The Bible and Economic and Social Justice: Following Ruth into Leviticus

I’ve been wanting to post some thoughts that came up in my class on the Bible last week. We were discussing the Book of Ruth, which itself challenged Israelite laws and prejudices aimed at Moabites (that itself is a message that some Christians seem not to have grasped). In the process of discussing Ruth, the law pertaining to gleaning obviously came up, and so we took a look at the law in Leviticus requiring landowners to leave the edges of their fields ungleaned so that the poor could come and help themselves. Here’s what Leviticus 19:9-10 says:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

This, it soon became evident, is a particularly clear example from the Bible of the sort of thing the wealthy in America are prone to denounce as “redistribution.”

If it is your land, and your crops, then who has the right to tell you to leave the edges for someone else? It is your property, and if it goes to serve the needs of others, that can only legally and legitimately be as a free act of charity on your part as owner. Right?

Not according to the Bible. The land, Biblical authors regularly assume and sometimes state, is regarded as God’s, not anyone else’s. And so you are immediately demoted from landowner to tenant. And as such, it is not your decision what to do with crops grown on God’s land. That’s fairly consistently the view that the Biblical authors adopt.

These were not suggestions. They were laws, intended to govern the nation. Whether their national life was overseen by kings, prophets, priests, judges, or local elders in a given period, there was an understanding that this was legislation, and that the community was responsible for observing it, and for enforcing it.

My point is not that we should start observing the laws of ancient Israel. But since there are those who insist that the Bible’s teaching is entirely about personal charity freely given, and never about social regulations and legislation aimed at providing systemic measures to address poverty, ones that infringed on what modern Americans consider their inalienable and inviolable right to personal property, I thought it worth taking a closer look at this particular law. Can anyone really claim that it doesn’t enact concern for the poor at the expense of notions of personal property that modern capitalists take for granted – but ancient Israelites apparently did not?

Lest anyone dismiss this as “merely the Old Testament,” it is to be noted that we see a similar concern for matters of social justice in early Christianity, in their practice of selling of property to help those in need.

On a somewhat related note, my pastor is currently in South Africa, and will be learning about the role of the church in the Apartheid and post-Apartheid eras, and he will be blogging about his experiences there.

  • Gary

    Maybe that’s where the term “marginalized people” came from. Never thought of a bible connection, especially from Leviticus.

  • Straw Man

    I am not a lawyer, but there’s something worth pointing out about this law. You’re correct that it dictates something about how to dispose of one’s crops, and you’re correct that the law treats all Israelites as tenants–as is made particularly clear in the law that forbids selling land, but permits only leases that expire at the Jubilee.

    Nevertheless, this law has an interesting trait that it shares with some modern laws. If you ask yourself what happens to people who disobey this law, you will be stumped: were they supposed to be stoned to death? God forbid! Were the townspeople to go into the man’s barn, assess how much grain represents a “corner of the field” worth, and take four corners’ worth by force to distribute to the poor? Were the poor authorized to go into the barn after it, if it wasn’t left in the field for gleaning?

    For that matter, how does one determine whether the law has been followed in the first place? How large is a “corner”?

    In short, this law makes no provision for enforcement, and in particular does not stipulate a penalty for violation. That’s a trait shared with many modern laws–you may or may not know that there are plenty of laws that command you not to do X, but that provide no penalty or other remedy if you go ahead and do X anyway. This is especially typical of laws that apply to government itself: the law says, “The government shall do X,” or “… shall not do Y,” but it says nothing whatsoever about how this law is to be enforced, or what happens when it’s violated.

    Please don’t conclude that I suggest the law can therefore be disregarded! That would be a Straw Man; I said no such thing.

    So what do we make of laws of this sort? Laws that are essentially unenforceable? In Nehemiah’s day, rich Israelites were not only not giving charity, but were instead selling food to their countrymen on usurious credit terms. He solved the problem using public shaming, by convincing them to enter a covenant to refrain from usury (which, by the way, opened them to penalties for oath-breaking, which is arguably blasphemy, a capital crime). He clearly found no means in either Jewish or Persian law simply to punish the usurers or confiscate goods for the poor. Instead he used an essentially toothless law as a means of public shaming.

