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The Poor in Deuteronomy

Trevor Peterson c. 2004


Why study about the poor?

Both OT and NT indicate that the poor will always be around (Matt 26:11). How to deal with them has always been an issue for societies to face. The way we handle this issue, like any other, affects the picture of Christ that we present to the world. This year at Bethany, we’re particularly concerned about developing our sensibilities to this area as a church.


Why study about the poor in the Torah?

The easy answer is that the Torah has something to say about the poor. But why should that in particular concern us? A lot of literature has something to say about the poor. Is it not also valuable? Yes, in its own way, most such literature probably is valuable. But there is a unique value to studying about this issue in the Torah. First, we need to talk about what the Torah is. You probably won’t hear the term used as much by Christians as by Jews, but I have some particular reasons for using it here. A common translation of the Hebrew word Torah is “law.” When we encounter the word “law” in the NT and other Christian discussion, Torah is generally in the background. Perhaps a better English equivalent is “teaching” or “instruction.” In this sense, Torah is God’s instruction to the Jews about how they should live. (The term applied here is halakha, which comes from the idea “to walk,” referring to one’s manner of walking through life, or one’s conduct.) A simplistic description of the Torah says that it comprises the first five books of the 1

Bible, also called the five books of Moses or the Pentateuch. This material contains more than just “laws,” in the formal sense. The book of Genesis (Breshit in Hebrew), for instance, is mostly stories about the Patriarchs, who lived centuries before the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. Torah is in fact the heading given to these books in the Jewish description of their Bible (part of the three-fold division—Torah, Nevi’im (prophets), Ktuvim (writings)— abbreviated TaNaKh). But a printed copy that contains the five books is simply called a Chumash, from the Hebrew word for “five.” These books constitute the written Torah, but the Torah as a whole is a bigger concept. So study of the Torah in Jewish thought means more than interacting with these five books. Various passages within the Bible indicate that there was more to the Torah than what was written in the five books. Deut 17 refers to the high court that must settle legal disputes too difficult for local officials to resolve. It is to be found in conjunction with the central place of worship for all Israel and to contain priestly members. Its decisions are described here as binding, in the same strong language used elsewhere to express the severity of disobeying the commands given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Thus, there was to be a lasting institution of oral judgments that would clarify matters of Torah for the people. Because these judgments were binding, it makes sense that they would have been handed down in a continuing legal tradition from generation to generation. At the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin was the high court of the Jews, and the Pharisees dominated its operation. Jesus may have labeled the Pharisees as hypocrites, but at the same time he acknowledged the binding authority of their rulings (Matt 23:1–3). Around the same time that the NT was being written, this rabbinic tradition was being taught in the schools of Palestine—first in the area around Jerusalem, but later after the destruction of Jerusalem in Galilee. The tradition and method of dissemination were oral, as opposed to the written Scriptures, and the term assigned to this tradition is the oral Torah. In the early centuries of this era, students committed their teachers’ discussions to writing in what has been collected and codified as the Mishna (meaning, “repetition”). The Mishna was circulated as a fixed body of material in what remained of the Jewish community in Palestine but also in the distant, more active Jewish communities of Babylonia. By this time, Aramaic was the dominant language of Jewish scholarship in both regions, and further discussion based on the Hebrew Mishna was eventually recorded in what’s called Gemara. While the Mishna is shared between Babylonia and Pales2

tine, each developed its own Gemara. Together, the Mishna and the Gemara are referred to as the Talmud (meaning, “study”), and the Babylonian Talmud is considered the more authoritative of the two. (It is also considerably longer.) Torah, therefore, is a broader entity than just the five books. The written Torah holds a privileged position, because its very words were given by God to Moses. But the oral Torah embodied most fully in the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian) clarifies the details of how the written Torah must be carried out. For example, the written Torah forbids work on the Sabbath but does not explain what counts as work and what does not. (If we were left with the definition from physics, normal bodily functions would be forbidden.) It does not go into detail about where exceptions are allowed (for instance, can one work to save a life?). These issues are clarified in the oral Torah, so that the command not to work on the Sabbath can be carried out in real life. Indeed, it makes sense that the oral Torah would be necessary, since so much practical detail is omitted from how the written Torah should be enacted. Now, at this point you may be wondering, why don’t we Christians study the Talmud if all this is true? Well, a distinctive feature of Christianity is the relationship between the Christian and the Torah. Paul explains in Romans that we can begin a right relationship with God apart from the Torah. Because Jesus fulfilled the Torah perfectly, those who place their faith in him are viewed as though they have fulfilled it themselves. In Galatians, he explains that we continue in our relationship with God by living according to the Spirit that he places within us. Central to his argument is that there’s no reason a Gentile must become Jewish to please God. It may surprise you to learn that this is also what Jews believe today. The Torah was given specifically to the Jewish people, and no one else is obligated to follow it. Instead, Gentiles are required to keep the seven commands of Noah (really, six of them preceded Noah; but with Noah the set of commands for Gentiles is complete): do not commit idolatry, do not blaspheme God, do not kill, do not steal, do not engage in sexual immorality, do not eat meat taken from an animal while alive, and establish courts to enforce the other six. The Talmud elaborates on the nuts and bolts of these seven commands, but they are a far cry from the 613 commands of the Torah given to the Jews. If a person wants to become a Jew and keep the Torah, that option is available. But it is not the only recognized way to God. Incidentally, this set of commands is very similar to the instructions given in the letter sent to the Gentile believers after the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. (It should be noted, though, that 3

