I Can Read the Bible

God, Neighbor, and Land: Ancient Israel's economics

Matt Carter

Economizing Jesus

When an unnamed woman anoints Jesus with expensive oil, his disciples object to this waste of money. All of the money that was spent to dump very expensive oil on Jesus’ head should have been given to the poor. The logic is that if you are a good person, you don’t use your surplus financial resources to buy expensive oil. You use your surplus to give charitably to the poor. The disciples knew this, and we know this. What Jesus says about this, however, comes from Deuteronomy 15:11. “You will always have the poor with you.”

Quoting both Jesus and Moses, politicians and pundits popularly use this assertion as an explanation for why less attention, effort, and resources should be given to the poor and powerless. The logic of this argument is that since poverty is an unsolvable problem for us, we should not spend any more time, effort, or resources than necessary on trying to fix it. No matter what we do, the poor will always be with us. This logic makes sense to us, because it is the same logic that we use for a whole slew of problems we are unable to solve.

What is the solution to hurricanes? Like the poor, we will always have hurricanes, because we cannot stop them from occurring. While a number of people have suggested using sterilization and eugenics to solve the problem of poverty, nobody has yet suggested we somehow stop the wind from blowing. So, what do we do about this problem of hurricanes that we cannot solve?

We respond in some combination of three ways. The first is to let those most affected by hurricanes cope with them most so that the rest of us can comfortably ignore them. After all, if you’re going to decide to live in hurricane prone areas, to some extent you get what’s coming to you. The second is to use insurance programs to spread the cost and risk of hurricanes around to as many people as possible. When those of us in non-hurricane prone areas learn that we often unwittingly help pay for this insurance, we understandably don’t like it. We don’t want to pay for things that we will never use, especially when we can see lots of other better uses for those funds. Our society’s third response is emergency response. When a hurricane hits an area, we send in emergency responders, relief workers, and truckloads of basic supplies. This crisis response mode is intended to ensure immediate survival. When rebuilding happens, financial resources usually flow to those who already have resources in the expectation that some surplus resources will flow to the poor and powerless. These three responses to hurricanes parallel our society’s dominant responses to poverty.

There is actually a fourth response that receives far less attention, effort, and fewer resources than the first three. This is the response that integrates hurricanes into the entire process, starting even before construction begins at the planning stage. In this response, decisions like where buildings can legally be built and how they are to be made take hurricanes very seriously into consideration. Evacuation routes are planned, built, and maintained long before they would ever be used. This response takes seriously the fact that hurricanes will always be with us and integrates them into the entire way of life in that place. Wetlands are restored or created to absorb floodwaters. Utilities are kept underground. Weather watching is habituated as a hobby. Everyone has an emergency plan and survival supplies. Everyone knows what to do, and everyone is able to safely survive the storm.

Is there a parallel response to poverty for this fourth response to hurricanes? Yes. The first ten verses of Deuteronomy 15 that precede Jesus’ quotation from verse 11 outline a system of debt forgiveness and common flourishing that would result in everyone being able to survive the storms of life. After commanding this jubilee of freedom from debt, Moses says

“But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today” (Dt 15:4-5).
Why then does it say a few verses later in verse 11 that “there will never cease to be poor in the land?” Isn’t that a contradiction? This is so, because just like in the hurricane example, nobody actually does what is commanded. Smart urban planners and managers want to keep everyone safe and secure by integrating hurricanes into every facet of civic life. They know how to do it. The problem is that the people do not want to do that. It is too onerous and expensive. Sure, people do some parts of it, and some people do more than others. The complete package, however, is just too big of a burden. This same process occurs with jubilee and the other economic rules of the Torah that integrate poverty and powerlessness into every facet of civic life. The people don’t actually follow the law. It is too great a burden.

