Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 2, no. 1 (February 2011)

done_all Peer Reviewed Article

Exodus, the Poor, and Worship

Nathan Bills

In the book of Exodus, Israel transitions from a people enslaved in the midst of Egypt to a nation in service to the God-in-their-midst. The memory of this exodus story grounds both Israel’s theology of poverty and worship. But do these two relate? This essay argues that the book of Exodus intimately connects Israel’s ethic toward the marginalized with the concern for the formation of a worshiping community.


In this essay I explore two major themes within Exodus and how they relate: God’s concern for the poor, and worship. At first glance, these two motifs appear to serve as bookends for the book. The first fifteen chapters of Exodus develop the theme of God’s acting on behalf of the oppressed Israelites. The final fifteen chapters (save chs. 32–34) are devoted almost exclusively to the accouterments of the tabernacle. I suspect that many, even those whose only encounters with the book have come through Hollywood portrayals, are most familiar with the first theme and even consider liberation of the oppressed as the de facto thesis of Exodus.1 This part of the story has no doubt inspired various groups of the oppressed and poor to struggle for deliverance throughout the ages, and the emergence of liberation theologies in the latter half of the twentieth century has heightened awareness of this theme even more so in the academy.2 Indeed, one of the great gains of liberationist readings has been the lucid explication of God’s partisan concern for the downtrodden vis-à-vis the exodus.3 And yet, some scholars have criticized liberation-centered readings for overplaying this motif and ignoring how the theme of liberation is integrated with other important themes within Exodus.4

In this essay I argue that these two motifs are woven together such that in the book of Exodus a theological understanding of care for the poor does not make sense apart from a concern for the formation of a worshiping community. My thesis entails that I first investigate how Israel’s understanding of God’s actions in the Exodus formed the matrix out of which she came to view her role in caring for the poor. Second, I briefly explain why Israel’s ethic toward the poor as developed through their exodus experience can serve as paradigmatic for Christian readers. Third, I demonstrate how in Exodus the matter of worship functions as an overarching theme that provides a significant and distinctive texture and telos to Israel’s theology of poverty. Finally, I conclude by noting a few implications of my argument for participation in the mission of God.

The Exodus and Israel's Understanding of the Poor

The call for the protection and fair treatment of the poor permeates much of Israel’s literature.5 Israel’s concern for this segment of her community was not unique in the ancient Near East.6 However, her convictions about the poor grew out of her distinctive theological self-understanding which was shaped by the exodus.7 Her own beginning in vulnerability and powerlessness demanded a certain attitude toward the vulnerable and powerless in her midst. God’s redemptive action exhibited in the exodus—to establish a new, worshiping community where the well-being of every member, especially the poor, was a central concern—formed the theological paradigm by which Israel understood and showed compassion for the poor.

Before turning to the book of Exodus, it is necessary to define briefly the language of the “poor” and “poverty” and its application to the text.8 The semantic field of words used in the Hebrew Bible to identify the “poor” and their condition is much broader than the English translation “poor.” Among the most frequently used are: ⁽ ānî (80 times),  ⁾ ebyôn (61 times); dal (48 times); rāš (22 times); maḥsôr (13 times); miskēn (4 times). These all have considerable nuance that cannot be captured by the catch-all translation “poor.” In addition to these, the triad “the widow, the orphan, and the alien” are often singled out as groups in particular need of attention due to their situations of vulnerability. The words translated “poor” together with the widow, orphan, and alien reflect the vast majority of the Israelite destitute. The lack of economic resources, social status, and respect combined with the vulnerability to exploitation and the inability to reverse the situation comprises the multitude of situations of “poverty” for various individuals in Israel. In a few words, powerlessness and vulnerability are the fundamental markers of the “poor” of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the following exposition, I show how these characteristics of powerlessness and vulnerability rest at the heart of the root identity of the Hebrew nation.

The Exodus account opens with the suffering of the Hebrews under the oppressive and exploitative power of Pharaoh’s regime. The biblical tradents describe their situation in Egypt with an impressive burst of vocabulary that emphasizes the mounting oppression:

Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. (Exod 1:11–14)9

The repetition of language lays upon the reader the burdensome oppression that weighs down the Israelites. The situation goes from bad to worse as the maniacal policy of Pharaoh moves from forced labor to national genocide. By the end of the opening chapter, hopelessness and powerlessness characterize the social context of the Hebrews.

