Reading and Interpreting the Bible: Deuteronomy 6:1-15

Deuteronomy 6:1-15 (NRSV)

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

10 When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11 houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12 take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13 The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14 Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, 15 because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

INTRODUCTION

As the climactic renewal and enumeration of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, Deuteronomy contains at its core a cross between an ancient Near Eastern law code and treaty.[1]

Within this structure, the laws and treaty stipulations – general (5:1-11:32) and specific (12:1-26:19) – are given pride of place. After the setting and introduction to the covenant (4:44-49), Moses[2] begins his second sermon (5:1-28:69) with an interpretive restatement of the Decalogue (5:6-21), couched within an extended reflection on the initial law-giving at Horeb and Moses’ role as mediator (5:1-33).

In the passage at hand (6:1-15), he then transitions to the remainder of the general stipulations (6:1-11:32) with an introductory exhortation (6:1-3), a distillation of the covenant principles (6:4-5), and an extension of these principles to future generations and society (6:6-9), concluding with a warning against forgetfulness and idolatry as the Israelites soon enter the land of Canaan (6:10-15). In remembrance of and in response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, Israel must love Yahweh absolutely and exclusively by internalizing, embodying, and teaching covenant faithfulness as they inherit the blessings of the promised land.

INTRODUCTORY EXHORTATION: 6:1-3

Moses begins this passage with an exhortation to keep the general stipulations of the covenant to be discussed in Deuteronomy 6-11. In response to Yahweh’s command (recounted at 5:31), Moses teaches the people the “commandments, statutes, and ordinances” (5:31, 6:1; referring to the covenant stipulations) [3] so that they will “carry them out in the land” (5:31, 6:1).

This transmission of the covenant stipulations from Yahweh to Moses to the Israelites was not meant to achieve a merely epistemic result, but also an ontic one. That is, Moses was not merely teaching them the stipulations so that they would merely know (and do) the right things, but so that they would be the right kind of people, internalizing and embodying the stipulations as they entered the promised land of Canaan. The intended result of the commandments, statutes, and ordinances was holistic covenant faithfulness.

At the heart of the appropriate epistemic and ontic response to the covenant stipulations was the proper fear of Yahweh their God (6:2a), which was to result in a continual obedience for generations upon generations (6:2b),[4] reflecting the importance of teaching covenant faithfulness to their children.[5] As the injunctions to “pay attention” and “be careful” (6:3a) indicate, this obedience was also to be careful and deliberate.[6] The promised results of such continual and careful covenant faithfulness are long life (6:2c) and many descendants (6:2b, 3a) in the bountiful promised land (6:1b, 3b), recalling Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to fulfill his promises of land and offspring to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3.[7]

DISTILLATION OF THE COVENANT PRINCIPLES: 6:4-5

Following the brief introduction to the general stipulations (6:1-3), Moses distills the Decalogue, itself an encapsulation of the entire covenant, into just sixteen Hebrew words, providing “the expression of the essence of all God’s person and purposes” (6:4-5).[8]

Named after the first Hebrew word in 6:4 (shéma’, “hear, pay attention”), the “Great Shema” has long been regarded as central to Deuteronomy and to Israelite theology and praxis.[9] However, because of its brevity, the translation of the Shema (particularly 6:4) into English has been the topic of considerable debate. Although the initial imperative and vocative (“pay attention, Israel”) are clear enough, translating the remaining four terms (“Yahweh, our God, Yahweh, one”) into English involves making a decision on the placement of the copulative and the precise translation of ekhad as “one” or “alone.”[10]

On balance, given the statement’s quasi-poetic brevity, it seems best to render 6:4: “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.”[11] This translation allows for a mediating position between Block’s arguments for rendering ekhad as “alone,” emphasizing God’s uniqueness, and Janzen’s arguments for God’s oneness as internal consistency and faithfulness to Israel.[12] Compared to the gamut of Canaanite and other ancient Near Eastern deities, Yahweh was indeed unique,[13] primarily because of his faithfulness to Israel from the patriarchs (6:3b, 10a), through the exodus (6:12), and into the imminent conquest of Canaan (6:1b, 3, 10-11). That “Yahweh is one” is not so much an ontological statement as it is a historical reflection[14] in remembrance of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to his covenant people.