Orthodox Jews today would consider belief in the deity of Christ a form of blasphemy, so that as they interpret the Noahic commands, Christians are not righteous Gentiles.) So if the Torah is not binding on Christians, we again have to ask why this study is relevant. Well, even if it is not an obligation on us today, there is nothing wrong with following it by choice. For that matter, much of what the Torah advocates is also part of Christian ethics, so that living according to the Spirit results in the fulfillment of what the Torah commands. It should be understood that these are two different things, however. Part of the value of the Torah to the Jewish people is that they are uniquely obligated to fulfill it. When they do what is commanded for them and no one else, their action is worth more than the same action by someone who does it simply because it seems like a good idea. Still, the Torah is there as a set of teachings given by God. Even if it is not binding on us in particular, it shows us an ethical standard that he has instituted. And if we’re curious what the Spirit wants us to do with the poor, such a standard can be a very good thing to have.


Why study about the poor in Deuteronomy?

In this study, we will not be looking at the whole Torah per se but at the book of Deuteronomy (Dvarim in Hebrew). Why this book in particular? The answer starts with an acknowledgment that we cannot cover everything that the Torah has to say about this matter in adequate depth over the course of four sessions. By focusing on a relatively small set of statements, we can strive for some sort of comprehensive treatment of those statements, while using them as a springboard into other areas of the Torah. Of course, like so many things in life, all of this is after-the-fact, upside-down justification for a decision that was initially pragmatic. I have to study Deuteronomy anyway for my doctoral comps, which makes it a good place to focus some attention.


Texts and Questions
1. What about God’s character are the Israelites called to follow (10:18– 19)? Why? What are the consequences of failure (27:18–19)? How does remembering where we’ve come from help us in our treatment of others?


2. How are the Israelites supposed to treat escaped slaves (23:16–17)? According to Rashi, this law refers to an Israelite slave owned by a Gentile or a slave outside of Israel who escapes to Israel. How does the treatment of slaves affect us today? 3. What is the purpose of the Sabbath (5:14–15)? Who are the most important participants? Why? How is the Sabbath an economic problem? 4. Who participates in worship (12:12, 18)? Who participates in feasts (16:11–14)? How can we give the poor and underprivileged cause to celebrate? What would happen if we only provided for them to celebrate? 5. What is done with the tithe every third year (14:29)? Why? What about the regular tithe(26:11–13)? These two tithes are taken together as the “second tithe,” which is distinguished from that paid to the Levites (Sifre Deut 109.3). The third-year tithe can be paid to a family member only if it is over and above a subsistence allotment given from other resources (Kiddushin 32a). How does the tithe discussed here relate to our giving and tithing? How do the poor factor into it? 6. Will there always be poor in the land or not (15:4, 11)? Why should one loan to a poor brother rather than give outright (15:7–8)? How does 15:9–10 clarify the nature of the loan? Doing the will of God determines the presence or absence of the poor (Sifre Deut 114.1). Loaning rather than giving protects the recipient’s dignity (Deut 116.4). The command is to meet needs, not make rich, but it can still involve larger items like horses and slaves (Sifre Deut 116.5). Punishment is quicker if he cries out but still comes otherwise (Sifre Deut 117.4). How does a person’s relationship to us (member of the same church, fellow believer, family member, etc.) affect charity? 7. How should one treat a slave who has completed his period of service (15:12–15)? Why? In what sense has a slave given double service (15:18)? According to Rashi, this passage refers to a thief sentenced to slavery (cf. Lev 25:39). Give according to your prosperity, not particularly according to whether this slave has resulted in prosperity for you (Sifre Deut 119.3). Furnish liberally because of the liberal 5

furnishing at the Exodus (Sifre Deut 120.1). A hired man works only by day, but a slave both day and night (Sifre Deut 123.1). According to Rashi, this is because his children belong to the owner (cf. Exod 21:4). How do we view people in a lower economic class? What about those who are in prison? How do we treat them when their situation improves? What can we learn from the law regarding a slave who finishes his term of service? 8. Why is a poor debtor singled out for special consideration (24:10–13)? How is a widow special (24:17–18)? Punishment is quicker if he is poor but still comes otherwise (Sifre Deut 277.1). Not necessarily sleeping in the pledge but sleeping with it in one’s possession (Sifre Deut 277.2). Return the pledge by day if used by day, by night if used by night (Sifre Deut 277.3). How do we balance compassion with business? 9. How should a poor employee be treated (24:14–15)? cf. Deut 16:19; more guilt is incurred when status is compounded (Sifre Deut 281.1). 10. How can agricultural practice help the poor (24:19–22)? Only one or two sheaves count as forgotten (Sifre Deut 283.1). A sheaf in an obvious place is not forgotten (Sifre Deut 283.4). There is no limit to the corner of a field (Chagigah 7a; cf. Lev 19:9). If unintentional charity (forgetting) gains merit, intentional gains much more (Sifre Deut 283.7). How do the agricultural practices in the Torah compare with today’s economic systems and relief programs? How can we practice this kind of generosity in our own lives?