Poverty in Scripture can be both social and spiritual. The words "poor" and "poverty" cover a wide range of meaning, overlapping with terms like "widow" or "orphan, " which underscores the expansive nature of the topic. In addition, because not all poor people are destitute the meaning of these terms is heavily dependent upon context.
The Old Testament. The Pentateuch emphasizes equitable treatment for the poor. Justice was neither to be withheld from the poor ( Exod 23:6 ) nor distorted because a person was poor (23:3; le 19:15). Such equity is illustrated by the collection of ransom money from rich and poor alike ( Exod 30:15 ). As part of the covenant community the poor person was to be treated with respect ( Deut 24:10-11 ) and supported, even economically, by other Israelites, since they were not to charge interest to the poor of their people ( Exod 22:25 ; Lev 25:35-38 ).
Beyond direct legislation a number of institutions contained special provisions for the poor. Gleaning laws focused on the widow, fatherless, stranger, and poor ( Lev 19:9-10 ; 23:22 ; Deut 24:19-22 ). During the Sabbatical year debts were to be canceled ( Deut 15:1-9 ) and Jubilee provided release for Hebrews who had become servants through poverty ( Leviticus 25:39-41 Leviticus 25:54 ). During these festivals the poor could eat freely of the produce of all of the fields ( Exod 23:11 ; Leviticus 25:6-7 Leviticus 25:12 ).
Further stipulations to aid the poor included the right of redemption from slavery by a blood relative ( Lev 25:47-49 ), support from the third-year tithe ( Deut 14:28-29 ), and special provisions regarding the guilt offerings. This latter law illustrates the relative nature of the concept of poverty. If someone cannot afford the normal atonement lamb he or she can bring two pigeons ( Lev 5:7 ) but further consideration, (substituting one-tenth ephah of flour), is made for one who cannot afford even two pigeons ( 5:11 ). Clearly, the Law emphasized that poverty was no reason for exclusion from atonement and worship!
Motivation for such legislation was God's concern for the poor. God listened to the cry of the needy ( Exod 22:27 ), blessed those who considered them ( Deuteronomy 24:13 Deuteronomy 24:19 ), and held accountable those who oppressed them ( Deut 24:15 ). The Lord based this position on his relationship with his people; he was their God ( Lev 23:22 ) and had redeemed them from slavery ( Deut 24:18 ).
Poverty is not a frequent subject of the Old Testament historical books but striking instances are recorded. Hannah's prayer reveals the plight of the poor along with their dependence upon the Lord ( 1 Sam 2:5-8 ), while Nathan's parable to David shows the nature of oppression, the relativity of poverty (this poor man was not destitute), and the concern of the king to provide justice for the poor ( 2 Sam 12:1-4 ). As the monarchy developed the economic policies of Solomon eventually strained the resources of Israel and increased the level of poverty ( 1 Kings 12:4 ). This situation was further accentuated with the influx of idolatry and increase of injustice during the divided monarchy. A striking example from the northern kingdom shows the predicament of an indebted woman who, having lost her husband, was about to lose her sons to a creditor. God's provisions through Elisha is but one example of his "listening" to the cry of the poor in the Bible ( 2 Kings 4:1-7 ).
The highest concentration of terms for the poor in the Old Testament is found in the poetic books. The psalms dramatically portray the difficulties of physical poverty. Helping the poor is identified with righteousness ( 112:9 ) while oppression of the afflicted is one of the crimes of the wicked ( 109:16 ). The psalms also move beyond the sphere of social poverty to speak of spiritual humility ( 25:9 ). The poor are paralleled to the godly ( Psalms 12:1 Psalms 12:5 ), the upright ( 37:14 ), and those who love the Lord's salvation ( 40:17 ; 70:5 ) and are contrasted to evil men ( Psalms 140:1 Psalms 140:12 ), the wicked ( 37:14 ; Psalms 109:2 Psalms 109:22 ), and fools ( Psalms 14:1 Psalms 14:6 ; 74:21-22 ).
Frequently in the psalms, especially lament psalms, the poor called to the Lord for help ( 34:6 ; 70:5 ; 86:1 ; 109:21-22 ) knowing that he heard their cry ( 69:33 ). The psalmist understood that God was the just judge of the poor. The Lord was seen as their refuge ( 14:6 ), deliverer ( 40:17 ), and provider ( 68:10 ). He rescued ( 35:10 ), raised ( 113:7 ), and satisfied them ( 132:15 ); it was the Lord who secured justice for the poor and the needy ( 140:12 ).
More than any other book Proverbs gives visibility to the causes of poverty. Because of the book's didactic nature the emphasis is upon controllable circumstances but other reasons are included. Poverty is a result of laziness ( 6:10-11 ; 10:4 ; 20:13 ; 24:33-34 ), lack of discipline ( 13:18 ), idleness ( 14:23 ; 28:19 ), haste ( 21:5 ), excess ( 21:17 ; 23:20-21 ), and injustice ( 13:23 ).
