Biblical Theology, Poverty, and Social Justice, Part 3

Posted By on December 26, 2012

Well, finally back to this. Since it’s been so long, I need to give readers the context of the first and second posts.


In the first post, I had encouraged readers to keep the following items in mind as they read the essay from the Anchor Bible Dictionary I linked to (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?

In the second essay I went through the essay and made the following observations with respect to its content and the aforementioned questions:

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.

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. For example, do laws targeting national Israel (even at the individual level) with respect to the treatment of the poor apply to a non-theocratic political situation today? On what basis?

3. Except for laziness, it is difficult to discern a reason for the poverty described in the OT.

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.

These were of course tentative conclusions, as I wanted to solicit the input of readers to get more sets of eyes on the examples. We’ll return to this “causative” issue more than once as we proceed in the series.

I then went on to answer the obvious question: Why do I care about these issues? Part of my response went as follows:

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. . . . 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”?

I then went on to cite some illustrations of the above ambiguity, and concluded:

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. 

Moving On

I’d like to return to the problem of the “causative ambiguity” in this post (and will no doubt in the future). Again, I trust everyone would agree that injustice is evil. The causative ambiguity relates to two items in my mind: (1) can we say for certain what caused the poverty that is described; and (2) with respect to the biblical references to injustice, particularly as they relate to the poor, are telling us (anywhere) that being wealthy causes the poverty of others. That is, does the Bible tell us that being wealthy:

  • is unjust
  • necessarily leads to injustice
  • necessarily causes injustice
  • is a necessary catalyst to injustice
Put as clearly as I can: are the above propositions part of a biblical theology of poverty and wealth?  If they are not, then if we believe these things about wealth and poverty, we are compelled by honesty to call that belief something other than “biblical.”

I cited Isa 32:7; Jer 5:28; and Amos 5:12 in Part 2 of this series, noting that the passages did not specify at what point the victims became poor, leaving the possibility that the injustice was not the causative agent. I won’t revisit them here.

For this post, I re-read the article, noting all the other places where the author mentions something about those in authority oppressing the poor, or the poor being oppressed in legal (i.e., “law and order”) contexts, or “exploiting” the poor. The following list of verse citations emerged (all containing at least one of the lemmas that were the focus of the essay):

Isa 3:14-15; Isa 10:2; Isa 11:4; Isa 26:6; Isa 29:19; Isa 32:7; Jer 2:34; Jer 5:28; Jer 20:13; Jer 22:16; Ezek 18:12 (cf. Deut 24:12; Ezek 22:29); Amos 2:6-7; Amos 4:1; Amos 5:11-12; Amos 8:4-6; Psa 35:10; Job 24:4; Eccl 5:7.

So now the next exercise for us. Going back to the two issues floating around in my head related to “causative ambiguity,” I’d like us to think about:

(1) What causes the poverty in these verses? For example, are they clear that the poverty of the victims was caused by economic exploitation?

(2) What can we say about the abusers in these passages? Are they wealthy? How can we tell? Are they state officials (as opposed to some random wealthy person)?  Is there anything taught in these verses that provides a biblical axiom along the lines of “wealthy people inevitably cause oppression”?

To this point, it seems clear that we can say (so far) that there are two causes of poverty:

1. Laziness

2. Military invasion

We’re asking now, “are there more?”

As I said in Part 2, these “invasion” passages can at times be read to say that the invading armies left the (already) poor behind because they had nothing to contribute to their captors (i.e., the Babylonians took leaders and skilled people to Babylon), it’s probably fair to say that at least some, and perhaps many, had everything taken from them by warfare, and so we could interpret the passages as saying (in part) that “those left behind became poor.” That isn’t what can exhaustively be said, but it seems reasonable.

However, it would be terribly careless and flawed reasoning to label this as “political oppression” in our world. And yet this seems to be the flavor of some of the statements made by the author of this essay. I say this because he uses the phrase “political oppression” of these passages without nuance. In our day (and certainly in the past), “political oppression is a loaded term. Its usage in this article creates the impression that the OT isn’t talking merely about the effects of an invading army, but must be speaking about anything that might be perceived as oppressive in which the state plays a part (things like capitalism and free markets come to mind). That’s an illegitimate equation. The article’s own citation of the Moabite (Mesha) Stela illustrates this illegitimacy very well:

“Omri, the king of Israel, oppressed [wy˓nw] Moab for a long time because Chemosh was angry with his land. Then his [Omri’s] son [Ahab] succeeded him and he also said, ‘I will oppress [˒˓nw] Moab’” (lines 4–6; cf. TSSI 1: 74; KAI no. 181).

