The Bible and Slavery: Care and Concern for the Poor

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As we begin this series, I want to start with a vital foundation.  Regardless of how a person builds a house, if he/she builds on a faulty foundation, it will sooner or later crumble upon itself.  People who argue so vehemently that Hebrew slavery was immoral and cruel, have failed to see the foundation of the Hebrew society’s conduct toward the weak and poor.  Here’s what I think is the bedrock for our understanding of slavery and the Old Testament:

For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe.

He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.

So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

The God of Israel is not only a true and living God, but His character is totally unlike the false gods of the nations.  He is above any so-called god or lord.  He is great and mighty because His character and conduct is incomparably superior to all. Being faithful and fair He cannot be bribed or manipulated. He cares for the weakest members of society: the orphans, widows, and the displaced and impoverished.

And God wants (and commands) His people to be and do JUST LIKE HIM.  Hebrews were to demonstrate their love for the aliens, providing food and covering for them.

Over and over again in the Old Testament we find not only compassion but strict and clear commandments pertaining to how God’s people were to generously help and provide for the poor, weak, and strangers around them. Consider how God clearly commanded His people to do their harvesting:

Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, or shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God…When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10,33-34)

Or again,

When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow in order that the Lord you God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-20)

It is impossible to rightly understand the concept of “slavery” in the Old Testament until you first have understood the compassion and concern of the Lord for the poor in the land. Understand also that the land was a clearly defined inheritance of the tribes, clans, and families of Israel. The land belonged to the Hebrews. Strangers could not own land.  They could sometimes own property inside walled cities. But they could not be long-term land holders. So when God refers to the stranger who “resides with you in your land”, one must understand the close proximity involved.  The strangers were basically living immediately under the benevolence, watch and care of the Hebrew landowners.  But there is more.

Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your gates, for he has no portion or inheritance among you. At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall deposit it in your gates. The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your gates, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do. (Deuteronomy 14:27-29)

Every third year, the “tithe” of all the produce of the fields was to be brought into the gates of the nearest town, and distributed to those who had no land: the Levites, the poor, and the aliens.  Here is an amazing unspoken comparison.  The Levites were the special priestly tribe of the Hebrews, who were said to have the Lord as their inheritance.  Here God is compassionately elevating the status of widows, orphans, and aliens to that comparable of Levites!  And note that this third year “tithe” was not only a commandment but a promise: “that the Lord God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”

This is evidence of God’s great love for the “least of these”.  But there’s also something very practical happening here.  This is a national benevolence program calculated not only to help the poor but also to reduce the likelihood that the poor would have to sell themselves or their sons or daughters into debtor’s slavery. This is why after giving these laws pertaining to the weak and poor, that we see God saying, “…remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” or, “For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from Egypt.”

This is what I call the Magna Carta in the discussion of Old Testament slavery.  Before we talk about God’s instructions regarding slavery, we must first see all that God commanded to protect the poor and aliens from such an institution.  Many people, even sincere Christians, have never realized the uniqueness of the Hebrew nation in antiquity in terms of its obligation and service to the poor. Perhaps there’s no nation in history that comes close to this level of compassion for the weak, poor, and alien.  This is because the God of the Hebrews exemplifies these virtues and tells His people to be like Him. This must be understood at the outset.

If this an example of “Bronze-age ethics”, as many Bible critics love to say about the laws of Moses, then perhaps our society is not as “progressive” as some think!  Yes, we have a massive system of welfare in the US. But it arguably creates more dependents than it saves.  In contrast, the Hebrew benevolence laws not only protected the dignity but also encouraged the industry of the poor.

More next time.

2 thoughts on “The Bible and Slavery: Care and Concern for the Poor

  1. Katy says:

    As a social worker, this blesses me. It has been difficult to reconcile much of modern social work with our faith. This provides some of the sturdy foundation needed. Thanks Dane!

    • thanks for taking time to comment, Katy. I don’t know how to estimate what percent of each harvest was left in the field and in the corners of the field for the poor each year. However much it was, it was a percentage of the potential income of the landowner that was taken out from the outset for the poor. It was a sort of alms/tax that everyone was expected to share with the strangers. But get this, the poor had to glean and harvest for themselves. They had to go to the field and work. Yes it was charity, but it did NOT rob the dignity of the poor. Also every third year each landowner was to give an entire 10% of the harvest to the priests, widows, orphans, and aliens. (And this on top of the gleanings that were already reserved.) There is no way to estimate what percentage of the overall population was made up of these poor folks. The stated goal in the Law of Moses was that “there be no poor persons among you.” This wasn’t wealth redistribution. It was willing gifts and alms, given in love. There is not even a slight indication that there was any sense of “entitlement” fostered by this system. All this to say that the “iron-age ethics” of Mosaic times was more enlightened than folks recognize. And this because it was legislated by a merciful God, who is always ahead of the times.

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