The Wisdom Literature paints a realistic picture of poverty in the ancient world. The poor are vulnerable ( Prov 18:23 ), shunned by friends ( 14:20 ; Psalms 14:4 Psalms 14:7 ), and become servants to the rich ( 22:7 ). Poverty brings sorrow ( 31:7 ) and can lead to crime ( 30:8-9 ). Poverty is quite realistically presented in Job 24, where the poor are portrayed as hungry, thirsty, naked, and suffering from various kinds of injustice and oppression including the loss of poverty, family, and life. Yet obedience to the Lord is more important than riches. This priority is evidenced in the comparison of poverty with other areas of life. It is better than foolishness ( Prov 19:1 ; Eccl 4:13 ), lying ( Prov 19:22 ) or a rich liar ( 28:6 ), and rich pride ( 28:11 ).
The Wisdom Literature is emphatic in its encouragement to help those who are poor. Giving to the poor is encouraged ( Prov 11:24 ; Proverbs 28:8 Proverbs 28:22 Proverbs 28:27 ) while oppression of the poor is against one's Maker ( 14:31 ; 17:5 ). Rulers are taught not to oppress the poor ( 28:3 ; 29:14 ; 31:9 ). Those who help the poor are the righteous ( Job 29:12-17 ; Prov 29:7 ; 31:20 ) while the wicked do not ( Job 20:19 ; Prov 29:7 ; 30:14 ).
Certainly the most grievous examples of poverty and severest rebukes come from the prophets. It should be noted, however, that the prophets were not primarily spokespersons for the poor or the oppressed peoples; they were spokespersons for God. The key terms for "poor" are used almost exclusively by Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah while Hosea and Micah, who also showed great sensitivity to the needs of their people, do not use the terms at all. Prophets clearly called attention to the misuse of riches and the abuse of the poor but they were primarily messengers of the Lord. Attempts to narrow the agenda of the prophet to one interest group or another have not understood the largess of God and his concern for all persons.
Amos is quite graphic in his portrayal of the oppression of the poor. The poor are bought and sold, trampled, crushed, oppressed, forced, and denied justice by those who are in a position to do otherwise. Their treatment is a striking example of the waywardness of God's people from the covenant obligations and their unique relationship with the Lord. Amos underscores this situation: "They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed" ( 2:6-7 ).
The emphasis of the prophetic invective fell upon the leaders. Instead of defending the poor and upholding the Law of God they took bribes and gifts to pervert justice ( Isa 1:23 ). Neglecting the clear call of Scripture to provide for the poor, they passed unjust laws and deprived the poor of their rights ( 10:1-2 ; Jer 5:27-28 ), taking their goods and their land ( Isa 3:13-15 ; 5:8 ). Isaiah accents their abuse: "What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?" ( 3:15 ). Yet the people were held accountable for their actions as well. Ezekiel, for example, reminded the people that they had joined with the leaders in such oppression ( 22:26-29 ) and pointed out the primary responsibility of the individual was to obey God ( 18:16-17 ).
The New Testament. Most of the teaching about the poor in the New Testament occurs in the Gospels. Jesus understood the reality of poverty in society ( Matt 26:9-11 ) and the difficulties of the poor ( Mark 12:42-44 ). He stressed the need to give to the poor ( Matt 19:21 ; Luke 12:33 ) and to provide for them ( Luke 14:13 Luke 14:21 ). Jesus himself identified with poor people and, like many poor persons, did not have a home ( Luke 9:58 ). He taught how difficult it was to be rich ( Matt 19:23-24 ) and the necessity of spiritual poverty for a relationship with God ( Matt 5:3 ).
Paul's sensitivity to the poor is consistent with the teaching of Jesus and the agenda of the early church. He understood that the word of Christ cut across sociological boundaries and that the church was made up of poor and rich alike ( Gal 3:28 ; Col 3:11 ; cf. 1 Cor 1:27-29 ). His stress on the collection for the Jerusalem church exhibits this concern in a practical way ( Rom 15:26 ; 1 Cor 16:3 ; 2 Cor. 8-9; Gal 2:10 ).
The equality of persons before God is an important principle of the New Testament with the most powerful statement of the equality of rich and poor coming from James, who emphasizes God's sensitivity to the poor and their faith ( 2:5 ). He notes that discriminating between the rich and the poor is both a sin against God ( 2:9 ) and an insult to the poor ( 2:6 ).
Scriptural terminology includes those who are "meek" and "poor in spirit" ( Matt 5:3 ), yet the biblical stress is that both the individual and the church are to be engaged in helping the poor of society. The believer's model for this action is the life of Jesus and the Word of God, which grounds such sensitivity in the very nature of God himself.
Robert D. Spender
Bibliography. G. J. Botterweck, TDOT, 1:27-41; L. Coenen, C. Brown, and H.-H. Esser, NIDNTT, 2:820-29; R. J. Coggins, ExpT99 (1987): 11-14; H-J. Fabry, TDOT, 3:208-30; S. Gillingham, ExpT100 (1988): 15-19; D. E. Gowan, "Wealth and Poverty in the OT, " Int41 (1987): 341-53; D. E. Holwerda, ISBE, 3:905-8; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Trinity J9 (1988): 151-70; B. J. Malina, Int41 (1987): 354-67; C. U. Wolf, IDB, 3:843-44.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Poor and Poverty, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".