The slaves signal their incapacity to alter the situation and express their deep distress by their emotive outcry in Exod 2:23–24. The Hebrew uses four different verbal roots to vivify the severity of their plight:

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned ( ⁾ ānaḥ) because of their slavery and cried out for help (zā⁽ aq). Their cry (šaw⁽ â) for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning (n ⁾ āqâ). (ESV)10

Although their cry does not have an immediate addressee (v. 23b), it nevertheless reaches the divine ears. No explicit mention of God’s active presence for the Israelites is found within the narrative11 until the narrator reports God’s initial response with four action verbs: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (2:24–25 ESV).12 In the following call-story of Moses, the reader again overhears God revealing to Moses that this God of the ancestors has seen, heard, and known the Israelites’ plight: “Then the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know (yāda⁽ ) their sufferings’ ” (3:7 ESV).

This emphatic, repeated divine response (cf. 3:9) is critical to the development of Israel’s theology of the poor. God has freely chosen not to be indifferent to the outcry of the Israelites in their powerlessness.13 Moreover, in this context the Hebrew verb yāda⁽  indicates a relational, experiential knowledge.14 In other words, Israel’s God goes beyond just being cognitively aware or even sensitive to the suffering of Israel—he intimately involves himself with it.15 God’s hearing and seeing their groaning (2:24; 3:7) leads him to remember his covenant with their ancestors (2:24) and thus to gain an intimacy with their plight. All of this moves God to act for their deliverance (3:8). That God is moved by and identifies with the outcry of the powerless is a fundamental conviction that grows out of Israel’s experience with God in their exit from Egypt. Israel learns through the exodus event that God is the champion of the oppressed even when such championing pits God against the seemingly legitimate human powers of the day.16 God acts in sovereignty to bring Israel out from under her oppressors and in the process dismantles the structures that legitimate the oppression and social injustices of the Egyptian empire.17

In more than one way, God insists that Israel must not forget her exodus-shaped identity as it relates to her ethical practice. The prologue of the Ten Words manifests this consciousness: Israel is reminded that God brought her out of the Egyptian “house of slavery” (20:2, cf. 19:4). Not coincidentally, the following collection of laws starts with the demand that Hebrew slaves be treated fairly (21:1). In language evoking her corporate exodus experience, God commands Israel not to oppress widows or fatherless children. “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry” (22:23).18 In similar fashion, God commands an Israelite to return a cloak before sundown to a dependent neighbor who offered it as a pledge. Otherwise, the vulnerable neighbor will have nothing as a cover for sleeping, “and if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate” (22:27). Finally, Samuel Balentine observes that an apodictic law section (22:21–23:9) is framed with warnings to Israel against abusing aliens in her midst precisely because Israel is a community with a history of such vulnerability: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (22:21; cf. 23:9). He asserts that “by framing the apodictic laws with a concern for the aliens, the Book of the Covenant insists that justice for the socially and politically disadvantaged, no less than love of God, is the essential requirement of covenant fidelity.”19 The exodus becomes formative for Israel’s commands and social organization, the central vision of which focuses on justice in the context of community.20 Yhwh educates Israel at Sinai in the nonnegotiable aspects of the covenant, one of which is that Israel will show concern for her “neighbor”—the poorer members of her community in particular.

That Israel’s origins lie among the powerless should not be underestimated. To give just one example, a later creedal-like statement that an Israelite was to rehearse at his offering of the harvest’s firstfruits features this fact as the centerpiece of the Israelite’s identity:

A wandering21 Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut 26:5–9)22

God’s actions toward Israel in the exodus grounded her historical identity in a consciousness which necessitated an ongoing sympathy and compassion for the poor and the marginalized of society. A neglect of the poor, then, was no less than a fundamental denial of Israel’s self-understanding.23 In the same chapter of Deuteronomy, the Israelite testifies before God after paying the triennial tithe:

I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments . . . (26:13)

Christopher Wright surmises that this text “makes care for the poor the litmus test of covenant obedience to the whole of the rest of the law.”24 At least in this instance, the Israelite’s ethical behavior toward the poor functions as “somehow definitive or paradigmatic of [the worshiper’s] response to God as a whole.”25

It comes as no surprise then to see in light of the exodus a newness of values that sympathizes with the plight of the marginalized for theological reasons.26 Israel’s communal life adopts God’s character as revealed in the exodus and structures itself around God’s interests. Brueggemann has well stated that Israel’s law collections evince a “preferential option for the ordering of a neighborly community.”27 The practice of social justice, in turn, goes beyond keeping the rules to pursuing aggressively the good of the community.28 And the good of the community depended greatly on how its most vulnerable members fared in the community’s economic and social structures.