There is sin, and so there is poverty. This leads to a follow-up question that follows this same logic. Since we cannot keep the LORD’s commands, why should we spend our attention, efforts, and resources trying to follow them? For many contemporary Christians, the answer seems to be that we should not really bother. The burden of even reading through the LORD’s commands might itself be too great. We are already forgiven, after all. Paul in Romans 6:1-2, however, gives a different answer. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

The problem with Paul’s answer to us is that it doesn’t make sense in terms of the logic we’ve been using. We still can’t solve sin or follow the LORD’s commands. Just telling us to do it will not make it so. Because this is our logic, we should pause and reconsider how we understand and imagine these issues. Deuteronomy begins with a similar pause to help the people reimagine what life is really all about.

As Israel pauses at the border of their promised land, the LORD reminds them of where they have been and what He expects of them in the promised land into which they are about to enter. Standing there at the edge, this wandering nation confronts this new reality of being a people with land. Land represents home, economic security, and a way of making a living. This is not some simple real estate transaction where they buy some parcel of land that they can simply sell once they decide to move on. Stepping across the Jordan into the promised land is irrevocable and life-changing. Why?

A Homeless Past

To understand this momentous context into which the sermon of Moses we know as Deuteronomy is placed, we need to get some sense of what land meant to these ancient Israelites. We need to remember that Egypt and the wilderness are the two places they have been. Israel is God’s chosen and homeless people. Land meant home, an actual place where identity and well-being could be formed. From land comes freedom, coherence, and prosperity. Land means life, and salvation metaphorically moves from landlessness to landedness. At the edge of the wilderness, Israel is on the way to land that has been promised to them as a gift. This experience of homelessness and land as a promise is remembered and imagined in three distinct ways throughout the Old Testament.

The first image is that of father Abraham called in Genesis 12 to leave Ur of the Chaldeans as an act of faith. God calls Abraham to leave kith and kin to sojourn or wander and walk faithfully a path of promise. This is a voluntary and intentional walking in faith, anticipating promise and trusting without reservation.

The second image is of Israel wandering in the wilderness between emancipation and landing in Canaan. This is aimless wandering on the road to nowhere. This wandering period is both a continuation of the promise and also a long death sentence in the desert (Num 32:13). Unlike for sojourning Abraham, faith is not easy for Israel here in the wilderness (Dt 1:32).

The third image is of exile. After possessing the promised land, the northern tribes are exiled to Assyria and the southern tribes to Babylon. Life in exile is a life separated from all of the tangible elements of faith that shaped life and gave it power. While faith in the wilderness was not easy, faith in exile seemed pointless and void. This is the birth of lamentation and despair. It is from this image, however, that the gospel promise of land, newness, and kingdom was received with power such that risks were run in a hope that was energizing. This faith from the standpoint of exile is a faith in the promise of land even though you see no way to get to it.

Two Stories of Life

A glimpse of this faith is seen in the decision posed to Israel by Korah and his rebellion in Numbers 14. There are two histories at work in each of these three images of homelessness and promised land, and they come into sharpest relief in the crisis of Numbers 14. To exist in the desert wilderness is to live where nothing from you or of you grows. This is the formless and void darkness before the Spirit of the LORD hovered and brought life. This is a place of nothingness. At best, you cope merely in the present with no seed or hope for building your future, and unsurprisingly, the buoyant trust of Exodus turns here into the grim resentment of Korah. They have nothing and believe in nothing. As in Exodus 16, they remembered that even as slaves, the land yielded bread and fulness. They remembered a godless history born out of disbelief in God’s promises. This is a history of scarcity to be sure, but it is a history in which the central actors are the people themselves. From the logic of this history, the wilderness experience breeds a sense of banishment and mistrust in God and His appointed leaders. We are all we’ve got to trust in and depend on. So, we must all be equally holy. Do whatever seems right to you.

