Biblical Theology, Poverty, and Social Justice, Part 2

Posted By on December 4, 2012

I’m hoping that by now those interested will have read the ABD essay I posted on terms for poverty and the poor in the Old Testament. In case readers did not take it upon themselves to do so, here is another PDF of the actual OT occurrences of each of the OT words for the poor/poverty. If you want to tackle any of the issues or questions I have below, this will be a handy resource.

I had encouraged readers to keep the following items in mind as they read the article (and as they read future articles on this topic):

1. What does the terminology indicate about the status of the poor? That is, what kinds of poverty are described by the terminology?

2. What does the biblical text tell us about the circumstances of or occasions for the poverty situations described? In other words, why are the poor poverty stricken? Whose fault is it?

3. Who is responsible for a solution to the poverty described?

The ABD article and its coverage of the vocabulary allow several observations with respect to these questions (at least for the first two):

1. Sometimes the vocabulary is vague, offering no hint at why a person is poor. That is, the vocabulary focuses more on what it’s like to be poor, or how the poor must live or are living, or what a person lacks that qualifies them as poor. For example: Isa 14:30; Ezek 16:49; Jer 39:10; 2 Sam 12:3; Deut 24:15.

2. It seems quite clear that, on an individual, spiritual level, causing someone’s poverty through wicked acts is evil, as is a refusal to help the poor. There is less clarity on other levels (see below, and future posts); that is, if there are clear principals in the Scripture about the government and poverty, how do they apply (if at all) since the theocracy of Israel is ancient history? Do laws targeting national Israel (even at the individual level) with respect to the treatment of the poor (usually within the “family” of Israel) apply to a non-theocratic situation today? On what basis?

3. Except for laziness, it is difficult to discern a reason for the poverty described in the OT. The book of Proverbs offers several clear passages that assert a person is poor because of laziness (e.g., Prov 10:4; Prov 6:10-11; Prov 24:33-34; Prov 14:23), but beyond such passages, the OT doesn’t seem to give clear reasons as to why the poor are poor.

4. In the above assessment I’m a bit more cautious than the writer of the ABD article. At times the writer fills in this gap with suggestions that the poor are poor because of oppression. I would actually assert that isn’t clear. Granted, there are a number of passages that describe the poor as oppressed, but it isn’t clear to me that the oppression made them poor, or that the passages are saying that, because they are already poor, they are easy targets of oppression. I’ve read through all the occurrences of each word (see the file), but I can’t say I’ve lingered over the wider context of each one. II’m hoping readers can help here — that they can come up with a clear example that the oppression caused the poverty, since I haven’t found one that seems clear it can’t be the other way around (someone already poor was the target of oppression).

Why do I care? Well, I wouldn’t of course dispute that any number of tragic or “oppressive” circumstances could leave a person poor (invasion, illness, victimization by criminals, etc.), but since the biblical language of oppression is so often politicized today, I’d like some clear examples where we are told exactly who the oppressor was and whether it caused the poverty or not. It’s pretty clear that God does not want the poor oppressed, and so at the least someone already poor should not be oppressed (whatever “oppress” means — which is something I hope to discuss in future installments). However, the political Left today (and of yesterday) frequently wants to assert that government policies that don’t put wealth into the hands of people amounts to “oppressing the poor” or contributes to said oppression. Even more extreme, some of the “discourse” about wealth and poverty that derives from the Left assumes that the mere existence of the wealthy axiomatically produces an oppressive reality for others, as though there were a finite amount of wealth in our space-time existence, so that what one person has must have been taken from another. I’d like to see if there is any biblical justification for any such thinking, regardless of how biblical phrases are mouthed by politicians to that effect. I’d like a specific example that provides clarity or directs our thinking along any such trajectory. So, while those in governing authority are very obviously sinning when perpetrating legal injustices, does government policy that doesn’t increase the wealth of the poor (through redistribution of the wealth of others or some other means) amount to “oppression”?  Does the fact that there are wealthy people per se amount to injustice? These questions may seem absurd, but anyone in tune with the current political climate knows this discussion is real. It would be nice to have biblical data for forming any biblical theology in this part of life.