Therefore, in response to this unique faithfulness, Israel must love Yahweh absolutely (6:5), as seen by the concentric use of lebab (“heart,” the inner being, including emotion and intellect), nephesh (“soul,” the entire being, including desires), and me’od (“strength,” the physical being, including economic and social resources).[15] This is the only proper response to the God who is truly ekhad (6:4),[16] comprising the essential principle upon which the entire covenant rested.[17] Related to the previously mentioned fear of Yahweh and obedience to the covenant stipulations (6:1-3), loving Yahweh involves the epistemic/ontic response of internalizing (with the lebab and nephesh) and embodying (through the me’od) covenant faithfulness.

EXTENSION TO FAMILY AND SOCIETY – 6:6-9

The proper love of Yahweh is absolute, permeating not only the entire person (6:5), but also all of life (6:6-9),[18] including the family unit (6:7) and society (6:8-9). Beginning again with the concept of epistemic internalization, Moses commands the Israelites to keep “these words” (referring to the entire covenant through the Shema)[19] on their hearts/minds (6:6).

This internalization of the covenant through constant reflection is then to be extended by teaching covenant faithfulness to future generations (6:7a), here described with an unusual verb (shanan) which evokes the imagery of engraving a message into stone.[20] Just as Moses is teaching the Israelites the covenant stipulations, they must teach these things to their children through constant repetition and discussion of the faithful covenant lifestyle within the household, reflected through the double merism of 6:7b (sitting/walking; lying down/getting up).[21]

Finally, this commitment to covenant faithfulness was to transcend the household and permeate the entire society (6:8-9). Although the instructions here (to “tie,” “fasten,” and “inscribe” the covenant stipulations on the forearm, forehead, and door frames, respectively) were taken literally in later Jewish tradition,[22] they were probably meant to be interpreted metaphorically.[23] In this case, 6:8 refers to the embodiment of the covenant principles in everyday life, identifying each individual Israelite as a faithful covenant member.[24]

However, in 6:9 the exhortation to covenant faithfulness is then expanded to the household and the community as “these words” (6:6) are inscribed “on the doorframes of your houses and gates” (6:9).[25] In response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, the Israelites are to love him absolutely by internalizing (6:6), embodying (6:8-9), and teaching (6:7) covenant faithfulness.

(For more even more biblical exposition, see my essay on Philemon.)

WARNING AGAINST FORGETFUL IDOLATRY: 6:10-15

However, the proper love of Yahweh is also exclusive, for his uniqueness demands that he be worshipped alone. After distilling the covenant (6:4-5) and extending its essential claim to the family and society (6:6-9), Moses exhorts his audience to eschew all forms of forgetful idolatry. Instead, the Israelites are to love Yahweh exclusively as they inherit the blessings of the promised land, in remembrance of and in response to his unique faithfulness (6:10-15).

The historical context of this passage is especially important for the interpretation of 6:10-11. Moses reminds the Israelites of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness by linking the divine promises of land to the patriarchs with the fulfillment of those promises in the imminent conquest and occupation of Canaan.[26] The concrete description of the promised land in 6:10b-11 was designed to remind the audience that it was a blessing and a gift from Yahweh in faithful fulfillment of his kingly duties.[27] The warning in 6:12 to “be careful” reveals Moses’ anxiety that the sudden affluence the Israelites would experience in Canaan might lead them to forget their uniquely faithful God, who had redeemed them from the oppressive hand of the Egyptians and provided for them throughout the wilderness wanderings.[28]

