Evaluation In the Biblical Concept Of Wealth and Poverty (Part 1)


 INTRODUCTION

The promises of material blessings of Yahweh were contingent on complete loyalty and obedience on the part of Israel. Unfortunately today, the eager audience is fed with the great promises of God’s abundant blessings, almost to the total neglect of the conditions under which those blessings will flow. We shall therefore begin with a brief examination of the teachings of the Old Testament1 on wealth and poverty.

 Old Testament Teachings on Wealth and Poverty

            The Scriptures contain a wealth of evidence showing that neither God nor Jesus sanctioned poverty since each one of them sided with the poor to liberate them from injustice. The exodus event is overwhelmingly significant as far as this theme is concerned.2 The Israelites in their situation of being oppressed in Egypt cried out to Yahweh who, being aware of the enormity of their suffering, revealed by their cry, reacted favorably, saying: “I have seen the miserable state of my people…..” (Ex. 3: 7); and now the cry of the sons of Israel has come to me…”) (Ex. 3: 9); and later in the priestly account he says: ‘And I have heard the groaning of the sons of Israel.” (Ex. 6:5)”3. God’s response to the cry of the Israelites was definitive. He reacted quickly to the plight of his people, Israel. According to August U. Nebechukwu, Yahweh’s reaction to the plight of his people in the Exodus experience reveals him as the socio-political liberator of an oppressed race.”4

            Apart from the Exodus experience, we see God in the Old Testament as the one who shows much concern about the plight of the poor, the widows, the fatherless, the motherless, the oppressed, etc., and the responsibility of the community of God towards them. God gave Moses various regulations relating to this important issue. Yahweh told Moses that on reaching the Promised Land, those who were rich in worldly goods among them should not be hardened or tightfisted towards their poor brothers, but should freely supply what they needed. Should anyone refuse to come to the aid of the poor, such a person would be guilty before God. They should therefore give generously to the poor without a grudging heart. God told the Israelites that there will always be poor people among them; therefore they should always be open handed towards the poor and the needy (Deut. 15: 7 – 10)5.

            With regard to annual harvest, God gave the directive that each time they harvested their farm produce; they should not reap up to the very edges of their field or gather the gleanings of their harvest. Also they must not go over a vineyard a second time to pick whatever they forgot to pick. They were also forbidden from picking whatever dropped in the course of harvest; All these belonged to the poor, the widows, the orphans and the poor aliens in their midst.6. In fact, Yahweh went further to remind them of the fact that, they too until recently, were aliens and slaves in Egypt (Lev. 19; 9 ; 10; Deut. 24 : 17-22). So, Kerby Anderson was right when he says, “the Old Testament wealth was a commercial one and not individualistic.”7 In other words, those who have financial and material blessing should look after the others who are not as privileged.

            In the same vein, the Lord said to Israel that the Levites, the poor, the orphans, the widows and the aliens were entitled to the part of their title. God directed that when they presented their tithes before Him, they should make the following declarations (Deut. 26:12-14):

1.         I have removed the tithes from my house

2.         I have given to the Levite

3.         I have given to the Alien

4.         I have given to the fatherless and widows

5.         I have not eaten any of it when I was mourning;

6.         Nor have I removed of it for an unclean thing,

7.         Nor given any of it for burial ceremony

8.         I have obeyed the LORD my God8

            In addition to the above, the Lord strictly forbade the Israelites from permanently enslaving fellow Israelites. At the beginning of every Sabbath year or the year of Jubilee, all Israelites who sold themselves or were sold into slavery by their poor parents or relations should be set free without paying any ransom, all debts should be pardoned, lands and other properties taken as pledges for loans must be returned intact. Loans granted to fellow Israelite must not be at interest. If a poor man’s covering cloth was taken as a pledge for a loan, it must be returned to him before nightfall, because he could be frozen by cold in the night. The Lord said that he would punish such a merciless creditor. That the Year of Jubilee or the Sabbath year was only a few months away should not constitute an excuse for not granting loan to the poor on the basis of the fact that the debt would be forgiven at the commencement of the Sabbath year and the debtor could not pay before then. God consistently warned against injustice and oppression of the poor in the society (Exodus 23:10-11; Lev. 25:8-55, 27:17-24; Numb.34:4).9