They had nothing in the wilderness, and yet they lacked nothing (Dt 2:7). God rained down bread from heaven and gave water from rocks. The land and human effort did not produce their sustenance. It came down from heaven. This story of hope and enduring through want and need is the second history. In this God-centered history, even though the desert wilderness is a place of death, disease, and despair, Israel is sustained. The land of the wilderness has no resources, but the LORD is present with his homeless people so that even their clothing and sandals miraculously do not wear out (Dt 29:5). Because the LORD is present with his people, gifts are given, healing happens, newness grows, and nothing grows old.

The first history is a story about life that cuts God out. It is a story of scarce resources that selfish people compete over. Life’s winners get to create a coercive set of rules to ensure that they keep the land and its fulness. The second history is a story about the abundant, good, and gracious gifts that the LORD gives to make us and the created world better off. His chosen people are set apart to be a blessing to the rest of the world, enduring everything that entails. As Paul would later say,

“for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor 4:17-18).

What the Land Means

The land is that place in which either of these two histories can make sense to us. The land can be either the stuff by which you on your own can make your own living or the place where the LORD, from whom all blessings flow, lives and reigns. The land is the place where that decision about these two histories must and does get made. The history of life is either one barren of the promise and presence of the LORD or one infused and impregnated with the LORD. Deuteronomy is Moses’ speech to make sense of land and Israel, temptation and faith, and gifts and covenant. Deuteronomy tells us what the land really means in terms of this second history.

The Land Within God’s Story

The land is a living gift from the LORD to Israel. The land binds Israel and the LORD together. This is important, because this means that the land is a witness to this relationship between Israel and the LORD. The land is not silent, a mere pool of resources, or something to be occupied. It is alive, because the LORD dwells there (Num 35:33-34). Not only is the land living, but the gift is living as well. The gift of land is one of pure radical grace as part of an ongoing living relationship. The LORD speaks these faithful and life-giving words into reality. In this sense, Canaan land is a lot like wilderness land in that its life-giving yet unplanned power bubbles up in generous unlabored abundance. According to this alternative story of life, Israel cannot and does not need to secure its existence for itself. Israel is to be faithful to the life-giving LORD who does provide and secure.

The land is, therefore, also a temptation. Israel’s heart wants to see the land itself and the people who use it as the givers of life and security. Israel wants to forget its God-centered history, and the land can help Israel do this. Guaranteed security and satiation erode both memory and the capacity to imagine how it might yet be. Security in the present whittles away at our memory and our imagination, severing our awareness that we live in this second alternative history. Israel will be tempted to forget that it was addressed in history by the LORD who gives gifts and makes promises. When one loses the awareness of being addressed, one no longer feels obliged to answer, care, decide, hope, or celebrate. Israel can then pretend that it owns everything and owes nothing. The temptation is there to forget that history and that faith-based reading of life in order to enjoy a life of dull apathy and coercive self-indulgence.

Israel needs to remember its history and have its sense of landed life filled with stories of slavery and manna, because the primary temptation of land is in wanting more. Israel is tempted to forget, because forgetting what life actually is about enables Israel to shift the grounds for security. If land and all of the well-being and meaning that it entails is a gift, then self-seeking is pointless and lifeless. Private well-being apart from God’s good grace is, according to the logic of God-centered history, actually death itself. However, if you do not fully believe and trust in this covenantal God-shaped history, then self-seeking is both necessary and fruitful. Land and life are not gifts but objects and possessions. You replace control and self-possession for trust in the LORD.

The land as a gift is also a responsibility. Many of the gifts we give maturing children like bicycles are also like this. They are ways of transferring freedom and responsibility to them. Jesus in Luke 12:48 expresses this when he says

“everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required.”
The context of this verse is possessions, owners, and stewards, and this assertion by Jesus contradicts our worldly understanding of possessions. The worldly understanding of possessions is that they free us from having to worry and care.