Therefore, 6:13 contains an intensely covenantal threefold call to the exclusive love of Yahweh alone.[29] As part of the proper response to Yahweh’s oneness (6:4), the Israelites are to fear only Yahweh, serve only Yahweh, and swear only by Yahweh’s name.[30] Moses then intensifies the warning even further in 6:14-15 with a rephrasing of the first two commandments (Deut 5:7-10).[31] On the basis of Yahweh’s righteous jealousy and the promised punishment of exile (5:9; 6:15; cf. 28:63; Lev 26:43), the Israelites are to love Yahweh exclusively by completely eschewing all forms of foreign idolatry (6:14).[32]

(For an overview on how to read the bible, check out Amy Chase Ashley’s Scripture: Handle With Care.)

CONCLUSION

As an introduction to the main exposition of the general covenant stipulations (Deut 6-11), Moses begins with an exhortation, calling the Israelites to the proper internalized and embodied response to Yahweh’s commands, statutes, and ordinances: covenant faithfulness as they enter the promised land (6:1-3). Then, he presents the distilled essence of the covenant principles in 6:4-5: the demand for the absolute love of Yahweh on the basis of his unique faithfulness.

This essential covenant claim is then extended to the family unit and society in 6:6-9 as the Israelites are commanded to internalize, embody, and teach covenant faithfulness to future generations.

Finally, in 6:10-15, in anticipation of the conquest of Canaan as a revelation of Yahweh’s unique faithfulness to the patriarchs and the nation, the people are sternly warned to eschew all forms of forgetful idolatry and instead to worship Yahweh alone.

Therefore, taken as a whole, Deuteronomy 6:1-15 was written to teach its original audience that, in remembrance of and in response to Yahweh’s unique faithfulness, they were to love Yahweh absolutely and exclusively by internalizing, embodying, and teaching covenant faithfulness as they inherited the blessings of the promised land.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Block, Daniel I. “How many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (2004): 193-212.

Carpenter, Eugene E. “Deuteronomy.” Pages 418-548 in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Edited by John H. Walton. Vol. 1 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Edited by John H. Walton. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009

Christensen, Duane L. Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, revised. Word Biblical Commentary 6a. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001.

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Janzen, J. Gerald. “On the Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).” Vetus Testamentum 37 (1987): 280-300.

McConville, J.G. Deuteronomy. Apollos Old Testament Commentary 5. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002.

Merrill, Eugene H. Deuteronomy. New American Commentary 4. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994.

Rad, Gerhard von. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Translated by D. Barton. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966.

Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000.

Wenham, Gordon J. A Guide to the Pentateuch. Vol. 1 of Exploring the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002.

Notes

[1] The relevant sections are: Historical Prologue – Deut 1-3; Laws/Treaty Stipulations – chs. 4-26; Document Clause – 27:3; 31:9-13; Blessings – 28:1-14; and Curses – 28:15-68. Gordon J. Wenham proposes this structural approach to the Deuteronomic covenant in A Guide to the Pentateuch (vol. 1 of Exploring the Old Testament; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 125. The similarities between Deuteronomy and ANE suzerain-vassal treaties are also noted by Eugene E. Carpenter in “Deuteronomy,” in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (ed. John H. Walton; vol. 1 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, ed. John H. Walton; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009),  420.

[2] Throughout this study, I assume Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. Furthermore, I assume that the passage at hand was originally composed just prior to Moses’ death and the subsequent conquest of Canaan. With regards to setting, Carpenter places Moses in the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River in either 1406 or 1229 B.C. The earliest extra-biblical account of the Israelites in Canaan, a stele erected by Merneptah in western Thebes, mentions them already in the land in 1209 B.C (Cf. Carpenter, 420).

[3] J.G. McConville, Deuteronomy (Apollos 5; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 140. On mitzvah, khuqqim, and mishpatim, Eugene H. Merrill notes this as the standard reference to the covenant stipulations as opposed to the Decalogue or the law as a whole (Deuteronomy (NAC 4; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 160). Cf. Deut 4:1-8 for an example of how this phrase and its permutations are used as a reference and structural marker.

