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The Poor in the Old Testament: Some Observations1

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The positive religious attitude to poverty distinguishes the Old Testament from its environment in the Ancient Near East. According to the worldview held in antiquity, poverty was simply a given fact. In the ancient ideology of kingship, for example, concern for the poor counted as one of the king's special duties; but this concern was designed to preserve the world order, not to change it. The Old Testament view is very different. Prophecy condemns the oppression of the poor in the strongest terms and proclaims Yahweh's comprehensive judgment on their oppressors. Everything thrusts towards change and fundamental remedy. At the same time, the poor (Anawim) count as Yahweh's people in a special sense. It emerges from literary analysis that this special character did not as yet exist in the pre-exilic period. The relevant texts are evidently brief and late ad hoc additions. This is true both of the Torah (Exod 22; Deut 15; 22) and of the prophets (Isa 1-3; Jer; Ezek; Amos; Zeph; Hab; Zech), as well as of the Psalms (passim). There are historical reasons for this. We know from Nehemiah 5 that the impoverishment of wide sections of the population was a problem in the post-exilic community. One possible cause was the economic 'modernisation' which took place in the Persian and Hellenistic period. The poor, who interpreted their fate as the fruit of obedience to the Torah, expected Yahweh to bring about the reversal of that fate, either through the intervention of the Last Judgment or through the coming of the Messiah. As well as Moses (Num 12:3), the Messiah himself (Zech 9:9), was in the end also viewed as being one of the poor.

Affiliations: 1: Institut fur Alttestamentliche Theologie University of Munich Schellingstr. 3 IV Vgb D-80799 München, Germany, Department of New Testament University of South Africa P O Box 392, Pretoria, 0003 Republic of South Africa


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