Land and Torah

In a coercive society built on belief in scarcity and godlessness, those who control the land also make the rules. The land is neither a gift nor a witness to a relationship. Instead, it is an occupied possession that can be wielded against those without. Laws can be enacted and economic systems setup to require exactingly careful money management and precise work performance without the benefit of judges with blind eyes or winking officials. In Israel, those gifted with land are instead called to follow the Torah in its full spirit without tampering or compromising it. Its Scripture exists so that these landed who are so tempted to forget their history do not forget who they are, where they came from, or in whose hands their future lies. It preserves memory against this temptation to forget and reimagine life apart from the LORD.

In fact, those who possess the most are those who most need to read and reread Scripture to keep the LORD’s reality and His relationship foremost in mind. Society’s leaders, including the king, are not to control the land and reduce their relationships with the powerless to coercion but to enhance the land for the common good of their covenant partners, including those without any land (Dt 17:16-17). Those with the most land and power in this covenant society are to devote themselves to studying the Torah (Dt 17:18-20).

Think about the commandment prohibitions against images, which are controllable representations of God. They reduce and reconfigure the sources of power and meaning in life into manageable and predictable forms. Graven images embody this temptation to reduce the power and meaning of life into planned and managed forms. Gracious giving cannot be planned or managed. Graven images simplify power and meaning so that we can pretend that we are in control over life’s sources of power and meaning. Graven images reduce and replace the LORD’s reality and relationships. The Torah, on the other hand, reminds us that the LORD is the font of every blessing and that all of life is lived under his loving gaze.

Land and Sabbath

Sabbath exists to remind us who we are, where we came from, and in whose hands our future lies. Sabbath is initially introduced to Israel as God resting from His cosmic creating to enjoy and relate to His createion. Then, in the Torah, Sabbath is a way of freeing slaves (Ex 21:1-11 & Dt 15:12-18), resting the land (Lev 25), and forgiving debts (Dt 15:1-11). Sabbath is about being receptive to grace and receiving gifts in a loving covenant with the LORD. Sabbath-keeping reminds those who have land that land and its many benefits do not come from us but are given to us. It ties Israel to their shared history of God’s gracious generosity. As well, keeping the Sabbath reminds us that the land does not exist for our unending satiation. There are good limits in life, and Sabbath keeping guides us to this. Further, the land is not ours. Like a horse, the land has a life of its own and is not completely at our disposal whenever we wish. The land is not a machine that we can control and manage.

Those who possess land, however, are tempted to ignore Sabbath. Land is never rested. Debts are never forgiven. Slaves are never released. Wanting never rests, and so producing never stops. Land is occupied, managed, and controlled like a machine in this logic of human sovereignty and resource scarcity. People never pause to remember. There is no time to study Scripture. There is only the continuous cycle of production and consumption. For those caught up in this false story of life, it seems like life has always been this way.

Land and Care

Unlike a coercive society with deep divisions between those who have and those who have not, Israel at the border of the promised land is reminded that the landless and powerless widow, stranger, and orphan are, in fact, their brother and sister. As brothers and sisters, they share in our joint memory of the LORD at work in our common history. They share in our expectant hope of the LORD’s promises. So, land is for sharing with all members of the covenant, including those who don’t have the power to claim anything at all. At the boundary, nobody in Israel had any land. All promised land and everything it entailed was for the powerless. Of course, after some received land, land would continue to exist for the powerless. Many Torah laws are devoted to their care. The integration of the powerless into full covenantal life is everywhere throughout the Scripture. There is no us-them division. There is integration of every brother and sister into the full life of covenantal promise. These social and economic rules permeated civil life in Israel so completely, because those with land, who are so tempted to forget their history, do not so easily forget who they are, where they came from, or in whose hands their future lies.