[4] Merrill, 161.

[5] This is the first mention in 6:1-15 of the theme taken up again at 6:7.

[6] McConville (140) notes the alliteration of shema’ and shemar, describing the cumulative effect as a call to “careful, sustained obedience.”

[7] McConville, 140.

[8] Merrill, 162.

[9] Daniel I. Block claims that “the Shema’ is as close as early Judaism came to the formulation of a creed” (“How many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5,” JETS 47 (2004): 195). Similarly, most commentators note the Shema’s distinctive importance. Cf. Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, revised (WBC 6a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; McConville, 139-140; Merrill, 162; Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (trans. D. Barton; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 64.

[10] These are only two of the numerous proposals for the translation of ekhad. See Block, 195-8 for a full discussion.

[11] J. Gerald Janzen, “On the Most Important Word in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5),” VT 37 (1987): 280-300; Merrill, 162-3.

[12] See Block, 211-2 and Janzen, 300

[13] Carpenter, 456; John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 177.

[14] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 394.

[15] I have here conflated the lexical data provided by Block, 203 and Merrill, 164.

[16] Merrill, 164.

[17] McConville, 139.

[18] Block, 204.

[19] McConville, 142; Merrill, 167.

[20] Merrill, 167.

[21] Block, 204; Merrill, 167.

[22] This literal interpretation resulted in the tephillin and phylacteries, small boxes containing Torah verses (Exod 13:1-10; 13:11-16; Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21) which were worn on the forehead and forearms. Similarly, 6:9 was interpreted literally, resulting in the mezuzah, boxes containing Deut 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 placed on the doorposts of Jewish dwellings. Cf. Merrill, 168.

[23] As argued by McConville (142) and Merrill (168), although McConville does allow for the possibility of a literal reading.

[24] Merrill, 168.

[25] Block, 204; Merrill, 168.

[26] Christensen, 146; McConville, 143; Merrill, 169.

[27] Cf. “the duty of kings in Mesopotamia to build cities as part of incorporating new territory into their kingdom” (McConville, 143).

[28] von Rad, 64.

[29] Merrill, 171.

[30] McConville, 143.

[31] Merrill, 171.

[32] McConville, 143; Merrill, 171.

What Does the Bible Say about Poverty? – The Book of Proverbs

Introduction: Poverty and Wealth

In contrast to the affluence of mainstream American culture, poverty is a harsh and painful reality. It can be found in abundance in the urban centers of this country, and in countless other places around the globe.

Modern day slavery “more cruel than any beast of prey” (Wright 2005, 136), it traps human beings created in the image of God in a lifestyle of hunger, sickness, anger, and darkness.

However, one can effortlessly go through daily life in middle class America without giving much thought or care to the billions of people living in poverty worldwide. Furthermore, one can even profess faith in Jesus Christ and regularly attend an average evangelical church in the United States without being prompted to pay the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed of this world any mind.

In this milieu of wealth and poverty existing side by side in an atmosphere of confusion and apathy, the book of Proverbs provides relevant insights into the nature of poverty, the nature of Yahweh, and how his people should respond to it.

(For more on how Christians should think about poverty and wealth, see my essay “Christians and Wealth.”)

Descriptions of Poverty: Effects and Causes

Many proverbs are devoted to describing the harsh realities of poverty, showing that the Hebrew sages were well aware of its existence and characteristics.

Effects

These proverbs frequently describe the poor in direct contrast to the wealthy. Consider Proverbs 10:15:

“A rich man’s wealth is in his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”

The force of the antithetical parallelism of this verse is hard to overlook. Whybray explains that the main point “is that wealth protects the rich from the vicissitudes of life, while the poor, having no resources to fall back on, are easily vulnerable to total disaster” (1994, 165).