Exodus as Paradigm: God's Concern for the Poor

There is little doubt that the theme of God’s concern for the marginalized has gained significant traction in the last few decades. Moreover, just in the last few years in America, social justice for the poor has emerged as a hot topic of conversation among a variety of religious leaders and commentators.29 Christians who desire to treat the poor justly and wish to ground their intuitions in Scripture may cite the exodus event. Yet, the book of Exodus is unambiguous that God’s particular concern for Israel stands behind his redemptive movements. It is legitimate to ask then, “If God is truly about identifying with and liberating the poor from their oppression, why is God’s concern qualified by Israel?” In other words, I wish to address briefly whether this exodus motif indicates a universal disposition of God toward oppression of marginalized members of society, or if God’s compassion at the beginning of Exodus can only be understood as his partiality to one specific nation.30

The narrative admits in 2:23–24 and 3:7–8 that God’s concern for human misery and God’s covenant memory together operate as “triggers” for God’s redeeming initiative.31 The latter, of course, points back to God’s covenant with Abraham when he declared his intention to bless the world through Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:1–3; 15). The covenant promise is central to God’s response, and thus there is much more at play here than a mere concern for the marginalized. God chooses to act because it is Israel crying out, not just enslaved peoples.32 That having been said, Israel represents God’s chosen means by which salvation comes to all the families of the earth. Thus, God’s concern for Israel stems from a larger concern for creation, and such concern continues to draw God to the aid of Israel both in the exodus and beyond.33

A creational perspective on the book of Exodus opens further avenues for understanding God’s concern for the poor as a more universal paradigm while not denigrating the special place of Israel. Terence Fretheim has shown convincingly how creation theology underpins much in Exodus. For example, the opening chapter (1:7, 12) casts Israel’s situation in terms that hearken back to the creational directives given to humanity “in the beginning.”34 Egyptian slavery, then, frustrates the creational vocation of Israel in addition to quenching the creational promise that Abraham’s seed would be a blessing to the families of the earth. Second, God’s stated rationale for his power-contest with Pharaoh highlights the creational dimension of the exodus: “But this is why I have let you live: to show my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth” (9:16).35 In other words, the work of God in the exodus is forecasted as an action that is meant to be a showcase to other nations concerning the priorities of the Creator God. Israel’s salvation is a concretization of God’s concerns writ large so that the world can take heed.36

In fact, to view the entire narrative as a cosmic drama set in the framework of creation further elucidates the divine response.37 God the Creator actively seeks to free people from the oppressive forces of chaos (represented by Pharaoh) that oppose God’s purposes in creation.38 Thus, the salvific act of the exodus includes liberation but more broadly involves a re-creation or reordering of life to match God’s original goal of wholeness.39 He desires to create anew a community that stands in direct opposition to the chaos that is Egypt.40 This new community emerges with the expectation that they are an “incarnation” of God’s desires for society. God’s redemption of Israel functions as a paradigmatic microcosm of God’s macrocosmic will.41 I suggest, then, that the exodus drama can be legitimately read as a theological paradigm for God’s basic disposition toward poverty, but only with the qualification that Israel’s total experience—from Egypt to Sinai—offers the window into that disposition. As I detail in the next section, only by taking into account the entire journey of Israel from slavery to service do we develop a biblically responsible concern for the poor.

The Concern for the Poor and Worship in Exodus

The truly distinct feature of ancient Israel’s theological understanding of care for the poor is found in the integration of this concern with her theology of worship. Norbert Lohfink observes that many commentators who expound upon Israel’s concern for the poor seem unaware that Israel was not unique in her regard for the poor.42 After a brief survey of other ancient Near Eastern laws, Lohfink concludes, “In light of the stated similarities between the Old Testament and its environment, it would seem that much that is today referred to as ‘option of the Church for the poor’ is not in any way specifically biblical and is therefore not specifically Christian.”43 I think Lohfink overstates the case,44 but nevertheless he is right to highlight that a special concern for the poor alone fits well with the practice of Israel’s contemporaries. Rather, what Lohfink regards as making Israel distinct is the exodus event that gave rise to Israel’s liberation and subsequent understanding of poverty. More to the point, the exodus facilitates a transition from oppression to the calling and construction of a new society that embraces God’s agenda. Lohfink again:

Yahweh’s interaction does not aim, as do such acts of assistance elsewhere in the ancient Near East, to lighten the suffering while leaving the system intact or perhaps even aiding its renewed stabilization. Instead, the poor are removed from the impoverishing situation. Nowhere else in the ancient Near East have I encountered in the context of divine aid to the poor even the remotest suggestion that a god might physically remove the poor who cry out to him or her from the world that oppresses them as human beings.45

To summarize, the “exit from” is incomplete without the “entrance into”; they are tethered together theologically. In other words, Israel’s compassion is distinctive only in relationship to the horizon of the formation of a worshiping community.

One of the most significant ways in which these two themes are conjoined becomes clear by attending to the theme of worship. Throughout the book of Exodus there is a continual wordplay on the root ⁽ -b-d, “to serve.” The root occurs 97 times in the narrative. Figure 1 illustrates the number of occurrences of various forms of the root in the forty chapters of Exodus. It occurs in three principle forms: the nominal “servant” (⁽ ebed),46 the verbal “to serve” (⁽ ābad),47 and a second, abstract nominal “service” (⁽ ăbōdâ):48

Figure 1: Occurrances of the ⁽ -b-d Root in Exodus

The largest grouping of terms collect at the beginning of the narrative. The next large cluster occurs around and within the law collection (chs. 20–24), and the third noteworthy grouping falls in the account of the construction of the tabernacle in chapters 35–40.

In Exodus the root has a significant second meaning: it can also be translated as “to worship,” and often both meanings are intended. For example, following chapters 2–3 where the narrator has taken pains to stress the oppressive service under Pharaoh, God assures Moses: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship (or serve; ⁽ ābad) God on this mountain” (3:12). Similarly, God instructs Moses on the demand to be made to Pharaoh: “Let my son go that he may worship (⁽ ābad) me” (4:23).49 This command (and variations thereof) appears throughout the plague narrative (7:16, 26; 8:16; 9:1, 13; and 10:3) so that it becomes quite clear that God’s purposes for bringing Israel out are wrapped up in worship. After Moses and Aaron’s initial meeting with Pharaoh to deliver God’s directives, Pharaoh responds by inflicting harder service (⁽ ăbōdâ) on the Israelites (5:9, 11, 18).50 The exchanges between Pharaoh and Moses continue to revolve around the question, “Whom will Israel serve/worship—Pharaoh or God?”

The narrative from the beginning, then, frames the liberation event within the larger contours of worship/service. While still in Egypt Israel begins to fulfill this aim of true worship/service: the community worships upon Moses’ return (4:31) and at the end of the first Passover in preparation for the tenth plague (12:27). The Egyptians as well are involved in the elaboration on the theme of worship. Though it is an overstatement to say that the Egyptians become worshipers of God, the narrative nevertheless traces God’s desire for them to acknowledge the Lord as the one true God (e.g., 5:2; 7:5, 17; 8:22; 9:14; 10:3, 16; 14:4, 18).51

Worship takes center stage in the book on the other side of the Red Sea. The Songs of Moses and Miriam summon Israel to a collective liturgical recital of God’s victory over the powers of darkness at the Sea. Fretheim observes that this liturgical act underscores the integral role that Israel’s worship plays in accomplishing God’s purposes in the exodus (and his salvific work more generally). Besides expressing gratitude, Israel’s praise testifies before the world that God has done what he said he would do. Thus, Israel’s worship in a significant way participates in and contributes to the purpose of the exodus as articulated in 9:16: “so that my name may be proclaimed throughout all the earth.”52 And at the mountain, just as God promised Moses in 3:12, the Israelites worship God (24:1, 10) after the covenant ceremony.