Importantly, while these rules applied to everyone, they were not centralized, coordinated, or administered as they are in a coercive society. Consider that in the coercive society of Egypt, Joseph was appointed to such a centralized governmental role by Pharaoh to manage scarcity. It is not at all the case that Israel was leaderless and had no means of organizing themselves. Instead, the central activity of Israel’s leaders was to be the reading and remembering of Torah (Dt 17:18-20). The central prohibition to Israel’s leaders was to not amass possessions for themselves. “Only he [the king] must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to multiply horses. And he must not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold” (Dt 17:16-17). Rather than centralizing poverty relief efforts, it was the prerogative of every covenantal partner to see, identify, aid, and relate to the poor, the widow, and the stranger. It was not acceptable to simply outsource, gerrymander, or litigate this responsibility onto others.

This responsibility for care of the powerless entailed not only mere physical sustenance. It integrated the powerless into the entirety of civic and social life in Israel, including the means of production necessary to support themselves and their families. The laws about gleaning gave the foreigner, widow, and orphan a real way to provide for themselves by harvesting the edges of fields, the missed and slower ripening produce after the initial harvest, and all of the harvest of fallowed resting fields free of charge and restraint by every single empowered land holder. We see the effect of these gleaning laws in Boaz’s actions towards Ruth in the book of Ruth. Instead of begging, robbing, prostituting or enslaving themselves, powerless gleaners worked using the same education, skills, dignity, and physical conditioning that would make them productive in Israel’s agricultural economy if their status should change in the future.

Ultimately, the land was a vehicle and opportunity for care in ancient Israel. In English, we have separate words for care and love. The Latin word caritas from which our English words care and charity are derived, involves both care and love. We see in the use of land for ancient Israel the LORD’s awesome wisdom on display. The promised land is actually a tangible way to be the blessing of care and love in the creation.

The Land Within a Godless Story of Life

The best example of land within a godless story of life and the best contrast to the promised land is that of land in ancient Egypt. It contrasts sharply with the promised land at almost every turn. Land in this regime is divorced from any covenant relationship with God. Land is taken. Land is possessed. Land is used. Most of all, land is necessary. Without land and all it represents, people have nothing. There is no gift-giving LORD. There is only land and working the land.

One way to see these differences is to imagine what the relationship would be between land and Torah, Sabbath, and care in a society like Egypt. Outside of covenant with the LORD, there is no Torah. There is instead coercion and abuse of both land and the powerless. Land is taken as payment. People are enslaved as payment. Land is a tool of social power. Land is also dead. Land is a possession. Land is managed and controlled, traded and taken at will. The land is never rested as long as it can produce to alleviate scarcity. Some have most. All want more, especially when the land is exhausted and will not produce. The strong and decisive then take action to control and coerce. Joseph consolidates Pharaoh’s economic power. Pagan Canaanites sacrifice their children to land fertility gods. All in an attempt to manage and control life, while pretending that humans can ultimately control the land.

Land for Us

We grapple with land the same way that ancient Israel did. Our temptation is the same. Our wanting to forget God’s story of life is the same. As Christians we are also tasked with responsibility for the land and the resources with which we have been blessed. This gets expressed, as for Israel, through our relationship with land and economic resources. We live in a society like ancient Egypt, governed not by covenant but by scarcity. Do we relate to land and economic resources through paying attention to Torah, Sabbath, and care?

Consider how this plays out in secular charity, which is largely devoid of the theological context of land and covenant. Are there universal responsibilities baked into our civil life to guarantee the powerless access to the means of economic production like ancient Israel had with their gleaning laws? Is every resource possessor tasked with identifying, relating to, and aiding these powerless people? Of course not. When we do notice the poor, we tend to charitably respond in some combination of three ways, each of which whittles away at the covenantal relationship of land to Torah, Sabbath, and care.

Charity and Torah

Secular charity imagines that land and the economic resources it provides are adequate in themselves. With the LORD severed from this story of life, economic resources are the font of every blessing. Having these resources frees us from worry and care. When we voluntarily decide to care in this story of life, we turn not to the LORD to ask for blessings but directly to economic resources.

