Redistributing Wealth the Biblical Way

Redistributing Wealth the Biblical Way March 27, 2017

This meme seems to overestimate the antiquity of the Biblical laws. But is it right nonetheless that this is the earliest example of wealth redistribution being legislated, even if the law turns out to be from the time of the monarchy or even post-exilic?

The law that is being referred to is found in Deuteronomy 26:12.


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  • Would Leviticus 23:22 be older?

    “‘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. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’”

    And how about the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, where everyone gets their land back…for free?

    And let’s not forget the forgiving of all debts every seven years in Deuteronomy 15.

  • On a slightly different, but related, topic, is the Biblical commandment to rest every seventh day the oldest known instance of such legislation?

    • Figuring out which of the Biblical laws is the oldest is challenging, and so I will defer to Hebrew Bible scholars on the question of whether the law that I understood the meme to be alluding to is indeed older than other candidates.

  • Gary

    Probably “trickle down” redistribution.
    An old example of “trickle up” redistribution, where a strong, centralized federal government taxed the poor states, to strengthen the “swamp” bureaucracy in Judah, was Solomon’s missim tax of all the northern tribes, to strengthen the south. And Solomon giving away Northern tribe land to the Phoenicians in exchange for Lebanon cedar and gold to build the temple in his “Federal” capital. The northern tribes were so ticked off, they seceded. They “Drained the Swamp”.

    • Iain Lovejoy

      The Bible tells us a lot of that spending was on defence (on horses and chariots and store cities for military supply etc) on vanity projects to build up the ruler’s prestige, on the building of walls and as quid pro quo for religious leaders who had propelled him into power.

      • Gary

        You’re right. In addition to the Temple, Solomon spent large amounts (and the missim labor tax), on fortifications in the south, at the expense of the fortifications in the north. Plus an effective professional military, instead of the volunteer forces of the various tribes. So both north and south eventually paid the ultimate price for being divided. But it started by a strong centralized federal government (Solomon) that dictated to the tribes, including where (Jerusalem only) and how (Aaron priests only), they should worship. Dangerous practice. And their walls in the north weren’t tall enough, or strong enough.

      • Gary

        I am not particularly enamored with any politician, including Trump. But if the Democrats want to compare Trump to one of the Biblical Kings, they would not make it Solomon (all powerful), or Hezekiah (broke Moses’ bronze snake – heathcare). They would hope it would be Josiah. Killed by an Egyptian arrow while trying to prevent illegal aliens (Egyptians), from crossing Israel’s border.

  • Thinking about all the laws in the Hebrew Bible commanding generosity to the poor reminded me of Psalm 82, where Yahweh, who was the head of the divine council, criticized the lesser divine beings, to whom he had entrusted the other nations, for not taking care of the poor. I don’t know if Israel was the first nation to legislate care for the poor, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    1 “God has taken his place in the divine council;
    in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
    2 “How long will you judge unjustly
    and show partiality to the wicked?Selah
    3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
    maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
    4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
    5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
    they walk around in darkness;
    all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
    6 I say, “You are gods,
    children of the Most High, all of you;
    7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
    and fall like any prince.”
    8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
    for all the nations belong to you!”

  • arcseconds

    Well, it’s not the earliest form of institutionalized redistribution at any rate. The temple system in Sumer served as a mechanism of economic redistribution, and hired widows etc.

    I don’t know whether it’s the first legislation saying that the people in general should do this. Given that much of the Mosaic law that pertains to civil matters is similar and presumably borrows from other ANE law codes it wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t the first.