            In the book of Psalm there are many strong and challenging sayings which portray God as one who has passionate commitment to human justice, as one who champion the cause of the poor, who heeds the cries of the weak and the defenseless. For example, “may Yahweh be a stronghold for the oppressed … He does not ignore the cry of the wretched (Ps. 9:9, 12). “The luckless man commits himself to you… You listen to the want to the humble… judging in favor of the orphaned and exploited…” (Ps. 10: 14, 17, 18). Yahweh… given justice to those denied it, gives food to the hungry, gives liberty to prisoners (Ps. 146:7). As far as corrupt judges in Israel are concerned, Yahweh upbraids them in the following words: “No more mockery of justice, and no more favoring of the wicked! Let the weak and the orphan have justice, be fair to the wretched and destitute; …. Save them from the clutches of the wicked! (Ps. 82:2- 4).[1] This is clear evidence that God has taken side with the poor against social injustice and the exploitation that oppress them.

In the book of Proverbs, God seems to identify with the poor in a definite and concrete way. Any form of oppression or kindness directed to the poor is viewed and interpreted to be directed to God himself. For example, “to oppress the poor is to insult his creator, to be kind to the needy is to honor him” (Prov.14:31).[2] Notice also this powerful instruction to guard the right of the poor: “speak, yourself, on behalf of the dumb, on behalf of the unwanted; speak, yourself, pronounce verdict, uphold the nights of the poor to needs”(Prov.31:8 -9). In other words it is the responsibility of the champion the right of the poor and the needy, those who left desolate by the cruelties of life (see 2 Sam. 14:4-11; 1 Ki.3:16 -28; Ps.45:3-5; 72:4; Is. 9:6).[3]

The Old Testament Prophets thundered against the oppression of the poor. As the conscience of the nation they denounced greedy landlords, land grabbers, liquor vendors, and money lenders. They called God’s people, to genuine religion that helped the needy rather than trusting in ceremonies (Is. 58:6-7). Among the sins of Israel upon which God pronounced judgment through Amos was the tramping upon the poor, cheating with dishonest  scales and buying the poor and needy for a pair of sandals (Am. 2 :7,8; 5,6)13       Amos and Isaiah among several other prophets viewed injustice as a negation of the worship of God and roundly denounced it. How someone claims to know God while he is oppressing his people? Isaiah and Amos noted that those who extort from the poor their clothes and wine make them sacrilegious offerings and that Yahweh unequivocally condemned such practice:

I hate and despise your feasts; I take no delight in your solemn

festivals … but let justice flow like water and integrity like an

unfailing stream14 

 In a strongly worded polemic, Isaiah also maintains that religious observance in a context of oppression and neglect of the poor are abhorrent.  Any form of devotion to God divorced from concern for the poor is hypocritical and unsatisfactory15 is He declared:

What are your endless sacrifices to me? says Yahweh. I am sick of holocausts of rams and the fact of calves …; bring me your worthless offering no more, the smoke of them falls me with disgust. … I cannot endure festival and solemnity. When you strength your hands, I turn my eyes away, you may multiply your prayers, I will not listen.  Your hand are covered with blood, wash, make yourself clean.  Take your wrong – doing out of my sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do well. Beach for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:11-17).

 We can, therefore, rightly infer from this that pious church attendance by Christians is not enough when, during the week, they turn to exploit their neighbors in their interaction with them.  Only those are true worshippers of God who in addition to their religious rituals hunger and thirst for injustice and practice it daily even at the cost of their lives (Mt. 5:6).  Over and over again, God warns about the transient nature of earthly possessions and that it is futile for a man to put his trust in them (Ps. 62:10, 29:4, 28:20, 49:10; Prov.10:5, 11:24, 13:7, 14:20, 15:27, 19:7 & 17, 20:13, 27:24; Eccl. 5:8-10, 5:19, 9:16; Isaiah 3:7; Jer. 17:11, 20:13; Am. 2:17)16.

It is worthy to mention at this junction however, that, while the Old Testament gave an elaborate and comprehensive teaching on wealth and poverty, as well as God’s favorable deposition to the poor; the word of God never promised wealth for everyone. A comprehensive look at the relevant biblical passage quickly reveals that the Old Testament (or biblical) view of wealth is more complex. In fact, scripture teaches three basic principles about wealth.

