This post is a section of a paper titled “God: The Defender of the Oppressed.” This paper 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.
God and the Poor
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them” (Proverbs 22:22–23).
How much is gained from stealing from the poor? Low-income neighborhoods in Chicago are replete with predatory businesses rarely found in affluent neighborhoods and suburbs. Stores offer payday and car title loans at exuberant rates that entrap poor customers with interest and fees that are almost impossible to pay. Those who are dependent on such financial products are driven into even deeper debt and their fiscal situation spirals downward yet again.
Giving destitute people a false sense of hope causes God to severely punish manipulators of the poor. In John 12, Mary anoints Jesus with an expensive ointment, an act characterized by Judas Iscariot as exorbitant. In Jesus’ defense of Mary, he affirms: “You will always have the poor with you” (v.8).
Jesus has drawn this response from Deuteronomy 15:10–11, a passage in which Yahweh enjoins Israel to “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Where are the poor in the world? William Domeris argues that they are found in every society. He notes that Western nations, unlike those in the third world, have room to sweep their poor into societal margins so that they are “out of sight, out of mind.” While hiding the poor may cause one to forget about their existence, the words of God still ring true.
Conrad Boerma notes that the Hebrew word, ‘ani, usually rendered in English Bible translations with the terms “poor” or “humble,” often describes a person whose position in life is at such a low status that he or she must look up to others to survive. This term, used over seventy times in the Old Testament, repeatedly links to oppressive circumstances.
The lack of basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter can make the task of improving one’s status nearly impossible. For example, in parts of Africa, some spend countless hours each day collecting clean water for their families instead of pursuing an education. Others are forced to work humiliating jobs, even in some instances selling their bodies to survive and possibly ruining their reputations for life.
In light of this suffering, there are several things one can learn from the Israelite exodus with respect to poverty and oppression. First, the Israelites became poor only after the Egyptians enslaved them. One may surmise that poverty is not something that occurs naturally, but it is often the result of a human decision.
As noted by Leslie Hoppe, “The effect of these stories is to demonstrate that poverty and oppression do not just happen. They are the result of deliberate decisions that the people of means make.” Hence, poverty and especially oppression are not circumstances that one must accept, but rather they are circumstances that one can prevent.
A second truth to be learned from the exodus story is the fact that Yahweh fights against those who oppress the poor. Some people may believe that hard times permit the Lord to draw them closer to himself, and that to remain in such a situation is commendable. But Hoppe argues that God never wants his people to be oppressed. This is evidenced by his reaction to the cry of the Israelites: “God took notice of them” (Exodus 2:25b) and he fought to remove them from their appalling condition.
Indeed, the Lord may cause all situations, to work out for a believer’s benefit, but he does not necessarily choose the situations (Romans 8:28). Finally, after the exodus from Egypt, Yahweh sent the Israelites to a lush and fertile land where they could begin to live independently, simultaneously providing for them and empowering them.
As former slaves, the Hebrew people had become a poor, discouraged, and weak nation. God knew that setting them free from the Egyptian slavery system was only half the battle. Sending them to the Promised Land permitted them to be built up physically, mentally, and spiritually. Israel’s path to Canaan was carefully chosen by Yahweh to prepare for their success. God guided the Israelites through the desert instead of a closer route because he knew that fear of war with the Philistines would trigger them to return to Egypt (Exodus 13:18).
During their four decades in the desert, the Lord fed his people with manna. While it was a temporary means of physical sustainment, the manna symbolized the eternal truth of “their total dependence on God.” Once in Canaan, the fruitfulness of the land gave the Israelites hope that a promising future was ahead of them. Eighteen times in the Hebrew Bible the land is described as a place “flowing with milk and honey.”
One commentator, Carol Meyers, argues that one should not construe that this meant that the land’s produce came freely—rather, its topographical features and propensity to drought conditions demanded hard work from its inhabitants in order to be productive. Nevertheless, from the Israelites’ perspective such circumstances were only deemed challenging because of human weakness and thus did not detract from the land’s actual potential.
The Israelites could rightly celebrate since Yahweh was providing them with fertile land. Indeed, as Hoppe observes, “The gift of the land makes it possible to break the cycle of poverty.” The specific route, the manna, and the Promised Land permitted the Israelites to transition from a state of poverty to a state of independence.
To Be Continued
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary
1. William Robert Domeris, Touching the Heart of God: The Social Construction of Poverty Among Biblical Peasants, Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 466 (New York: T & T Clark, 2007), 7.
3. Conrad Boerma, The Rich, the Poor and the Bible, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 7
4. Domeris, Touching the Heart of God, 18
5. Ibid., 10.
6. Leslie J. Hoppe, There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 17.
8. Ibid., 18.
11. G. Lloyd Carr, “Manna,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols., ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 3:240.
12. Carol Meyers, Exodus, The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 54.
15. Hoppe, There Shall Be No Poor Among You, 18.