When humanity chose oppression and exploitation over caring for one another and for God’s creation, God decided to show the world how things ought to work through a single nation. He chose the family of Abraham to display to the entire planet what a kingdom ruled by his principles might look like.
God waited until this family had become slaves to an oppressive nation that was executing a kind of genocidal population control by killing all Hebrew baby boys (see Exodus 1). God figured that since this slave race knew first hand what oppression felt like, they would be careful not to oppress others.
“True justice must be given to foreigners living among you and to orphans, and you must never accept a widow’s garment as security for her debt. Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from your slavery. That is why I have given you this command.” Deuteronomy 24:17-18 (NLT)
Since humans were not responding to our genetic encoding – made in God’s image to govern in such a way as to create and inspire human and environmental flourishing – he gave these liberated slaves specific instructions which they referred to as The Law. If they followed it the world would see how things were meant to be.
“There should be no poor among you, for the Lord your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession. You will receive this blessing if you are careful to obey all the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today.” Deuteronomy 15:4-5 (NLT).
Imagine it. An entire nation without a single poor person. But God knew our penchant to stray from his principles, and he knew that a nation like this would be such good news to the poor from surrounding nations that there would always be someone in need in the land. So just to be sure we understood that a nation under his laws would not permit poverty to survive for long, he laid out some additional safeguards.
Anyone who loaned money was commanded to forgive any and all debts every seventh year. And every fiftieth year people who had acquired a lot of property, either because of the misfortune of others or because of their own business prowess, were required to give it back to the family from whom they had bought it. This would be a society where there were no super rich or super poor, where everyone was commanded to be open handed with their resources.
“But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin. Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.” Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (NLT)
The agricultural and societal laws that God gave to this former-slave nation were designed to guard against greed and exploitation and insure that the weak and powerless were defended by law. Poverty could not exist in a family for more than one generation in such a society, nor would any family have to suffer the terrible illusion that they were independent of God because they had become so wealthy (either by accumulating interest on debts or by accumulating other people’s property).
Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, "Who is the Lord?" or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30:8-9 (NRSV)
Poverty was not part of creation when God dreamed up the world at the beginning. It came about as a result of the Fall. And when God established a nation of freed slaves, poverty would not be part of their reality if they followed his laws. Unfortunately the slaves forgot what it was like to be oppressed and became oppressors themselves. Poverty remained part of the picture.
God's next attempt to rid us of this scourge came when the Church was born. Stay tuned for Part III.