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Poverty in the Old Testament

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If you read through the Old Testament with a conscious eye and intention to understand God’s concern for the poor, you can’t help but see the special place that God holds for the oppressed and afflicted of the world. Not many pages will go by before you deal with some story, some Law or some words of wisdom about the poor and their plight. Many of these words are directed at the rich and well-off and come in the way of severe warnings as to how they should treat their less fortunate brothers and sisters.

Not only is God’s concern for the poor evident, but a pattern begins to emerge in which we can see that there are different types, or levels, of poverty which can come upon God’s people. Sometimes, poverty is voluntary, such as the bond slave who chooses to remain under the watch-care of his master by having his ear pierced with an awl at the doorpost of the house (Exodus 21:5-6). This is a “gentle” form of self-received poverty and is also a beautiful picture of how we can choose ourselves to be bound to God.

The most common form of poverty in the Old Testament, however, is non-voluntary–usually inflicted on people by natural disasters, social upheavals, oppression, and wars. When we look at the entirety of Israel’s history in the Old Testament we see basically five levels of poverty emerge. These five levels are by no means a definitive list or statement and they are most certainly open to interpretation. Regardless, they do offer a structure by which to understand poverty as experienced by people in the Old Testament and God’s action, interaction and reaction to the afflicted. From my perspective, these five types of poverty encompass the picture of poverty as depicted in the Old Testament:

No, number five is not a typo. While it may sound odd that such a thing would even be considered a form of poverty, I ask you not to write off that portion of the conversation. In the upcoming blogs in this series, I’ll dive deep into each of these levels, elucidating what I observe and see illustrated in God’s word.

At that point, we can begin making application to present-day and the way we live with and work with the poor through relief and development strategies. Even beyond strategy, however, my hope is that this conversation we’re conducting be the start of a renewed sense of awareness of others around us everyday–on the defined mission field and those that are undefined–our workplace, schools, social groups. As we will discuss, God’s compassion for the poor is so very moving because He is so very moved by their suffering. Let us also be brave enough to be moved–to tears, to prayer, to action–by the reality of those around us everyday.

Other posts in this series: