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 Leaders of Israel
“He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves” (1 Samuel 8:17).
Unfortunately, after years of living freely in the Promised Land, the Israelites begged for an earthly king as other nations had (1 Samuel 8:5). Disappointed by their request, the prophet Samuel forewarned them about their choice and prayed for direction from God (vv.6–9). While the Lord granted the people’s request, he instructed Samuel to warn them about the hazards of having a human monarch: that a king would rule over them by force, and that he would take their food, children, servants, and land for himself and his military personnel (vv.11–18).
According to David Tsumura, these practices were considered common for ancient Near Eastern kings such as those within Hittite and Ugaritic societies. The Israelites were forewarned that they would eventually cry out to Yahweh because of the oppressive actions of their sovereign, but that their cries would go unheeded (v.18). Despite these cautions, the Israelites embraced the idea of a monarchical form of government as opposed to a pure theocracy because, as Tsumura notes, they had already begun to lose trust in Yahweh for their protection.
Indeed, the human kings who led Israel behaved exactly the way God had warned the people they would behave. Norbert Lohfink explains that God’s original intention to create Israel as a “contrast society” to Egypt and the surrounding nations, had failed. After the monarchy was established, Israel began to reflect in large part the social norms and economic systems of other nations of the ancient Near East. The original vision of a community of brothers and sisters where there would be no poor (Deuteronomy 15:4) was replaced by a society in which poverty was a common feature.
The royal court and the nation’s military became powerful, domineering the people and fulfilling their needs for property and personnel. Greed and selfish ambition led to increased exploitation and oppression. Social stratification emerged, with royal officials forming an elite class, supported by middle class artisans and urban merchants. Below these groups were lower class agricultural workers and others who dropped out of higher classes for other reasons.
The Lord disapproved Israel’s mistreatment of the poor and he sent prophets to clearly express his displeasure. However, the Israelites ignored these warnings concerning God’s judgment. For example, the prophet Isaiah had aimed to show Israel that their ultimate fate was tied to their relationship to Yahweh and to one another. As noted by John Oswalt, the nation’s leaders were challenged to lead by God’s law rather than human rules (Isaiah 3:14–15). Oswalt observes, “When government becomes corrupt it is usually those who are helpless who are hurt first and most often, especially if the leaders think of the people as their own preserve which they can use to their own advantage.”
However, the nation’s citizens belong to Yahweh, who rescued them and are in fact “his heritage.” It is no wonder, then, that he becomes greatly offended when leaders take land from the poor and subject them to abuse. In Isaiah 10:1–2, the Lord condemns lawmakers who oppress the needy and seek illicit monetary gain through statutes promoting structural injustice. Such oppression is “the final manifestation of human pride” and an insult to God from whose nature Israel’s legal code had been derived.
Another prophet, Amos, had also warned Israel about unjust treatment of the poor, and especially as seen within the Israelite judicial system. Judges thwarted justice for wealthy persons who had bribed them (Amos 5:2) by pronouncing “…poor peoples’ cases against the rich to be without merit, or by ruling in favor of rich plaintiffs or defendants.” In summary, Israel’s leaders had bent the laws of their society to benefit themselves and their affluent associates. They refused to share their prosperity with the poor, turned a blind eye to bribery in the courts, and created onerous and unjust rules that prevented the poor from climbing out of their predicament. Ultimately, these leaders were judged by the Lord and forced into exile; ironically, only the poor would remain in the land (2 Kings 24:14).
In light of Israel’s history, Ingrid Roldan-Roman notes, “When we choose to act on behalf of the poor, those who are the subjects of history, those who are social actors of history, we have assumed a divine posture.” Moreover, she notes that every believer in Jesus Christ must make a commitment to serving the poor and living in solidarity with them. This unity expands and strengthens those activists who fight for justice on behalf of those who are less fortunate. Therefore, God defends the poor by utilizing his church to perform acts of kindness, which includes feeding the poor, supplying refreshment for the thirsty, and clothing the naked.
Furthermore, William Domeris states that poverty goes beyond the idea that some have less than others. A person is poor because another is rich. In other words, a comparison is drawn between those who are labeled as being poor and those who are not poor. This separates communities by making those who “have” superior to those who “have not.” Such division strikes at the heart of liberation. As Moses Penumaka observes, “The poor and the crucified remind us that liberation is complete only when there is no separation of rich and poor or oppressors and oppressed.”
When groups become divided, those who are privileged begin avoiding contact with the poor, which opens the door for “rumors and suspicion.” This leads to stereotyping the poor as lazy, addicted to drugs, or failures of the society. Once the community pigeonholes the poor, their freedom becomes limited and exploitation abounds. Oppressing the poor becomes justified even to the point of believing that the Lord has cursed them. Those who are cursed by God are thus thought of as undeserving of the same rights as others in the community. However, Jesus makes it clear that the poor are blessed and not cursed, and that they are included among the righteous (Luke 6:20).
Studies on God as the Defender of the Oppressed
Part 1: God: The Defender of the Oppressed
Part 3: God and the Widows and Orphans
Part 4: God and the Leaders of Israel
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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1. David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 254-55.
2. Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, 261.
3. Norbert F. Lohfink, Option for the Poor: The Basic Principle of Liberation Theology in the Light of the Bible (Berkeley, CA: Bibal Press, 1995), 45.
5. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1986) 138.
7. Ibid., 138-139.
8. Ibid., 258.
9. Ibid., 259.
10. Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, World Biblical Commentary 31 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 349.
11. Ingrid Roldan-Roman, “Reclaiming the Reign of God for the Poor: Matthew 25:31-46,” Review and Expositor 109 (2012): 467.
13. 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), 9.
14. Conrad Boerma, The Rich, the Poor and the Bible, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 3.
15. Moses Penumaka, “The Suffering Reality of the Oppressed in God—The World’s Future and Its Implications for Dalit Theology,” Currents in Theology and Mission 39 (2012): 300.
16. Domeris, Touching the Heart of God, 13.
In Lk. 6:20 Jesus is depicted as focusing on his disciples when he then told them “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Jesus and his disciples were poor, but most of Israel was also poor–and most were not disciples. For example, when Jesus quoted Isaiah about proclaiming good news to the poor in his home synagogue at Nazareth, most of his hearers were poor but ended up doubting him (Lk. 4:16-24). As a result, Jesus said that, like the time of Elijah when there were many widows in Israel, that Elijah was sent only to (Gentile) Sidon and a certain widow there (4:25-26). The point is that while Jesus was poor and had compassion on the poor (including the larger crowds in need of healing), the blessing of being part of his new kingdom belonged to disciples who would follow him in the (direction of the) lowly way of poverty and the loving way of compassion.
There is no doubt that Jesus and his disciples were poor. The gospel they preached was not a prosperity gospel, but a gospel that required compassion and sacrifice. Today many people, including some Christians, have forgotten that most of the people who followed Jesus were the despised of the earth. But, let us not forget that many rich people helped Jesus (and Paul) carry out his work. It was because of their generosity that many things were accomplished. What Jesus requires from us, either rich or poor, is our willingness to leave all to follow him.
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