It is clear here that military invasion and subjugation are the source of the oppression. Mesha didn’t “oppress” the Israelites with capitalism or free markets. More like swords and spears. There’s no way this “political oppression” corresponds to the discussion today, but yet such wording potentially misleads the reader.

In view of this rhetorical oversight (I’m assuming it was an oversight), I can’t help wondering about the looseness of some other statements, such as:

Prophetic texts concern themselves with the poor who are economically exploited by the large landowners and ruling members of ancient Israelite society. The wisdom tradition divides over the question of poverty: Proverbs, in a somewhat condescending and possibly censorious tone, promotes the traditional wisdom view that poverty is the undesirable consequence of laziness, whereas Job, and to a lesser extent Ecclesiastes, understand poverty to be the result of political and economic exploitation.”

I’m wondering — and so, this is the target of our task — if you think these assertions really derive from the passages cited in their support. Please have a look at the verses listed above as we try and sketch a picture of what they say / describe.

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9 Responses to “Biblical Theology, Poverty, and Social Justice, Part 3”

  1. Kathleen P says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful approach to this subject.

    Those of us who participate in ministries to the “poor” or encouraging the “rich” to do their part need a solid, biblical foundation to mitigate the hazards of burnout, cynicism and/or self-righteousness that all too often are the results of religiously motivated social justice efforts.

  2. Jeff says:

    “causing someone’s property through wicked acts is evil”. Agreed, if only because the wicked acts are evil regardless of their consequences.

    Is causing poverty by acts that are not wicked evil? Is it even undesirable? In a context of regular resets of inheritances and jubilees as per the OT, I think it could be plausibly argued that such would be healthy goads to further exertion and, in a kind of redeemed dialectic, community progress and development. Especially when usury and exploitation are not practised, and when everyone is commanded to assist those who are without. This charity and generosity is only possible in a setting where equality of outcomes is _not_ guaranteed. The practice of these virtues requires some to be poor and some to be less so.

    I submit these thoughts as tentative, for the consideration of my brothers and sisters, not as conclusions. Plus, I think I’ve strayed from exegesis into mere discussion. Hope that’s okay.

    • MSH says:

      “Is causing poverty by acts that are not wicked evil?”

      MSH: I suppose I’d need to know what you’re thinking about intent.

      good discussion; one would hope that people were “goaded” into creating or obtaining more wealth with charitable motivation; I think that’s always a mixed bag, even within the believing community. The church seems so theologically illiterate that people legitimize what I call ‘lemming capitalism’ (“let’s get all we can so we can consume and spend on whatever comes down the pike next”) with people like the patriarchs. They were supporting hundreds of people (extended family) and used significant amounts of their possessions (as opposed to money as we now think of it) in exchanges. The amounts of wealth and its use can be a little misleading when we think about it today. And then there’s the “Abraham was rich and blessed by God, so the more I accumulate the more God is blessing me” thinking. Maybe God would like those people to do something useful with that wealth, especially as it relates to the gospel, and even fellow human imagers regardless of their membership in the “faith family”.

  3. Sidney W says:

    As a layman coming out of the infamous Prosperity Gospel/Claim-It church I appreciate the topic. Sorry I can’t add much.

    What I was taught was my money was actually cursed because I didn’t tithe the full percent every paycheck. Then when that failed, I had to give over and beyond ten percent to actually break the curse.

  4. David Morgan says:

    Thought your article was right on point. Love reading your blog posts.

    I often say that we all have different opinions about politics and religion and it seems it’s hard to get people to agree on anything. But one thing I think we are would agree on is that the world would be a far better place if people were just more kind to one another. You never know the impact of a kind gesture; a kind word or just a kind smile will have on someone. I think that’s what Jesus was getting it when he said, this is my commandment that you love one another.

    God Bless you in your ministry,

    Audio Bible Editor
    Litchfield Associates

  5. Emil says:

    I believe that the oppression being spoken of is a spiritual oppression, by our spiritual leaders, which Jesus was trying to get the people to “see” in his day. This, I believe is the point the OT is trying to get us today to “see” today. As you brought out, when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, they took the royal class and left the poor behind. If you read the books of the prophets it was the upper class, the royals, the leaders of the people who were oppressing them. So when the Babylonians took only the royal class and left behind the poor, this, I believe was a sign which points to the fulfillment of this prophecy that will be fulfilled at the end of the age:

    NET© Psalms 37:11 -But the oppressed will possess the land and enjoy great prosperity.

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