Exodus emphasizes the movement from one “service” to another to make the point that God “is not merely intent on liberating slaves but on reclaiming worshipers”53—“worshipers” understood as a quintessence of what it means for Israel as a new nation to embody God’s agenda. As Pleins notes, “To truly realize the exodus trajectory, the text points toward the ultimate purpose of such a freeing: The community must find a way to structure itself ritually and legally so that an enduring community might function in the wilderness and beyond.”54 Such a transition necessitates that Israel is schooled in the practice of right service/worship. Egyptian service is in opposition to the service God has bequeathed to humankind from the beginning (Gen 2:15), a service defined by the limits of Sabbath (Gen 2:2–3; cf. Exod 20:8–11; 31:17). Ellen Davis points out that it is no coincidence that the first mention of Sabbath comes in Pharaoh’s first speech to Moses: “And Pharaoh said, ‘Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest from their burdens [you would give-them-sabbath (wĕhišbattem)]!’ ” (5:5). Davis asserts that Exodus narrates a counter-proposal for good service rightly ordered in the construction of the tabernacle (chs. 35–40), a service that attends to Sabbath rest from the beginning (35:2).55 She concludes: “Building a sanctuary and keeping Sabbath have the same aim: namely, worship, intimacy with God.”56

Finally, all of these interwoven strands prepare for the tabernacle account that dominates the latter half of Exodus (chs. 25–40). If the book of Exodus has a principal climax, it is arguably neither the dramatic sea crossing nor the delivery of the law at Sinai, but the descent of God’s presence in the tabernacle (ch. 40) that is the finale of the book. The narrative draws multiple verbal and thematic parallels between the construction of the tabernacle and God’s creation of the world.57 Thus, the construction of the tabernacle is presented not just as the climax of Exodus but as the culmination of God’s work begun in creation. Here, in the tabernacle, God’s hopes for humankind’s true worship/service are “recreated.”58 That this task is so central to their identity and societal formation is a point of Exod 32–34, where the people forfeit this vocation, worship falsely at the foot of the mountain, and stymie (momentarily) God’s larger intentions. Neither liberation nor the law is the clear telos of the book; rather, they are necessary prerequisites for the formation of a worshiping community with the presence of God in its midst. God answered Israel’s cry for help in order to transform her oppressive service into expressive, world-forming, world-resounding worship. God articulates this goal from the beginning, and the book concludes with the community gathered around the proper aim for their affection.

Conclusion and Implications

The exodus liberated Israel from oppression but more enduringly bequeathed to her a peculiar identity rooted in that deliverance. God freed Israel, but God’s redemptive actions were preceded by a deep identification with Israel’s suffering. God’s intimacy with Israel before and through the exodus taught Israel what was to be her own posture toward the powerless and vulnerable in her midst. Her concern for the poor was not unique in the ancient Near East, but her theological rationale for it was: her redemption informed her ethic. Moreover, her redemption was tied from the beginning to God’s desire to bring out a people who would worship/serve as a paradigm of God’s creative intent. Whatever one says about Israel’s theological appropriation of her experience in Exodus, then, is interwoven with her subsequent emergence as an alternative society. In short, Exodus is as much about an entrance as it is an exit; there is not one without the other. And what Israel is called to enter into is a community that orders its life by the orienting practice of worship of the one true Lord. This movement from God’s compassionate concern for the oppressed in Egypt to the rightly ordered community of Israel worshiping the Lord is not a sequential drama with discrete acts and scenes. Rather, God’s concern for Israel from the beginning tied liberation and sacred service together.

The theology of Exodus yields valuable insights into Christian participation in the missio Dei. I briefly highlight two implications for mission that flow directly out of my analysis. First, the church as a covenant community of Yhwh cannot ignore the plight of the poor. Just as with Israel, a denial or avoidance of an intimate empathy with and compassion for the poor is a fundamental betrayal of Christian identity, which is rooted in vulnerability and powerlessness (cf. Rom 5:6–8). Following the paradigm of God’s desires evident in Exodus, the church understands mission to embrace the whole of human misery, especially in relationship to the marginalized (cf. Luke 4:17–19). The people of God do not neglect the economic, political, and social aspects of life because they recognize God’s profound interests in these areas.59 Study of the book of Exodus, perhaps more than any other book in Scripture, can deepen Christians’ theological acumen of the centrality of the poor in Scripture.60 In short, it demonstrates how care of the poor is seamlessly woven into the fabric of the missio Dei. Indeed, such concern is at the heart of the missio Dei.

