Poverty In The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament

The needs and rights of the poor are central to the rules given in the Pentateuch (the five Books of Moses, or Torah). “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan,” God tells the Israelites. “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn” (Exodus 22,22-23).

On several occasions, issues of economic justice are linked to usury. As this is a such a big issue in terms of finance today, we have a separate section on it. The Pentateuch contains detailed rules on economic matters, particularly the treatment of the poor. The Israelites were instructed not to harvest the crops on the edges of their fields. They were to be left for the poor and migrants (Leviticus 19,9-10). Anyone who sued a debtor and took his coat was to “restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbour’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep?” (Exodus 22,26-27). Given the apparent impracticality of this rule, it may well be a rhetorical way of telling people not to demand repayment from someone who had nothing but a coat to give.

At times, the Pentateuch goes far beyond charity. Leviticus orders a “jubilee” every fiftieth year, when debts will be cancelled, slaves freed and land returned to its original owners (Leviticus 25,8-16). This would have a levelling effect, preventing anyone from accumulating too much wealth. It is not known whether the jubilee was ever implemented in practice.

This same resistance to extremes of wealth and poverty is apparent in the story of the Israelites journeying through the wilderness. The Book of Exodus states that they ate food that God caused to grow each day, called manna. When they gathered it, “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” Those who tried to store some of the food until morning found that it had become stale and inedible (Exodus 16,18-20). As they fled Egypt – where rulers piled up food in barns despite widespread poverty – God gave them food that was to be shared and not stored.

Other Old Testament books show mixed attitudes to wealth. At certain points, there are grand descriptions of the wealth of various kings, linked to praise for their success. At other times, wealthy rulers are spoken of with disapproval. Poverty is a central theme in the prophetic books (which in the Christian Bible make up roughly the last third of the Old Testament, from Isaiah to Malachi). Many of the prophets denounce those “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (Amos 4,1). There are more specific criticisms of rulers who “make unjust laws… to deprive the poor of their rights, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their rights” (Isaiah 10,1-2).