    The situation is roughly similar today: if someone, e.g., the government, breaks one of these “toothless” laws, one can still resort to public shaming. One can also ask a judge to issue an injunction, which is nothing more than a public statement that (1) you are breaking the law, and (2) you need to stop. Injunctions are, in this case, just another type of public shaming–not much can be done when the injunction is disobeyed, as we observe today when the TSA repeatedly violates judicial orders, with impunity.

    Another “toothless” law, by the way, is the one that requires all Israelites to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It too is part of Moses’ law. Citing a law commanding charity is kind of weak sauce next to that one: there’s a LAW that commands everyone to LOVE everyone else! It’s a good law, too–I for one heartily endorse it. I am glad, though, that it’s phrased as another of those “toothless” laws. If the law had said, “The soul that loves not his neighbor as himself shall be cut off from his people,” the result would be hell on earth. Not because love is a bad thing, but because any attempt to systematically identify offenders and enforce the law upon them would be far more evil than the evil to be remedied. Imagine every time someone feels cranky, punishing him severely for failing to love others as himself. It would also legislate genuine love out of existence, by converting everyone into a sort of hostage forced to tell their kidnapper that they “love” him. The forced, artificial kind of love would almost completely supplant the real thing.

    This charity law is not as extreme an example as loving one’s neighbor, but it suffers the same difficulty: how much love is love enough? How much charity is charity enough? How big is a corner? The commandment is good. It’s goal is good. Violators, particularly the flagrant ones, should be subjected to dirty looks, or public shaming, or maybe shunning. We should be extremely cautious, though, of attempting to define “corner” as a certain acreage, or a certain percentage of arable land, and imposing fines equal to the average per-acre output of that much land, etc., etc. Many bad things happen when we go down that road, one of which is supplanting of genuine charity. “You’re poor and hungry? Well I already gave 50 bushels per acre times .67 acres, so go be hungry somewhere else you @#$@#$#!”

    • Straw Man

      In the past I’ve summed up this law as, “the mandatory giving of voluntary charity.” I’ve earned amazing amounts of scorn for that–being accused both of being too stupid to know an oxymoron when I make it up myself, and of being opposed to charity and inventing weaselly excuses to avoid giving to others.

      What makes their scorn especially hurtful is that by their reasoning, God is pretty stupid too: he COMMANDS people to LOVE! Ironically, the same ones who mocked me don’t actually believe in love, as far as I can tell. They appear to believe that love is a kind of behavior, having nothing to do with the heart. So giving your tithe IS love, and there’s nothing incongruous about God’s commandment. The same sort of people love to quote John: “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.” See? The definition of love is “obedience”!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      You make a lot of important points. I will merely say that I am not sure that the example you give, which covers much that is articulated in the Bill of Rights, is necessarily toothless. No penalty is specified, but if Congress were to make a law interfering with freedom of speech, surely it is not the case that all our society would be able to do in response is shrug and say “oh well.” :-) I expect that shaming was indeed a major factor as you indicate, but if working on the sabbath was punished by death, even though most articulations of the sabbath principle simply say something like “Keep the sabbath holy,” I don’t think we can assume that in all places that we have no penalty mentioned, no one was expected go take responsibility for enforcement.

      • Straw Man

        “No penalty is specified, but if Congress were to make a law interfering
        with freedom of speech, surely it is not the case that all our society
        would be able to do in response is shrug and say ‘oh well.’ :-)”

        Uh, where have you been? There are many laws abridging freedom of speech, and have been since the Alien and Sedition acts in 1798, which were never overturned. A thorough look at history will make it abundantly clear that very little can be done about unjust laws except to beg the government to change its mind. I suppose you could say that armed insurrection is always possible, but that’s not a very useful restraint on abuse of power: in general it only makes sense if a tyranny is so extreme that living in civil-war conditions is actually preferable.

        “I don’t think we can assume that in all places that we have no penalty
        mentioned, no one was expected go take responsibility for enforcement.”

        You put “enforcement” in opposition to “public shaming,” as if shunning (for example) is meaningless and only stoning with stones really counts. On the one hand it’s obvious you’ve never been shunned–victims of shunning commit suicide, you know. It’s not to be sneezed at. Conversely, this suggests a need for control over others which I would call an ethical defect, if not a “power-damaged mind”: it appears as if, when people act in ways you disapprove of, you find the idea repugnant that you (or agents acting effectively on your behalf) should not have the power to force compliance at gunpoint. Particularly horrifying is this:

        “…if working on the sabbath was punished by death… I don’t think we can assume that in all places that we have no penalty mentioned…” You realize you’re effectively saying, “If Sabbath-breaking was punishable by death, then why not insufficient charity?” You didn’t specify death, of course–you specifically didn’t do what I asked, which is to consider what biblical enforcement would be appropriate. Stoning? Hopefully you don’t advocate that. 39 lashes? Cutting off a hand? Burning with fire?

