Poverty in the Old Testament: Loss of Identity and Hope

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on April 9, 2018 | Print

A Loss of Identity

In previous blogs, we saw Old Testament figures from the Israeli nation, David and Job, lose possessions and their influence. These losses bring us to the third level of poverty–the loss of identity. As material and relational aspects of their lives dwindled, their self-worth plummeted. They become like 10 of the 12 spies who were sent by Moses to spy on the Promised Land of Canaan and came back to the Israelites to report, “…we seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

Those who arrive at this level of poverty become like the Israelites in the time of Gideon who, “because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds…” (Judges 6:2) In other words, due to oppression, the Israelites literally had to take to the ground. They were the nation of God living underground in fear of the enemy. Time after time, God had given them miraculous deliverance. They were His chosen people! But years of loss had made it easy to  forget who they were.

When the Israelites first came to Egypt because of a drought, they eventually were overcome by systematic loss of possessions and influence. Before long, they no longer saw themselves as God’s chosen, but as Egypt’s slaves. They adopted a new identity defined by impoverishment and indentured servitude.

When David loses his possessions, place, and identity as Saul’s most trusted general, things get so bad that he eventually seeks refugee with Israel’s sworn enemies, the Philistines. As he does so, many Philistines complain and say, “Isn’t this the David who killed the tens of thousands?” David becomes so afraid for his live that he pretends to be insane, making marks on the doors and the gate of the city of Gath and letting saliva run down his beard and face.

And Job. He loses his children and his possessions. He loses his influence and respect of his fellow countrymen. He then begins to question God and himself as to his identity and even his worth as a person.

Without a solid identity or positive sense of worth, we arrive at yet another, deeper level of the Hebrew concept of poverty.

A Loss of Hope

When possessions disappear, influence fades and a sense of identity wanes, so too does the hope of deliverance. Confusion and despair dominate and social systems break down to the point where detestable practices such as cannibalism can even occur (2 Kings 6:24).

Israel becomes so entrenched in their slavery mentality, that they accept their fate and literally sleepwalk through life. They are resigned to the bondage they think defines them and give up. Their voices remain silent for generations until God brings a deliverer–Moses. It is only when he begins to advocate on their behalf that they once again have the fortitude to cry out to God once more for freedom.

Without his possessions and influence, David begins to lose himself. Some of his Psalms are achingly beautiful, revealing a man desperately holding on to whatever hope might be found in the wilderness (Psalm 62). David reaches a point of hopelessness (from an earthy perspective) as he cries out, “From where does my help come from?” (Psalm 121:1)

Job, when he had lost everything (possessions, influence, and identity) cries out, “What strength do I have that I should still hope?…Do I have any power to help myself, now that success has been driven from me?” (Job 6:11-13). In their darkest hour, the poor often cry out just like Job, “Do I have hope?”

Thus, this brings us to our fifth and final level of poverty as seen in the Old Testament. You may disagree with my observations and may even be shocked by them, but I think there is much evidence in the Bible to support the following final level of poverty. In a way, you might even call this the Biblical definition of absolute poverty. I will discuss this in my next post. 

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David Nam 1 year ago

Dear Jeff, thank you for the new article. Dispossessed and less influential poor are seen by many as detachable in society like lepers. I wonder that, while I am working for and with addicted people in the so-called Holy Land, a preaching like "you are chosen people of God" can be of any help or meaning for them. Torah tradition, ethnic genealogy, and land ideology may define their identity as superior to others, but I am doubting that such an identity based on the history or modern construct can provide the poor with energy and wisdom to overcome their current mental and spiritual problem that causes poverty. You may give me your practical judgment regarding this. I do believe that a certain form of "spiritual" instant event or revelation can lead to and define the new Messianic identity as suggested in John 3. I really appreciate your raising of this ontological issue!

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