A second implication follows from the fact that an exodus-shaped concern for the poor is tethered theologically and teleologically to the desire for the formation of Yhwh-worshiping communities. In many public spaces it is increasingly becoming socially and politically acceptable to call for a more rigorous justice and support of the poor. In some Christian conversations, a (re)vivification of this notion in Scripture has motivated congregations and mission points to engage in various social ministries and/or humanitarian efforts. Christians can certainly welcome this revival of interest. Nevertheless, a Christian ethic toward the poor, in addition to being motivated by theology, should ultimately be liturgically and ecclesially oriented if it is to remain distinctively biblical. I am not suggesting that Christian love of neighbor be somehow contingent on the neighbor’s participation in some aspect of the church life. Nor am I implying that Christian compassion be viewed through the framework of “pre-evangelism.” Yet, the theology of Exodus raises caution against a practice of mission that does not give due regard for the neighbor’s redemptive integration into the worshiping life of the local congregation. Yhwh’s concern for the poor is deep, so deep that he desires for all, especially the most vulnerable, to experience just, neighborly community rightly formed (and continually reforming) by true worship. Further, it is foremost in the witness of worship/service, in both liturgy and deed, whereby God’s people respond to and engage with God’s missional agenda to make his glory abound in all the earth.

Appendix A: The Poor in the Literature of Israel

Each genre of the Hebrew canon includes information relevant to comprehending how Israel viewed her poor. The theme is so pervasive in the Hebrew Bible that to address every noteworthy contribution of each genre is beyond the bounds of this appendix.61 Nevertheless, I include below significant contributions of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings on the care of the poor in Israel.

The Torah

The concern for the poor is nowhere more visible in the Torah than in Israel’s law collections.62 These collections in their present form derive from different time periods and compilers and editors, thereby reflecting different social situations.63 The study of the evolution of these law collections reveals a certain amount of development over time, but the same motif of attentiveness to persons on the margins of society is common to them all.64 For instance,65 the law forbids the general mistreatment of the vulnerable (in these contexts, namely, the widow, orphan, and sojourner) and issues a call to care for them (Exod 22:21–22; 23:9; Deut 10:19; Lev 19:33–34; 24:22). Israel’s law also forbids specific actions that would take advantage of the poor, such as taking a garment as a pledge (Exod 22:26; Deut 24:17), charging interest on a loan to a poor person (Exod 22:25; similarly Deut 23:19–20; Lev 25:35–37), or depriving the poor of fair measure on a sale or on land (Deut 19:14; 25:13–15; 27:17; Lev 19:35–36). The biggest concern evidenced in the law, however, is the demand for justice for the poor in court (Exod 23:1–3, 6, 8; Deut 1:17; 16:19; 19:15–21; 24:17–19; Lev 19:15).66

In addition to prohibiting the exploitation of the powerless, the law made provision for both the feeding and freeing (in the case of slaves) of such groups. The instruction regarding the Sabbatical Year (Exod 23:10–11) directed that every seventh year the land was to remain fallow in order that the  ⁾ ebyônim could gather food from it. Variations of this command to allow the poor to benefit from a plot of land not their own are attested in Deut 24:19–22 and Lev 19:9–10 and 23:22. Similar to the Sabbatical Year and its analogous counterparts is the institution of the Jubilee Year (Lev 25). This law requires both the return of property to the original owner and the release of Hebrew bondservants.67 Regardless of the actual implementation of these commands in Israel, the fact that her law collections include such measures indicates that Israel understood her responsibility for the welfare of the poor among her.68

The laws relating to the sojourner demand additional attention. As mentioned above, the sojourner was characteristically vulnerable to exploitation and oppression along with the widow and orphan. Thus, the law provided for his protection (Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:10, 34; 23:22; 25:6; Deut 10:18–19; 14:29; 24:14, 17). Some scholars postulate that these particular provisions for the sojourner reflect the measures taken by Solomon and others to protect the cheap labor force needed for building projects.69 However, a declaration reminding the Israelites to remember their own experience in Egypt when dealing with the sojourner follows many of the commands concerning the sojourner in the text.70 This fact, when considered alongside the unique interest of Israel for the sojourner’s plight, leads most naturally to a theological justification for such laws.71 Thus, the concern for the sojourner is consistent with and revealing of Israel’s self-understanding operating out of the exodus paradigm.

Deuteronomy 15 provides possibly the clearest statement on Israel’s call to aid the poor.72 The passage first expresses the ideal that “there shall be no poor among you” (v. 4). Farther along the passage acknowledges that “there will always be poor among you” (v. 11). The biblical call for the care of the poor commands the elimination of such conditions but realizes the systemic nature of its existence.73 Israel’s laws do not try to rationalize the existence of the poor in her midst; instead, they recognize the effects of humanity’s sin in the social sphere.74 These affirmations pertaining to the responsibility of Israel for her poor indicates that her concern was more than altruism. Her interest could be described in concrete terms.75 Therefore, the law collections contained within the Torah demonstrate a major concern for the poor in Israel.