        You also specifically avoided any questions relating to the command to love thy neighbor. Can “love” be commanded? Can it be enforced? Would attempting to do so promote more love or less love?

        Are you more interested in making moral people, or in exacting moral behavior? Do you ever grapple with the fact that the latter is often inconsistent with the former? Particularly as it pertains to the second great commandment?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I do agree that making people moral is preferable – but clearly not all legislation and moral instruction in the Bible focuses on the one more than the other. I was not at all suggesting that stoning is the best, most effective, or even a desirable approach – not at all! My point was simply that, to the extent that there is a law, it may enable a community to mobilize in action in a way that they might not if there were not even a law without any specific penalty. I am trying to accurately describe what I see in ancient Israel’s laws, and not trying to suggest that anything in them should be adopted in the present without a lot of additional discussion and considerations being necessary. I often think that we can and should do better than the approach taken by ancient Israel!

          • Straw Man

            I agree with most of what you say here. We can certainly do better–without casting aspersions, for the most part, on ancient Israel. For example, requiring two eye-witnesses, which the Israelites obviously interpreted to include the concept of cross-examination, was absolutely brilliant! However, today we have access to forensic methods which we also know to be much more reliable than eyewitness accounts, and we should certainly use them.

            It’s worth noting, though, when you speak of a law “enabling a community to mobilize in action,” etc., you seem to be overlooking two key observations. First, mobilization is perfectly possible without passing a law. Second, and more to the point, passing a law means authorizing the use of any and all force, including, if necessary, deadly force.

            Even something as small as a citation for spitting on the sidewalk means that you will be assessed a fine. If you ignore the fine, you’ll be ordered, cajoled, and threatened to pay it. If you ignore all that, a policeman will be sent to take physical custody of your person, probably with intent of placing you in a cage for about 30 days in lieu of payment. If you object to being kidnapped and placed in a cage, you will be dragged by force. If you resist, you will experience a TASER, or pepper spray, or a baton, firsthand. If you continue resisting, the policeman will use more force. At some point, he will *either* have custody of your person, *or* be in fear for his life, and at that point he is authorized to deploy deadly force.

            A rational person will say, “I’d rather pay $250 than be caged for 30 days,” and a rational person will also say, “I’d rather spend 30 days in a cage than die resisting (what I consider to be) a kidnapping.” That’s true whether one’s abductor is a policeman or a pirate, for that matter–I’d certainly cooperate rather than die. But that’s beside the point that when we make a law, we are saying, “You WILL do thus–since if you refuse, all necessary force will be brought to bear, up to and including deadly force.” I’m perfectly comfortable saying exactly that when it comes to a law against rape, or murder, or even (certain classes of!) theft or trespassing. But I’m not at all comfortable saying that about blasphemy (sorry, Moses), or having a different religion, or even deeply repugnant behaviors like (consensual) prostitution, adultery, or intoxication, or lack of charity.

            The early church was stripped of the tools of corporate enforcement, with commands to “turn the other cheek” and to “resist not evil” and to “put up thy sword into its place.” The only tool we have is persuasion. The most potent persuader at our disposal is “with such an one no not to eat,” i.e., shunning (to a greater or lesser degree). I would argue that in the majority of cases where you might wish for a law, to force others to act in conformity to your wishes, what you actually need are exactly the tools given the first-century church. Social pressure is effective–shunning victims do commit suicide, so one can’t deny its potency–but it is also civilized. If you continue to behave in ways I find objectionable, I will ignore you harder than ever, and so will other decent people. I will not, however, up and point a gun at you.

            (That’s aside from two other concerns about solving moral problems with legal means. First, the lawmaker probably doesn’t realize how utterly right my opinions are, and he’s liable to enforce someone else’s opinion on me, rather than enforcing mine on the other guy. And second, there’s a hazard of abdicating moral responsibility ourselves when we delegate morality to our rulers. The extreme example of that was when millions of ordinary Germans, no different from you or me, “just followed orders.” We see a similar moral handicap, though, in the kindergarten tattle-tale.)