More often than not, the powerless are not understood to be our brothers and sisters but needy victims. They are the objects of our charity not our partners in covenant with the LORD. There is a social distance embedded in this perception. This distance can increase if we further believe that the powerless are there as a result of their own failure.

Secular charity sees no role for those with resources to read and study the Scriptures. Within this understanding of life, physical conditions are the primary reality. Guilt and sympathy can play a role, but these are conceived in terms universal to all of humanity. Studies have repeatedly shown that those who most regularly read through the entire Bible are also those who are also most likely to support charitable giving. As we immerse ourselves in Scripture, we grow in our remembering and in our reimagining of life in terms of God’s story. When we do so, we realize that the poor being always among us is our opportunity to remember that every good and perfect gift, including the presence of our powerless brothers and sisters, comes from God. We realize that life flows abundantly from the LORD, and that our calling from the Scriptures is to be a blessing to the world.

As Christians, we realize that we are not in ultimate control of life and are not able to manage it ourselves. Through the practice of immersing ourselves in the Scriptures, we learn to take comfort in this knowledge instead of being frightened by it. We will never solve poverty, and because of sin, the poor will always be among us.

“Therefore, I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (Dt 15:11).
This is the second half of the famous verse that Jesus quoted to the disciples about the poor always being among us. The response to our inability to solve poverty is not to throw up our arms in despair and walk away. The LORD tasked us with being a blessing to the world, therefore we open up our hands widely to give generously. We need to be immersed in Scripture to see our lives through eyes of faith so that this logic of sin, sacrifice, and grace makes sense to us.

Charity and Sabbath

Secular charity carries no concept of Sabbath. Secular charity comes out of the excess of our production. We give out of our surplus, and we can create more surplus by working more. Secular charity is one of the rewards we can participate in when we treat ourselves, land, and economic resources as machines. The less we and our resources rest, the more we will have to give.

Neither does secular charity speak to the goodness of limits and rest, because it too follows a logic of scarcity. If the need of the powerless does not rest, then neither should the giving of the empowered. When humans are sovereign, then resources need to managed and controlled for maximum efficiency, including the donated resources that flow to the powerless. Resting in the promises of the covenant and appealing to the LORD of creation are not considered viable ways of practicing charity in the secular imagination.

Instead, appealing to the life-giving LORD of all creation is an integral part of Christian charity. Sabbath reminds us that life is not about fulfilling every desire all of the time. Through the practice of keeping the Sabbath we learn the goodness of limits and self-control. We intentionally pause our cycle of production and consumption and learn to limit ourselves. We learn from keeping the Sabbath to make do with less and create the space for other lives to flourish in blessing. From Sabbath, we remember with Israel in the wilderness that less can indeed be more.

Sabbath-keeping tells us that forgiveness and restoration are integral to well-being, and that the lives of the powerless depend on more than merely more production. We also remember that we are not in control, and that land and our resources do not exist to satisfy our every whim and desire. Sabbath-keeping ultimately reorients our lives to being receptive to blessing and gifts instead of self-reliance.

Saying “yes” to the poor, the widow, and the stranger often requires first saying “no” to ourselves. How do we even see the powerless if we never stop to look beyond our phones? How do we find the poor if we never stop avoiding the places we know they inhabit? How do we care for others if we never find rest from wanting? Sabbath-keeping is in some ways the LORD’s gift of promised land to us. Through it we find the space and resources to care for ourselves and others.

Charity and Care

Secular charity believes that resources are scarce. Secular charity solves this problem by trying to be efficient. This charity approach efficiently concentrates resources and creates specialized jobs. The familiar process is to send money to a charity or social program so that they can provide for the poor and powerless. This is similar to the approach of Joseph for Pharaoh in the face of famine. As with the case in ancient Egypt, this approach, while efficient, creates a slew of additional problems. These unintended consequences spin out from centralizing and specializing charity efforts.