The Prophets

The Latter Prophets76 include many statements calling for social justice. In fact, their contributions to the issues of social justice are the most striking in the biblical literature. The eighth century, the period in which classical prophecy began, was a time of negative social change.77 Israel experienced relative peace and prosperity, while the gap between the rich and the poor widened. This, in turn, produced an environment conducive to social injustices.78 Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah each contribute to an exposé of contemporary Israelite society vis-à-vis social justice.79 These prophets decried Israel’s lack of commitment to justice and righteousness and aimed their message at the government as well as individuals.80 They operated out of Israel’s covenantal traditions, calling the nation to live according to its Torah.81

The prophetic literature contains numerous descriptions of problems within society and records appeals that would affect change. When the pre-exilic prophets became specific in their accusations about social injustices, they recalled the same issues addressed by Israel’s laws pertaining to the treatment of the poor.82 The prophets did not think that these exhortations were an appeal for charity; rather, they understood that the community was responsible for the well-being of every member of society.83 Although Zechariah prophesied in the post-exilic period, he offers a succinct summary of the social message of the prophets. He proclaims that Israel should “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another . . . [should] not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor . . . [nor] devise evil in [their] hearts against one another. ” (7:9–10). The commands that Zechariah gives describe the Old Testament social ideal of a covenant community.84 The fervor for social justice exhibited by the prophets is unmatched in the literature of the ancient Near East, and as such should not be mistaken for propaganda. On the contrary, their words reflect a commitment toward the covenantal concern of the poor.85

The Writings

Israel’s liturgy, as contained in the Psalter, supplied an abundant resource that reminded her of God’s interest in the plight of the poor.86 The Psalms address God’s concern for the poor more than any other aspect of social justice.87 They give voice to both individual and communal laments, hymns, and prayers that express physical and spiritual needs to God. Frequently, the psalmist maintains faith in God’s willingness and ability to vindicate situations of injustice.88 In her worship Israel constantly encountered the fact that the God she proclaimed was continually attentive to the situations of the poor.89 The language of the poor in Psalms reflects concrete social and political realities.90 However, the portrayal of the neediness of the poor often merges with and corresponds to an inner spiritual disposition of neediness before God.91 Thus, an understanding that the individual and the nation possessed a universal religious need for God is also present in the Psalms.

Israel’s worship encouraged her to re-examine God’s call for a community committed to social justice. In other words, the Psalms are “self-critiquing rather than self-legitimizing” for Israel’s understanding of every aspect of life.92 Psalm 112 describes the lifestyle of righteous people who are “gracious, merciful, and righteous . . . deal generously and lend. . . [and] have distributed freely, . . . have given to the poor” (vv. 4, 5, 9). Such actions parallel the character of God described in the previous Psalm 111. Psalm 82 declares God to be the only true God among the other gods of the nations because of his primary concern for the well-being of the poor and oppressed (v. 3). Israel’s king also legitimated his throne with a similar claim. Psalm 72 asserts that the king’s rule is dependent upon his interest for justice and compassion upon the poor.93 In general, the Psalms prompt Israel in worship to remember her self-understanding before God and realize how her behavior should mirror God’s concern for the poor.94

The Proverbs articulate similar sentiments regarding the care of the poor. Israel’s Wisdom literature95 appears to lack connection to the covenant relationship between Yhwh and Israel. However, the wisdom tradition does involve a theological perspective that demonstrates a connection between Israel’s daily experience and her worship of God as creator and redeemer.96 Moreover, the Wisdom literature’s treatment of social issues does not represent a conflicting viewpoint on the poor.97 The Proverbs do not attempt to explain the reason for poverty but give grounds for why a person should work. This fact makes understandable the seeming discrepancy between the Proverbs and the rest of the biblical witness on these matters.98 In fact, most proverbs advocate generosity toward the poor99 and concern for social justice.100 Justice is arguably a primary theme of the entire book (Prov 1:3), and God’s concern for justice is the theological underpinning of Proverbs’ statements about social issues.101 The Proverbs attest that God, who is creator of all humanity, demands kindness, compassion, and justice toward the powerless members of society.102

Appendix B: Who Are the "Poor" in the Hebrew Bible?