  • Tim Bulkeley

    Straw Man, biblical scholars call those “toothless” laws “apodictic”, they are phrased as absolute commands, with no circumstances or limits, as opposed to “casuistic” laws with cases of an if… then.. sort.
    I talk about that here: http://5minutebible.com/?s=apodictic (start at the bottom ;)

    James, of course the Old Testament only admits “private property” of the sort one could carry around if one moved from place to place… Difficult to defend even generous, gentle and limited capitalism on that basis ;)

    • Straw Man

      Thanks Tim. Note that you should probably avoid even using the word “capitalism,” because nobody really knows what it means anymore–like the word “socialism.”

      Moses’ law did not consider real estate to be property, with the notable exception of homes in cities. That exception is enough to demonstrate that Israelites were capable of comprehending the concept of real estate, though. And the reasoning is also noteworthy. The reason land can’t be sold is that Israel was God’s property, and assigned as a divine heritage to specific Jewish families. This was not a general moral principle that “real estate is theft,” and in fact the opposite: it’s an affirmation of real estate, with the specific assertion that God is the owner of said real estate. Also note that building new cities, like Samaria, is obviously problematic from the point of view of Moses’ law.

      It’s important to remember, though, that theft is condemned–it even made the top-ten list. Which is why I say you should avoid the word “capitalism.” Many things called “capitalism” today ARE theft, and so would be condemned. However, the Bible clearly endorses a society in which people act voluntarily, without theft or threat of force. Ananias and Sapphira were told specifically, “IT WAS YOUR HOUSE! You could have sold it or not; and when you sold it, you could have done anything you wanted with the money! There was no need to lie to God; you could have said, ‘Here’s half the money,’ and that would have been your prerogative!” David threatened to murder Nabal, and (as often happens) scripture didn’t bother to editorialize; it’s certainly easy to argue that David would have done wrong had he murdered Nabal and seized provisions for his gang.

  • Michael Hoffman

    My new book “Usury in Christendom: The Mortal Sin That Was and Now Is Not” is available to reserve now for delivery in December. Google: “Usury in Christendom”

  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.trotter.18 Rebecca Trotter

    When I first read the Levitical laws regarding economic and property issues I was struck by how realistic they were about the way that money and people actually are. Far more realistic than any modern system we’re working with today. In particular, I thought that the Jubilee system pointed to the inevitable slide towards inequality of both opportunity and outcome. People who are good at making money will inevitably accumulate a great deal. Which is well and fine to a point, but eventually wealth naturally seems to become so concentrated in the hands of a few to the point that they risk choking out opportunity for others. And without some sort of periodic reset, it can become nearly impossible to rise above the station in life left to our fore-fathers. I wish we had Christian economists and policy wonks taking these ancient laws seriously and thinking about how these ideas might inform our own policies and practices today.

  • Pastor Eric

    I appreciated this article. However I agree generally with Staw Man. I think one could easily miss the distinction between governmental laws, and God’s laws. There was no consequence to not allowing people to glean. In fact, the passage suggests Boaz was a righteous man Because he allowed people to glean. This suggests that many land owners did not do it. God sets up no law to punish them, or law to make sure it gets done. It was a personal choice between them and God, NOT a law of the land forced upon them. Social justice was meant to be personal. Why? When the church gives to the poor, then the poor respect the church, and eventually God. When the government is the feeder to the poor, guess who the poor rely on, and give all their allegiance to? The government…no matter how corrupt.
    Thus the Church needs to be free to spread their funds, and we as the people should not necessarily vote for the government to do it. And if the government should do it, it should be for the exchange of work. Note how the poor still had to work the fields themselves–they were not free handouts for able-bodied people.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thank you for your comment. I think the government laws vs. God’s laws distinction is one that cannot be applied to ancient Israel. The only laws they had which we know about were ones considered to be God’s laws. And we are told that if the nation did not obey those laws, famines and plagues were sent upon them. Of course, most will not embrace the precise worldview reflected in those texts, any more than we can simply carry them over into our own economic or political context. But I think that the dichotomy between government and church is also problematic, given the original context. There was no church then. There was a society which the church typically views itself as in some sense heir to. And if those of us who understand ourselves in those terms or something like them vote in a manner that reflects those principles enshrined in Scripture, then we may well want to see able-bodied people expected to work, but I doubt that we will stand in the way of attempts to ensure work for able-bodied people, or care for those who do not fit the category of able-bodied.


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