The word used for “poor” here is dal. While Whybray states that this word is synonymous with the other Hebrew terms for “poor” (˓ānı̂, ˒ebyôn, and rāš)in Proverbs (1994, 165), The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) differentiates dal from the other three, saying that “unlike ˓ānı̂, dal does not emphasize pain or oppression; unlike ˒ebyôn, it does not primarily emphasize need, and unlike rāš, it represents those who lack rather than the destitute.” Dal refers to the lack of both material and social resources (Harris, et al. 1999).

This lack of social resources can be seen in the proverbs that describe how poverty affects relationships. Proverbs 14:20 says that

“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.”

This same theme is reiterated in chapter 19:

“Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend” (19:4).

Expanded across two verses, it reads:

“Many seek the favor of a generous man, and everyone is a friend to a man who gives gifts. All a poor man’s brothers hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him!” (19:6-7a).

These three proverbs contrast the social standings of the wealthy and the impoverished. Alden’s comment on 14:20 is apt when he says that “the unfortunate truth [is] that greed is a more compelling trait than generosity; people are more eager to have rich friends than poor ones” (1983, 114).

Proverbs 19:6-7a expands upon this, describing how people are naturally drawn to relationships that give them material benefit. It is rare, however, to find people who are drawn to relationships that would cost them materially. Even a poor man’s family members “hate him”!

Bridges says it well:

“As the winter brooks, filled from the opening springs and the torrents from heaven, are dried up and vanish before the summer heat; so these friends of the poor go far from him, cold, distant, and vanishing in the day of his calamity” (1987, cf. 1846, 312).

Materially and socially, poverty wreaks havoc on the lives of those it entraps.

Causes

Given the terrible effects and characteristics of poverty, Proverbs naturally contains many admonitions to avoid its causes.

Causes of poverty listed in Proverbs include (but are not limited to):

  • a “slack hand” (laziness) (10:4),
  • ignorance of instruction (13:18),
  • endless talk (without toil/labor) (14:23),
  • hastiness (21:15),
  • the love of pleasure (21:17),
  • drunkenness and gluttony (23:21),
  • worthless pursuits (28:19),
  • and stinginess (28:22).

Of particular interest is the repetition of the warning against excessive slumber if one is to avoid poverty (6:10-11; 20:13; 23:21; 24:33-34).

Proverbs 6:10-11 and 24:33-34 include the almost verbatim admonition:

“A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.”

Sleep (as compared with labor) might give the initial benefits of rest and relaxation, but when developed into an excessive habit, it can have disastrous consequences.

John Chrysostom comments upon 6:11:

“Is work at first difficult? Then look to its results. Is idleness sweet? Then consider what comes out of it in the end. So let us look not at the beginning of things, but let us also see where they end up” (Wright 2005, 50).

This approach perhaps summarizes most of the practical warnings in Proverbs about avoiding poverty. What initially seems like the easiest and most comfortable choice will rarely, if ever, lead to success.

Set apart from the practical warnings of avoiding poverty, however, is Proverbs 22:16:

“Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.”

The verb “oppress” here is the term ˓ā∙šǎq, meaning “mistreat, i.e., treat a disadvantaged member of society unjustly with the effect of causing one to suffer ill-treatment” (Swanson 1997).

Although the Hebrew of this verse is quite difficult and there is little concurrence among commentators as to its proper interpretation (Whybray 1994, 322-323), the sense of it seems to be that the end result of oppressing the impoverished for material gain is only further poverty.

Proverbs 30:14 comes to mind:

“There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, the needy from among mankind.”

These verses make the transition from descriptions of poverty to responses to its existence, highlighting the uncomfortable truth that improper treatment of the poor can bring disaster.

Responses to Poverty: Yahweh and the Poor

It is clear that Proverbs gives its readers a thorough understanding of the dreadfulness of poverty and the importance of avoiding it.

However, this understanding does little to inform the audience of how we should respond to the existence of poverty.