First, wealth is not condemned. For example, we read in Genesis 13:2 that Abraham had great wealth. In Job 42:10 we see that God once again blessed Job with material possessions. In Deuteronomy, Proverb and Ecclesiastes, wealth is seen as evidence of God’s blessing (Deut. 8:28; Prov.22:2; Eccl. 5:19). But even though wealth might be an evidence of God’s blessing, believers are not to trust in it. Proverbs, Jeremiah and others teach that the believers should not trust in wealth but in God (Prov. 11:4; 11:28; Jer. 9:23)

Second, when wealthy people in the Bible were condemned, they were condemned for the means by which their riches were obtained not for the riches themselves. The Old Testament prophet Amos railed against the injustice of obtaining wealth through oppression or fraud (4:11; 5:11). Micah spoke out against the unjust scales and light weight with which Israel defrauded the poor (6:1). Neither Amos nor Micah condemned wealth per se; they only denounced the unjust means by which it is sometimes achieved17

Third, Christians should be concerned about the effect wealth can have on our lives. We read in Proverbs 30:8-9 and Hosea 13:6 that wealth often tempts us to forget about God. Wealthy believers may no longer look to God for their provision because they can meet their basic needs.  We read in Ecclesiastes 2 and 5 that people who are wealthy cannot really enjoy their wealth. Even billionaires often reflex on the fact that they cannot really enjoy the wealth that they have. Moreover Proverbs 28:11 and Jeremiah 9:23 warn that wealth often leads to pride and arrogance18. So, the Old Testament does not condemn those who are wealthy, we must keep our priorities straight and guard against the seductive effects of wealth.

Finally, Old Testament does not leave in darkness as to the reason why some people are poor. This stresses the fact that it does say we shall all be rich. The Old Testament classifies the causes of poverty into four different categories. The first cause of poverty is oppression and fraud as discussed earlier. In the Old Testament (e.g. poor. 14:31; 22:7; 28:15) we find that many people were poor because they were oppressed by individual or government. Many times, government established unjust laws or debased the currency measures that resulted in the exploitation of individuals.

The second cause of poverty is misfortune, persecution, or judgment. In the book of Job we learn that God allowed Satan to test Job by bringing misfortune upon him (1:12-19). Elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g. Ps. 109:16; is a 47:9; Lam. 5:3) we read of misfortune from God’s law, God allowed foreign nations to take them into captivity as a judgment for the disobedience.

The third cause of poverty is laziness, neglect, or gluttony, Proverbs teaches that some people are poor because of improper habits and apathy (10; 4; 13; 19; 15; 20:13; 23:21). The final cause of poverty is the culture of poverty. Proverbs 10:15 says, “The ruin of the poor is their poverty.” Poverty breeds poverty and the cycle are not easily broken. People who grow up in impoverished culture usually lack the nutrition and the education that would enable them to be successful in the future.

The Lord promised that if Israel faithfully obeyed his commandments, there would be no poor in the land because He would bless them (Deut: 1-5). But notice the condition of the promise… there shall be no poor among yours for the Lord shall greatly bless thee … only if thou carefully hearken unto the voice of the Lord your God…..’ (Deut 15: 4-5)19. A careful look at the above conditions shows us that, for any preacher to claim complete prosperity for every child of God is an extreme position which is against the counsel of the word of God as found in the Old Testament.


1 Abogunrin

2 Augustine U. Nebuchukwu, “Solidarity with the Poor” In African Theological  Journal (Volume 19, Number 2, 1990), 97 – 98

3 Ibid

4 Ibid

5 Abogunrin, 241 – 242

6 Ibid.

7 Kerby Anderson, Wealth and Poverty (http;//www.probe.org120030, 3.

8 Abogunrin, 242

9 William O. Ondari, Poverty and wealth: A Christian Perspective (http:www. 28th internationalFaith and Learning Seminar. Org, 2001),17. 

[1] Augustine O. Nebuchukwu, 98-99.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kennenth L. Barker (eds.), The Expositors Bible commentary, Old Testament (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1994), 1005.

13  Ondari, 17.

14  Nebuchuckwu, 99 – 100.

15 Ibid.

16 Abogunrin, 244.

17 Kerby Anderson, 5 -7.

18 Anderson, 8.

19 J.I. Packer & M.C. Tenney, Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Israelites (Nashville: Thomas Nelson  Publisher, 1980), 336.

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