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Posted February 5, 2005

An Excellent Book for Those in Parish Social Justice Work

Book: There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible
Author: Leslie J. Hoppe, O.F.M.
Abingdon Press, Nashville, pp. 197

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

The Vocabulary of Poverty

The Hebrew Bible has an unusually extensive vocabulary to speak about the poor. Its various books use at least nine terms, each with a specific connotation, while the New Testament has a less extensive vocabulary. One aim of this study is to look at every text in the Bible in which a word having “the poor” in its semantic field appears; however, this book does not follow the classic “word-study” approach. Focusing only on texts in which the word “poor” appears can lead to shortsighted conclusions. For example, the vocabulary of the poor is notably absent from the Former Prophets (Joshua to 2 Kings). This has led some to conclude that the issue of poverty was relatively unimportant in these books. But social conflict is one of the engines that drives the story of Israel in the land as found in the Former Prophets, and certainly one by-product of social conflict is poverty.

The bulk of this study focuses on texts from the Hebrew Bible. That should not be surprising since the bulk of the Christian Bible is concerned with these scriptures.

An Excerpt from the Book

Psalm 72

The twenty verses of this psalm mention the poor nine times. But in speaking of the poor, Ps 72 focuses on their powerlessness rather than on their deprivation. The psalm asks God to empower the king to perform one of his most fundamental duties: the defense of the poor against those who exploited them. The people of means corrupted the judicial system through bribery, as is evident by the frequent reference to bribery in ancient Israel’s legal, prophetic, and wisdom traditions. The wealthy were able to preserve their interests at the expense of the rights of the poor, who did not have the resources to protect themselves. Even if outright bribery did take place, judges were surely tempted to give greater credence to the word of the powerful and influential in society rather than to someone with little or no social standing or economic resources (see Lev. 19:15). It was the subversion of the legal system that maintained poverty and ensured the division of the Israelite community into a creditor and a debtor class. The only recourse the powerless had was an appeal to the king. Kings throughout the ancient Near East styled themselves as protectors of the powerless and Ps. 72 reflects that common cultural assumption about the responsibilities of the monarch. The powerless had to depend upon the king since they had no avenues to find justice in their claims against the powerful.

Psalm 72:2, as it is prays for the king to be endowed with God’s justice, speaks of “your [God’s] poor.” The king is the protector of the poor because he stands in God’s place. Unlike the prophets, the Psalter only rarely speaks of the king’s responsibility toward the poor as Ps 72 does. Perhaps this reflects the function of ancient Israel’s temple worship, which tended to support rather than challenge the national state. The Psalter consistently portrays God as the protector of the poor. Psalm 113 calls Israel to praise God precisely because the one who is “high above all nations” (v.4) uses the divine power to reverse the fortunes of the poor, who are forced to scavenge for food among the garbage (v.7) The person who had no social standing now has access to the places of power. The psalm, then, lends divine authority to every attempt to halt and reverse the process whereby Israel becomes a nation permanently divided into tow economic classes. The psalm makes sense only against the backdrop of the real social conflict that Israel’s prophets railed against. The psalm asserts that n this conflict God will take the side of the poor.

Psalm 72 presents the king as the instrument by which God’s justice and righteousness come to the people, especially the poor (vv. 1-2). The very basis of the king’s legitimacy rests on his taking the side of the poor as the instrument of divine justice (vv. 12-16). The psalm concludes by acknowledging that God is the source of justice no matter who the human agent may be (vv. 17-19). There is no spiritualization of the poor here. When Ps 72 speaks about the poor and needy, it is speaking about those people whose lack of material resources makes their exploitation a simple matter for the wealthy. Clearly this psalm makes sense only against the backdrop of social conflict in ancient Israel.

Table of Contents:

Pronunciation of Hebrew Words

1. The Torah

2. The Former Prophets

3. The Latter Prophets

4. Wisdom literature

5. The Psalms

6. Apocalyptic literature

7. The New Testament

8. The Rabbinic Tradition