The surest foundation for a proper response to poverty is undoubtedly the character of Yahweh with regards to the oppressed and impoverished.

Consider Proverbs 14:31:

“Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.”

The first line of this proverb is echoed in 17:5a, and the second (seemingly unrelated) line of 17:5, “he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished,” has been taken by some commentators to refer to those who rejoice over not just calamity in general, but specifically the ruin of the poor (Whybray 1994, 255 and Clifford 1999, 164).

If this is the case, then these two proverbs taken together make the same point with both a positive promise and a negative warning. Clifford states the main point particularly well:

“The dignity of each human being comes from being created by God. Contempt towards anyone insults the person’s maker. The example of the poor person, the type perhaps least likely to gain respect, is used to dramatize the point. Every human being, irrespective of wealth, is worthy of respect” (1999, 164).

The same point is made in Proverbs 22:2, which states:

“The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all,”

and also in 29:13:

“The poor man and the oppressor meet together; the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.”

Our treatment of the poor needs to be based upon the fact that they have been made in the image of Yahweh and are therefore worthy of dignity and respect. To deny them the treatment that each and every human being deserves is not just stinginess, it is an insult and an offense to the Creator.

However, Proverbs goes further than appeals to imago Dei in its teachings about our treatment of the poor.

Atkinson says it well:

“The oppression of the poor is both a violation of someone who should be respected because he or she bears the image of the Creator, and also an attitude which does not reflect the character of the Creator, who is himself on the side of the poor” (1996, 111).

Proverbs 22:22-23 delivers a stunningly vivid warning:

“Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.”

The reader is told to not take justice from the poor because they have the LORD as their defender at the gate (the site of legal proceedings). “The poor, by not having human protectors, have Yahweh as their protector. Paradoxically, their poverty gives them a more powerful protector than the rich could afford” (Clifford 1999, 207).

This gives a glimpse into a thematic truth of Scripture that has been called God’s “bias to the poor.” Atkinson quotes Karl Barth to further explain:

“The human righteousness required by God and established in obedience – the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream – has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favour of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans, and aliens.

For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it” (1996, 111-112, cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 [T.&T. Clark, 1957], p. 387)

God’s heart for and even bias toward the poor extends well beyond the book of Proverbs. If one pays close attention, it is readily apparent that Scripture is saturated with it.

  • Yahweh intervened to save his people from the oppression and poverty they suffered in at the hands of the Egyptians (cf. Exodus 3:7-9).
  • He made his frustration at his people’s improper treatment and distortion of the impoverished and the needy known through the prophets (cf. Isaiah 10:1-3; Jeremiah 5:26-29; 7:5-7; Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10-15; 6:4-7; Micah 2:2).
  • Jesus the Messiah cited his own mission as one that was inextricably tied to the poor and oppressed (cf. Luke 4:16-21).
  • The final judgment will be executed (at least partially so) with regards to the treatment (or mistreatment) of the poor and the needy (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).

Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God’s heart is for the impoverished, destitute, and oppressed.

It is important to establish this truth well in order to rightly proceed in our actions and attitudes toward the poor and the oppressed. This is because it is entirely too easy to think of God’s actions and attitudes as being most closely aligned with people who are just like us.

However, for the vast majority of Christians in the United States who live life in relatively extravagant comfort and ease, it comes as somewhat of a shock that God’s bias might actually be against us if we do not take this issue seriously!

Proverbs reflects that what is at stake here is much more than just our consciences, the minor twangs of guilt or moments of self-righteousness we too often experience in our infrequent interactions with the poor.

Responses to Poverty: Consequences and Rewards

The teachings in Proverbs regarding the treatment of the poor can be divided into three categories:

  1. those that display negative consequences for improper treatment,
  2. those that display positive rewards for proper treatment,
  3. and those that juxtapose the two.

Negative Consequences

Proverbs 21:13 states:

“Whoever closes his ears to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.”

