What About the Poor?

Part 2: The Destitute

As we discussed in my last entry, the Israelites understood that “their” land actually belonged to God. They therefore believed that the produce of their land belonged to him as well. As a result, Israelite law dictated that rather than the Israelites exhausting the produce of the land in their quest for personal or national economic security, they were to share the fruit of their labor with the less fortunate. Thus, although the cereal crops of wheat and barley were the backbone of their survival subsistence economy and the mainstays of the community, Yahweh commanded that Israel refrain from fully harvesting these dietary anchors (see Richter “Environmental Law in Deuteronomy,” BBR 20.3 [2010], 337-39 and Aharon Sasson, Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel, London: Equinox, 2010). And rather than harvesting it all for themselves, he commanded the Israelites to reserve a portion of the cereal harvest for the marginalized among them.

When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, do not go back to get it; let it be for the immigrant, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that Yahweh your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deut 24:19; cf. Lev 19:9-10; 23:22)

As I detail in the first chapter of Epic of Eden (IVP: 2008), the widow and the orphan were a special class in Israel. These citizens were without any economic or legal recourse as they were without a household to care for them. And in Israel’s tribal, patriarchal society, having no “father’s house” meant that an individual was by all definitions, “destitute.” Thus, the widow and the orphan (like the immigrant and the alien) relied upon the charity of those who did have recourse. Hence, Yahweh commands the Israelite farmer (who himself was barely getting by) not to fully harvest the grain that would keep his own family alive, but leave some in the field in order that these voiceless ones might have an opportunity to sustain themselves.

Like barley and wheat, the olive was also critical to ancient Israel’s economy. Its oil was not only essential to domestic survival, but it had long served Canaan as a significant export, a “cash crop” of sorts (cf. 1 Sam 8:14; 1 Kgs 5:11[25]; Hosea 12:12; 1 Chron 27:28). As Lawrence Stager summarizes: “The production of olive oil was a major industry, accounting for much of the economic prosperity of the region. Surplus oil was exported to Egypt, Phoenicia, and perhaps even to Greece” (Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], 96). Yet Deuteronomy 24 commands:

When you beat your olive tree, do not go over the boughs again; let it (the unharvested portion) be for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.

Likewise, the vineyards of ancient Canaan were very significant to the domestic and commercial venues of Israel”s economy. Canaan was famous for its wine, and viticulture thrived in this region as far back as the Early Bronze Age. In fact, Thutmoses III’s famous Karnak Botanical Garden depicts grapevines imported from Canaan to Egypt. Yet Deuteronomy commands that the gleanings of the vineyard (Hebrew ‘?l?lôt) be left for the poor. Leviticus particularizes this command stating that the smaller clusters (Hebrew peret#) be left as well.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean afterwards; let it (the unharvested portion) be for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing. (Deut 24:20-22; cf. Lev 19:9-10; 23:22)

What we see here is that despite the critical role that grain, olives, and grapes played in the economy of Iron Age Israel, and despite the subsistence struggles of the typical small holder family farm, God commanded that the produce of the land be shared.

As we ponder what our global economy is doing to the subsistence economies of our world, these laws should give us pause. Scott Sabin, executive director of Plant With Purpose (an organization that addresses deforestation and poverty) has spent his life attempting to explicate the relationship between short-sighted environmental abuse and refugee populations. As Oaxaca Mexico and Part au Prince Haiti painfully illustrate, eroded and desiccated farmland equals poverty, starvation, and mass-migration (“Environmental Emigration: The World on our Doorstep,” Creation Care 37 [Fall 2008], 37-38). As Mr. Pavan Sukhdev, author of the international Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report stated on May 29, 2008: “Poverty and the loss of biodiversity are inextricably linked: the real beneficiaries of many of the services of ecosystems and biodiversity are predominantly the poor. The livelihoods most affected are subsistence farming, animal husbandry, fishing and informal forestry—most of the world”s poor are dependent on them” (n.p. [cited 1 October 2008] Online here).

What is the source of the sort of environmental abuse that destroys the patrimony of ancient, impoverished subsistence cultures, and pushes marginalized people groups into starvation? Any modern anthropologist or economist would state that the reasons are legion. But one of them, and the one that Scripture demands that we the Redeemed attend to, is that these resources that God has given us are not for us alone. They are for all God’s creatures. Thus, part of our calling as the Redeemed is to manage God’s resources well so that they are preserved for us, and for the voiceless. Moreover, as illustrated in Israel’s theocratic law, the drive for economic security and surplus must always be tempered by God”s command for charity. And in our charity, we are called to take God at his word that in response to our obedience, he himself will bring about the increase (Deut 30:9). In sum, self-serving, short-term management that endangered the provision of the widow and the orphan was not acceptable in Israel. And I firmly believe the same would hold true for us today.

Sandy Richter


Sandra Richter is Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Affiliate Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University”s Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department. She is a popular speaker and has published on an array of topics. Her most recent book is The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

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