The Poor and God’s Law


“Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens inEgypt.  Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan.  If you do and they cry out to Me, I will certainly hear their cry.”  –Exodus 22:21-22

The Old Testament Law is saturated with references to God’s specific concerns for the poor, the alien and the fatherless.  Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9 and Leviticus 19:33-34, for example, demonstrate His concern for aliens.  God constantly enjoins the Israelites to treat refugees and immigrants with mercy, justice and fairness, remembering that they themselves were aliens while they were in captivity in Egypt.

God’s concern for widows and orphans also shines through the Law.  He is aware of their vulnerability to abuse.  So, for example, in Exodus 22:22-23, God warns that He will severely punish those who take advantage of widows and orphans.  In Deuteronomy 24:17, He instructs the Israelites not to take a widow’s cloak as a pledge (collateral for a loan) overnight, as she would need it to keep warm.

God didn’t want the Israelites merely to feel sorry for the poor.  He required them to set up institutions for the care of the needy.  The Law made provision for a third year special tithe that was set aside for two purposes – the Levite priests and to meet the needs of the poor citizens within the community (cf. Deuteronomy 14:28-29).  These latter might include those who could not feed their own families or were disabled or widowed.  The Law also included instructions regarding gleaning.  In Deuteronomy 24:19-21, the Israelites were told that when they harvested their crops and went through their fields, they were to go through only once for the harvest.  Whatever they missed was to be left for the poor to glean out for themselves.  The gleaning principle shows a two-fold responsibility.  First, resource owners (in this case, farmers) have a responsibility to eschew greed and make available to others the opportunity for them to meet their needs.  They are to be generous with what produce they have.  Second, the poor (if able-bodied) have a responsibility to take some initiative and work to meet their own needs.  This avoids the cultivation of a dependency mindset and offers the needy person the dignity of earning his sustenance instead of passively receiving a handout.  Gleaning gives the poor an opportunity to meet their own needs through their own application of labor.

Clearly, God has tremendous concern for the most vulnerable people in the society.  He expected the Israelites to show special regard for them, and expects no less of us, the “new Israel.”

For Further Thought…

  1. In several instances, God’s exhortation to the Israelites to show kindness to widows, orphans and strangers is coupled with His reminder to them that they themselves were aliens in Egypt (see, for example, Exodus 22:21, 23:9, Deuteronomy 16:11-12).
  2. Why do you think God wants the Israelites to remember their experience as Egyptian slaves?  Are there hardships in your past that God may be using to stimulate your sympathy/empathy for the underprivileged around you?

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