The frightening reciprocity of this verse hits hard when, in our culture, we are too often distracted by other things which are “more important” than attending to the needs of the poor. When we find ourselves in a moment of dire need, how can we expect to be answered if we have not answered the needy when we were able to do so?

Another warning against mistreating the poor that includes a form of retribution against the offender is Proverbs 28:8:

“Whoever multiplies his wealth by interest and profit gathers is for him who is generous to the poor.”

Whybray claims that the word for “interest” refers to “interest which was levied by deduction from the original loan but which had to be repaid in full,” and that “profit” refers to “an additional charge levied on repayment” (1994, 391).

The point is that money taken from the poor will not do its wicked owner any good, and has the potential to end up in the hands of righteous men which will in turn help to meet the needs of the poor.

Positive  Rewards

In addition, Proverbs contains several verses that positively portray, and thereby encourage, generosity towards the poor and preservation of their justice.

Consider Proverbs 19:17:

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

This proverb promises a reward to those who treat the poor with generosity. However, the main point is not to treat them with benevolence out of desire for a reward.

Whybray captures the point well:

“there is no idea here of a quid pro quo: no intention to encourage generosity simply for the reward which it will bring. The underlying thought is that generosity is characteristic of a person who is righteous; and the proverb reflects the basic belief that righteousness is, and ought to be, materially rewarded” (1994, 282).

A virtually identical point is made in Proverbs 22:9:

“Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.”

Furthermore, the well-known wise woman discussed in chapter 31 “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (31:20). Giving generously to the poor is a mark of a righteous person, one whose life will be blessed by Yahweh.

Combinations

Finally, some proverbs combine the negative and positive aspects of the previously mentioned verses through antithetical parallelism.

A prime example is Proverbs 14:21:

“Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”

This verse highlights the benefits of generosity against the backdrop of the consequences of scorning one’s neighbor.

In a similar fashion, Proverbs 28:27 says that

“whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”

Whether or not the curses come from the poor who have been denied assistance, or from Yahweh himself, the point remains that there are rewards in caring for the impoverished and consequences for not doing so.

In addition to generosity, however, the Hebrew sages also expressed concern for the justice of the poor.

Proverbs 29:7 makes it clear that

“a righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.”

The importance of justice for the poor is also stated later in the chapter in verse 14:

“If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever.”

Given Yahweh’s “bias” toward the poor and their status as his image bearers, it would do one well to be concerned with their legal rights.

It is not enough to simply not oppress the poor. Proverbs, along with the rest of Scripture, seems to mandate advocating for their justice.

Conclusion

In our current context of extravagant wealth and abject poverty existing side by side in a realm of confusion, apathy, and even malice towards the impoverished, Proverbs contains some timely and powerful teaching.

The Hebrew sages had a firm grasp on both the tempting causes and terrible effects of poverty. They, therefore, put a strong emphasis on avoiding it at all costs through diligence and hard work.

However, this did not lead them to abandon a proper view towards the poor, and they grounded all of their teachings about the proper treatment of the poor in the unchanging and perfect character of Yahweh, who is firmly committed to their protection and justice.

The modern readers of this ancient book would do well to heed its teachings regarding poverty, and to proceed with attitudes and actions in imitation of Yahweh in their interactions with and opinions of the poor, destitute, and oppressed of this world.

Bibliography

Alden, Robert L. Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983.

Atkinson, David. The Message of Proverbs: Wisdom for life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Bridges, Charles. A Commentary on Proverbs. Southampton: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1987, cf. 1846.

Clifford, Richard J. Proverbs: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Estes, Daniel J. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Harris, R. Laird, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (electronic ed.). Chicago: Moody Press, 1999.

Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). (electronic ed.). Logos Research Systems, Inc. Oak Harbor, 1997.

Whybray, R. N. New Century Bible Commentary: Proverbs. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. , 1994.

Wright, J. Robert, ed. Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2005.