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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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1. In the OT . The character and degree of the poverty prevalent in a community will naturally vary with the stages of social development through which it successively passes. Poverty is more acutely felt, and its extremes are more marked, where city-life and commerce have grown up than where the conditions of life are purely nomadic or agricultural.

The causes of poverty referred to in the OT (apart from those due to individual folly) are specially ( a ) bad seasons, involving failure of crops, loss of cattle, etc. (cf. 2 Kings 8:1-7 , Nehemiah 5:3 ); ( b ) raids and invasions; ( c ) land-grabbing (cf. Isaiah 5:8 ); ( d ) over-taxation and forced labour (cf. Jeremiah 22:13 f.); ( e ) extortionate usury, the opportunity for which was provided by the necessity for meeting high taxation and the losses arising from bad harvests (cf. Nehemiah 5:1-6 ).

In the earlier period, when the tribal system with its complex of clans and families flourished, poverty was not acutely felt. Losses, of course, there were, arising from bad seasons, invasion, and pestilence; we hear, too, of rich men oppressing the poor (cf. Nathan’s parable, 2 Samuel 12:1-6 ); but there was little permanent poverty. Matters were maintained in a state of equilibrium so long as the land-system, under which all free Israelitish families possessed a patrimony, remained in working order. It is significant that in the earlier legislation of JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] (cf. esp. the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:1-17 , and the ‘Book of the Covenant,’ Exodus 20:23 to Exodus 23:33 ) the few references that do occur ( e.g. Exodus 22:25 ; Exodus 23:6 ) do not suggest that poverty was very wide-spread or acutely felt. During the period of the later monarchy, however, commerce, city-life, and luxury grew apace, and the greed and heartless oppression of the rich, the corruption and perversion of justice, which this state of things brought in its train, were constantly denounced by the great writing prophets, esp. in the 8th cent. (cf. e.g. , Isaiah 1:25 , Amos 4:1 ; Amos 6:1 ff., Micah 2:1 ff.).

The Deuteronomic legislation (7th cent.) bears eloquent testimony to the prevalence of poverty under the later monarchy (cf. Deuteronomy 10:17-19 ; Deuteronomy 14:28-29 ; Deuteronomy 14:15 ; Deuteronomy 23:19-20 ; Deuteronomy 24:10-21 ; Deuteronomy 26:12-15 ), and in one famous sentence predicts its permanence (‘the poor shall never cease out of the land,’ Deuteronomy 15:11 ).

The classes of poor more particularly mentioned are widows, orphans, and the ‘sojourners,’ or resident strangers, who possessed no landed rights ( gçrim ). The Levites also are specially referred to in Deut. as an impoverished class (cf. Deuteronomy 12:12 , Deuteronomy 19:18 ), a result of the centralization of worship in the one sanctuary at Jerusalem. All classes of the poor are the objects of special solicitude and consideration in the Mosaic legislation, particularly in the Priestly Code (cf. e.g. Leviticus 5:7 ; Leviticus 5:11 ; Leviticus 19:9-15 etc.)

For a long time after the Exile and Return the Palestinian community remained in a state of miserable poverty. It was a purely agricultural society, and suffered much from contracted boundaries and agricultural depression. The ‘day of small things’ spoken of by the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 4:10 ) was prolonged. A terrible picture of devastation (produced by a locust plague) is given by the prophet Joel (ch. 1), and matters were aggravated during the last years of Persian rule (down to 332), and by the conflict between the Seleucids and Ptolemye for the possession of Palestine which raged for considerably more than a century (322 198). It is significant that in the Psalms the term ‘ poor ’ or ‘lowly’ has become synonymous with ‘pious.’ During the earlier part of the post-exilic period the wealthy Jewish families for the most part remained behind in Babylon. In the later period, after the conquests of Alexander the Great (from 322), prosperous communities of Jews grew up in such centres as Antioch and Alexandria (the Greek ‘Dispersion‘). Slowly and gradually the Palestinian community grew in importance; for a time under the Maccabees there was a politically independent Jewish State. A certain amount of material prosperity ensued. Jerusalem, as being a centre of pilgrimage, received large revenues from the Jewish pilgrims who thronged to It: a Temple-tax swelled the revenues of the priesthood. The aristocratic priestly families were very wealthy. But the bulk of the priesthood still remained comparatively poor. The Jewish community of Palestine was still mainly agricultural, hut more prosperous under settled government (the Herods and the Romans); while Galilee became a hive of industry, and sustained a large industrial population (an artizan class).

In dealing with poverty the Jewish legislation displays a very humane spirit. Usury is forbidden: the poor are to have the produce of the land in Sabbatical years; and in Deut. tithes are allotted to be given them (Deuteronomy 14:28 etc.); they are to have the right to glean ( Deuteronomy 24:15 ; Deuteronomy 24:21 ), and in the Priestly Code there is the unrealized ideal of the Jubilee Year ( Leviticus 25:1-55 , cf. Deuteronomy 15:12-15 ). All these provisions were supplemented by almsgiving , which in later Judaism became one of the most important parts of religious duty (see Alms, Almsgiving).

2. In the NT . In the NT period conditions were not essentialy altered. The exactions of tax-collectors seem to have been acutely felt (notice esp. the collocation ‘publicans and sinners’), but almsgiving was strongly inculcated as a religious duty, the early Christians following in this respect the example set by the synagogue (cf. Romans 12:18 ; and St. Paul’s collection for ‘the poor saints at Jerusalem,’ Romans 15:26 , Galatians 2:10 ). The early generations of Christians were drawn mostly from the poorer classes (slaves or freedmen), but the immediate disciples of our Lord belonged rather to what we should call the lower middle class sturdy Galilæan fishermen, owning their own boats, or tax-collectors. It should he noted that in the Gospels ( e.g. in the Beatitudes) the term ‘ poor ’ sometimes possesses a religious connotation, as in the Psalms.

G. H. Box.

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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Poverty'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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