By simply seeing to the physical needs of the poor, many charity efforts harm the recipients of charity in unexpected ways. Because so much of charity work for the poor focuses solely or even primarily on economic resources, charity recipients become dependent on donated economic resources while lacking the education or skills to become independent of them. Many programs require recipients to continue in poverty to continue to receive any charity at all. By design, many programs do not enlarge the personal capital of individuals who are poor or powerless. When such charity efforts are concentrated in a particular place, they also erode the productive capacity of the surrounding community as well. When food and housing needs can be met by a distant charity effort, the incentive for local people to grow food or build neighborhoods disappears. This has the long-term effect of erasing the capacity of a community to grow and develop on its own.

The secular process of simply sending money to a charity also creates the unintended consequence of distancing donors from the poor and powerless. In many programs, donors are not encouraged and are often not allowed to build meaningful relationships with recipients. Instead of seeing and relating to the poor and powerless as brothers and sisters, donors are instead often sent images of recipient clients. Sometimes, the images themselves are merely representative images of the type of person your charitable donation could be assisting. As with graven images of the LORD, relating to our poor neighbors solely through images simplifies real people with complex problems and situations down into a manageable and controllable form so that we can pretend we people are more in control of life than we actually are.

The practice of transferring money in exchange for something is a familiar consumer practice in our society, and this habit of ours further distances those with resources from those without. Even though the donor’s money is exchanged for the care of impoverished person, this practice mimics the way we acquire the things we possess and consume. This practice subtly objectifies the poor and powerless to the donor and adds to the social distancing.

This social distancing occurs at the same time as donors believe that they are practicing charity, which reinforces the sense among donors that real and meaningful changes do not occur. Without being confronted personally with the poor and powerless, without meaningful relationships, and without being able to use most or any of their life skills to assess the situation, it is very hard for donors to see across this gaping social distance to get any real sense of the situation.

This secular model is radically different from the way that Israel was commanded to care for the poor, the widow, and the foreigner. This responsibility rested on every household everywhere in the land. Their care was expressed in myriad concrete ways that would not allow for keeping comfortable social distances. As laid out in Deuteronomy 15 and elsewhere in the Torah, the care of the poor and powerless was integrated into every aspect of Israel’s economy and civic life. From safety-centric building codes to debt forgiveness, there was no square inch that was not affected by the call to care for the least of them. This care would occur in ways like gleaning that would have enhanced the capacity of poor individuals and powerless communities to integrate into the Israelite economy and participate as covenant partners in Israelite society.

Secular charity is devoid of this theological context. Rather than making the poor full participants in the land, we forget about and neglect them. When we do see them, we merely hand out of our surplus. We don’t imagine how to integrate them into the full blessings of life under the face of God. This is not so much to chastise ourselves as to remind us of the central importance of remembering and reimagining life in terms of God’s story of life. This is not license to disavow charitable giving. We certainly are commanded to, and are to be commended for, giving charity to the powerless. It is instead to show that even our best intentions go awry when we do not remember who we are and who is in control.


How may we begin to apply what we see about the relationship of the land to the poor in ancient Israel to our contemporary lives? Assuming that we already give generously with an open hand, one way forward would be to consider how we individually, as families, and as local churches maintain or even erect barriers that distance us from our poor neighbors. Another path to consider is how we give. Just as we read in Deuteronomy 6:5 that our whole person should be devoted to the LORD, so also might we consider that we should love our neighbor with our whole selves and not merely donate money from our surplus. How do we integrate service to our neighbors into the way we live our everyday lives?

Finally, we should also consider how Scripture teaches us to approach poverty and the temptation of land. Scripture teaches us to immerse ourselves in the Bible. We need its stories and commands to fill us with memory and imagination. Doing that shapes and focuses our attention to where it should be. Scripture also teaches us to keep the Sabbath. We need to tell ourselves to rest and that enough is enough. Scripture also reminds us that because we are never going to solve poverty, that we, as part of the LORD’s blessing to the world, open our hands wide to give generously to the poor and the powerless.

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