The Old Testament law is a body of legislation recorded in the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Bible — that contains hundreds of regulations, given for the purpose of ordering the Hebrew theocracy (a God-centered model of government).
Certain laws are only directly applicable to theocratic Israel. These laws are time-bound cultural applications of unchanging moral principles. While these laws themselves don’t apply to us, the underlying moral principles do. As a result, reviewing the economic portions of the Old Testament law help us better understand the timeless moral framework upon which the biblical teaching on wealth and poverty rests.
Dozens of regulations in the law address the economic life of God’s people and most of them relate to the institution of the Sabbath, which had three different manifestations within the Hebrew theocracy:
- The Sabbath Day, which many believers recognize as the fourth commandment, although it is articulated apart from the Ten Commandments as well (see Exod. 20:8-11; 23:12; Lev. 23:3; Deut. 5:12-15). The Sabbath Day prescribed the cessation of ordinary labors, for both people and animals, one out of every seven days.
- The Sabbath Year, which was to be observed every seventh year (see Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7; Deut. 15:1-18). During the Sabbath Year, people, animals, and the land were to rest from their regular work. Additionally, all outstanding debts between Jews were to be cancelled.
- The Year of Jubilee, which was to be celebrated every fiftieth year — after seven cycles of the Sabbath Year. The Year of Jubilee, involved the rest of people, animals, and the ground, as well as the return of all lands and most houses to their original owners (see Lev. 25:8-55; 27:16-25).
Although economic aspects of the law address a variety of issues, ranging from rest and labor to usury and philanthropy, all legislation related to wealth and poverty seems to be oriented toward achieving the same two goals.
First, this legislation promotes the creation ideal of laboring and resting (i.e., trusting) in the Lord in order to meet material needs. While the fall resulted in a curse on the ground and on humanity, it did not diminish the pre-fall responsibility of people to labor in order to meet material needs. The Sabbath structure that underpinned many of the wealth and poverty-related regulations within the law helped order Jewish social life by encouraging a schedule of labor and rest, which included formal worship and even leisure time.
By observing this regular cycle of labor and rest, and in keeping the related economic laws, the Jews were able to functionally bear God’s image and testify to the goodness of creational design. The pattern of labor and rest communicated by the economic laws fostered trust in the Lord by preventing God’s people from making work an ultimate source of security, and it demonstrated God’s plan of redemption, which comes by resting in the Lord and not by works (see Isa. 56:4-7; Ezek. 20:12).
Second, this legislation protects people from sins related to wealth and poverty. Although it is true that the underlying Sabbath structure of the economic regulations benefited everyone by offering rest and thereby helping to mitigate the effects of the fall (see Gen. 3:19), a more specific focus of these laws is preventing oppression of the poor by the sins of the rich.
For example, the aim of protecting the poor can be seen in the following civil laws:
- cancellation of debts on the Sabbath Year (see Deut. 15:1-3),
- a ban on prorating benevolence in view of the approaching Sabbath Year (see Deut. 15:9-10),
- the reversion of property in the Year of Jubilee (see Lev. 25:8-34),
- the freeing of indentured servants in the Year of Jubilee (see Lev. 25:35-55),
- and the continuation of gleaning rights during the Sabbath Year (see Exod. 23:11), among many other economic regulations.
In short, laws such as these recognized the potential for oppression of the poor by the rich and sought to orient Hebrew society toward the ideal of provision for all.
Yet, it should be noted that the economic laws of the Hebrew theocracy did not prevent or even discourage one from accumulating wealth — or, for that matter, from becoming poor. The possession or lack of material goods is not commended or condemned anywhere in Scripture, per se. Rather, the Bible condemns sins that either contribute to or stem from wealth and poverty.
The ideal that the Old Testament economic laws were designed to protect was not equality but justice. Not only were people freely allowed to become wealthy or poor within each Sabbath cycle, but everything was not economically reset by the various manifestations of the Sabbath. For example, the law allowed for houses within walled towns to be sold permanently (see Lev. 25:29-30), as well as voluntarily lifelong joining of a servant to a beloved master (see Deut. 15:12-18).
The ideal that the Old Testament economic laws were designed to protect was not equality but justice.
These laws highlight the fact that while justice does uphold the ideal of provision for all, it does not require an egalitarian distribution of resources. As ethicist John Frame has noted, equality is not mandated in Scripture, for economic prosperity (or the lack thereof) is not a zero-sum balance equation. In view of justice and in recognition lf the reality of sin, the economic portions of the Old Testament law were designed to protect and to correct distortions in the paradigm of labor being a means to meet material needs.
This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Jones’ book Health, Wealth and Happiness.