” This course was taught at Northern Baptist Seminary in the Spring quarter 2014.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I selected four papers to share with the readers of my blog. The reason for sharing these papers is because they deal with controversial aspects of the character of God and because they seek to present a better understanding of the God of the Old Testament.
Stephanie is currently the worship leader at her church. She has also been involved in women’s ministry and other positions of leadership in her church.
God: The Defender of the Oppressed
“…when they cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them” (Isaiah 19:20b).
A basic tenet of Christianity is that God saves and delivers people from destruction, harm, and danger. Since the fall, humankind has been enslaved by sin and domineered by Satan who has kept humans from living in obedience to the Lord (Romans 7:14). Hence, the purpose of the Messiah is to rescue people from a life of bondage and to give them a life of freedom. Jesus said, “…if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
James Cone, in his book God of the Oppressed, observes that to deny freedom is to operate in an oppressive manner. Because this modus operandi is the opposite of Yahweh’s plan for humanity, he will protect those who are under oppression. This paper will show that throughout the Bible God defends the oppressed and that he expects his people throughout all ages to do the same.
Oppression during Old Testament times was as prevalent as it is today. People of the ancient Near East were subject to enslavement, victims of false accusations, and often suffered when secular and religious leaders failed to provide justice. Throughout the Bible, Yahweh showed the extent to which humans would oppress others in order to maintain their own greed, power, and control.
For example, when Laban saw that his wealth had greatly increased due to Jacob’s hard work, he tricked Jacob into living on his land indefinitely and repeatedly cheated him in his wages (Genesis 31:20–22). Solomon’s successor, King Rehoboam, placed a heavy burden on the Israelites who had initially sought relief from Solomon’s forced labor policies (1 Kings 12:4–11). Finally, Haman, the most powerful person in Persia under King Ahasuerus, plotted to destroy Mordecai and the Jews within the empire because Mordecai refused to bow down and honor him (Esther 3:1–6).
Among all the stories of oppression one finds in the Hebrew Bible, God continually references the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage to demonstrate why he defends the oppressed and expects his people to do the same. After the death of Joseph and his generation, the Israelites had become so great in number that the Egyptian leaders felt threatened by the potential loss of power and control (Exodus 1:9–10). Therefore, they began to weaken the Israelites by forcing them into slavery and limiting their population by killing their male children.
However, when the children of Israel began to cry out to the Lord in their oppression, God came to their rescue. Throughout the plagues, the Egyptians used all available political, economic, and military resources to maintain their superior status. The Hebrew slaves were too scared and weak to defend themselves, but Yahweh, in his mighty power, fought victoriously on their behalf. After securing their freedom, he brought them to a fruitful and fertile land where they could begin a new life. Upon entering that land, God instructed them to show their gratitude and love for him while enjoying a life of freedom.
“Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’” (Matthew 25:44).
Robert Kysar, in his book Called to Care: Biblical Images for Social Ministry, observes that the exodus portrays a God “who acts to liberate humans from conditions of suffering and deprivation; a God who is sensitive to and shares the suffering of humans; and a God who shares in the reality of the cost of liberation.”
In the gospel passage above, Jesus describes those who live in hardship: they are the poor, the sick, those in prison, and those who are strangers. Individuals in such circumstances are vulnerable; they are subject to abuse and could be neglected by those in authority. The group Jesus addresses in Matthew 25:41–46 are rejected from entering the kingdom of God not because they did something wrong but because they failed to do what is right. The children of God are called to care for others just as God cared for the enslaved Israelites in Egypt.
Kysar notes that when Jesus sent the seventy out to minister, he told them to heal the sick and preach the gospel, i.e., “to act and to proclaim” (Luke 10:9). As disciples of Christ, they were to minister to the whole person, including both spiritual and physical needs.
Christ’s followers are called to not only care for the oppressed, but also to identify with them. In Matthew 25:44, the people seem to deny that they had ever seen their Lord suffering, but Jesus made it clear that when they ignored others in pain, they were in fact ignoring him (v.45). Similarly, Jesus’ followers must deny themselves and take up their cross (Matthew 16:24–26). Jesus calls them to suffer for and with others just as he did, which Kysar views as symbolic of the cross.
Christ came from heaven where everything is perfect, only to join a world full of pain and distress. At the end of his earthly life, as described by the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah was counted among transgressors, rejected by those he came to save, and buried with the wicked (Isaiah 53:3–12). As Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked his disciples to pray for him because he felt “deeply grieved” (Matthew 26:38). At the cross, Jesus appeared weak and helpless as he suffered at the hands of his oppressors. Later, as he spoke his final words, Jesus experienced isolation and abandonment. He cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). To feel rejected, helpless, grieved, and abandoned demonstrates that Jesus becomes one with the oppressed.
Jesus was willing to pay the cost, even his life, to defend the oppressed and give them a new beginning. Christ died to free others from bondage, and that is the same mission he has for his followers. This was the problem with the rich young ruler: he refused to sacrifice earthly things and thus identify with the poor. Sadly, this attitude kept him from grasping the true heart of God (Luke 18:18–23). This is why James Cone believes the oppressed are “the only true Christians,” because they are the only people who can comprehend the cost of their deliverance.
Actually, Cone acknowledges that all people are oppressed at some level, a view echoed by Elliott Wright, who observes that even oppressors need freedom from selfishness and ignorance. Cone further clarifies that “only those whose existence … is defined by the liberation of people from social, political and economic bondage can understand the dialect of oppression and the freedom in the practice of liberation.” Furthermore, those who are not in need (as described in Matthew 25) should consciously remove themselves from their privileged status and join the struggle of the oppressed group. Only then will they understand the extent of Yahweh’s salvation and be considered as one of his disciples.
Studies on God as the Defender of the Oppressed
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), 581.
2. James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1977), 135.
3. Leslie J. Hoppe, There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 21.
4. Robert Kysar, Called to Care: Biblical Images for Social Ministry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 14.
5. R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 358.
6. Kysar, Called to Care, 60.
7. Ibid., 64.
8. Ibid., 65.
9. Ibid., 53.
10. France, Matthew, 397.
11. Kysar, Called to Care, 53.
12. Cone, God of the Oppressed, 136.
14. Elliot Wright, Go Free (New York: Friendship Press, 1973), 49.
15. Cone, God of the Oppressed, 136.