By way of illustrating the ambiguity, the writer of the ABD article (discussing ‘ebyon; עביון) notes that the description of the poor can connote “unfair handling of legal cases” and then cites Isa 32:7; Jer 5:28; 22:16; Amos 5:12 among such instances. This wording seems to suggest that the unfairness causes the poverty, or perhaps contributes to it. But that isn’t clear to me at all. Here are those passages:

Isa 32:7 – As for the scoundrel—his devices are evil; he plans wicked schemes to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right.

(Did this scoundrel make the person poor, or was the victim already poor? How can we tell?)

Jer 5:28 (with context):

26 For wicked men are found among my people; they lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men. 27 Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich; 28 they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.

(Do the wicked fail to defend the needy (‘ebyon) when they weren’t poor, thus making them poor, or do they target the poor? How can we tell?)

Amos 5:12 – For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.

This passage seems fairly clear that the injustice does not make the person poor, but the already poor person is turned away from getting justice. If that is the case, then the unfairness is subsequent to the person’s condition of poverty; the latter was not caused by the former. If the writer wanted to make the opposite point, it seems he took this passage out of context.

Even passages that describe the aftermath of the exile aren’t really clear that the military invasion caused the poverty (see 2 Kings 24:14; 25:12; Jer 10:47), though it doesn’t seem a stretch to infer that, at least for some people.  These passages can quite easily be read to say that the invading armies left the (already) poor behind because they had nothing to contribute to their captors, as opposed to interpreting the passages as saying “and those left behind became poor.” It just isn’t clear to me.

But the point is not to critique the article. Rather, I’d just like to see the causative relationship derive from the text as opposed to filtering a passage through that idea. Only when we know more precisely the origins of a poverty circumstance can the moral obligation and remedy be clear so that the innocent (even if they are wealthy) are not punished with the guilty when solutions are applied. 

Lastly, I think the above ambiguity is present with those places where the writer of the article situates poverty in a legal context — that is, where the poor are connected (for some reason — and that is the issue) with legal injustice. (Do a search in the file for terms like “legal” and “political” and “exploitation” to see what I mean here). I think it’s reasonable to ask for the cause-effect relationship to be made clear (if it can be) before parsing how the legal material / contexts ought to be understood and then applied to our own legal/political situations. And if that cannot be determined, we will need to guard against imposing our own context on the text to baptize whatever political position we favor in this regard as the one God would endorse via what the Scripture says about the poor.

There’s obviously more to say here, but I’ll wait for some feedback before going any further.

 

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

About The Author

Comments

5 Responses to “Biblical Theology, Poverty, and Social Justice, Part 2”

  1. Jeff says:

    I really appreciate this post. Insisting that the cause and effect relationship be established, being careful to avoid baptizing a given position, avoiding the traps of assuming the Bible agrees with us because we believe we agree with the Bible: human, all too human to stumble in these ways, let us avoid them.

  2. kennethos says:

    There’s also the question this all raises: is poverty actually preventable? Or, can it simply be mitigated? Meaning, does Scripture give an idea that society (any human society) can actually completely and totally eliminate poverty, or “merely” reduce it to manageable amounts? What I’m seeing thus far in these passages, and in studying the words, leans more on the “manage” side, rather than “eliminate”….poverty, in some ways, may be akin to sin in the “leaven” category (due to people sinning/being sinners, there will by extension always be some level of impoverishedness among human groups).
    Good, thought provoking stuff.

    • MSH says:

      Good question; Jesus’ line that “the poor you have always with you” (Matt 14:7) likely factors in here in some way. I’d agree with your “lean” thought; seems to be the orientation.

  3. Emil says:

    I am a little late to this discussion but if I would like to give my opinion on the matter…

    The OT is a very symbolic and spiritual book, but it seems that since for the most part we were trained to look at it in a literal way we miss this wholesale. For example the scriptures you point out in your point #3 Prov 6:10-11; Prov 24:33-34… I believe these scriptures are prophecies. Notice they speak about “poverty coming on you like a robber, while you are resting”, emphasizing something will be stolen from you, while you are not aware of it because you were sleep.

    This is similar to Jesus words at Matthew 24:42,43 when he says “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.”

    Once again this is emphasizing that because you were sleep a robber or thief came and stole something from you, and this is why you are poor.

Leave a Reply

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up. Patience is a virtue; there is no need to re-submit your comment.