The semantic field of words used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the “poor” and their condition is wide.103 This overview does not exhaust the nuances and usages of every word. Rather, here I provide a brief discussion of the main terms that are typically translated by the English word “poor” and suggest an essential meaning for each. It is recognized that such generalizations do not hold for every usage in each context. In addition, my overview includes the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner because their life situations are representative of those who comprised the poor in Israel. I will conclude by positing that powerlessness and vulnerability are fundamental markers of the “poor” in the Hebrew Bible.

Several Hebrew words are frequently translated “poor” in the English Bible.  ⁾ ebyôn (61 times) commonly describes the economically or legally distraught (i.e., the destitute). The  ⁾ ebyônim were day laborers who depended solely upon the good will of others for daily sustenance.104 A second term, dal (48 times), connotes the small landowners who because of their vulnerability105 often fell victim to political and/or economic exploitation at the hands of powerful.106 A third term, ⁽ ānî, is the most common term in the Hebrew Bible used to denote the “poor” (80 times). ⁽ Ānî107 means “humble, needy, or afflicted” by difficult circumstances and describes the economically exploited as well as the oppressed person.108 The fourth term, maḥsôr (13 times), primarily occurs in Proverbs and represents those who lack material goods.109 The fifth term is miskēn (4 times), found only in Ecclesiastes; it is a late Hebrew word meaning simply poor.110 The final term is rāš (22 times) and refers to the economically and politically inferior. It appears mainly in wisdom texts.111 This overview of the Hebrew words translated “poor” and “poverty” leads to two conclusions. First, the condition described denotes economic hardship and the lack of material resources. Second, the “poor” are also politically disadvantaged and often experience oppression.112 These are the quintessential characteristics of the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.

A recurrent theme in the Hebrew Bible pertinent to defining the “poor” involves care for the widow, orphan, and sojourner.113 The Law and the Prophets in particular single out these three groups as in need of special attention due to their position of vulnerability.114 The situations in which these groups found themselves normally were a result of inadvertent circumstances, and regularly their plight was permanent.115 The widow ( ⁾ almānâ) possessed no association, or kinship ties, with a male figure commonly held responsible for her maintenance (husband, father-in-law, brothers, or sons). In the absence of male kin, she lost her economic and social well-being and faced a life of alienation and poverty.116 The orphan’s (yātôm) circumstances were similar. A yātôm was fatherless and unable to support him/herself.117 Finally, the gēr118 identifies a resident immigrant given some protection under the law.119 Despite being able to work, the gēr’s predicament was one of uncertainty and vulnerability, often characterized by poverty, because he too had precarious links with the social structure.120 Taken together, these three groups constituted a subset of Israelite society dependent upon the goodwill and compassion of their neighbors and vulnerable to oppression.121

The English term “poor” fails to portray the array of nuances of the Hebrew words. “Poor” denotes primarily economic concepts. However, as demonstrated above, the various Hebrew terms allow a broader sphere of interpretation which includes economic, political, and social aspects. The words translated “poor”—exemplified by the widow, orphan, and sojourner—reflect the vast majority of the Israelite powerless. The lack of economic resources, social status, and respect, combined with vulnerability to exploitation and the inability to reverse the situation, comprise the full range of an individual’s “poverty” in Israel. In a few words, powerlessness and vulnerability describe the poor of the Hebrew Scriptures.122 Powerlessness caused the poor only to fall into deeper poverty. The ability to survive their vulnerable positions depended on the generosity of neighbors and their faithfulness to the Torah.

Nathan Bills is a ThD student at Duke Divinity School. His focus is in Old Testament, and he is particularly interested in the intersection of Old Testament theology, ecclesiology, and communities of poverty. After his program Nathan will serve on the Bible faculty of Lipscomb University, where he anticipates teaching and living in this intersection. You can contact Nathan at nbills80@gmail.com.


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1 For example, in a short prologue to his epic production, The Ten Commandments (1956), Cecil B. DeMille stresses freedom as the leitmotiv of the movie. Similarly, the DreamWorks animated blockbuster, The Prince of Egypt (1998), locates the climax at the crossing of the Red Sea. The movie soon concludes rather abruptly with the children awaiting Moses’ return from Mount Sinai, with no coverage of the events from the Red Sea to Sinai.

2 See for example Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), esp. ch. 9. J. David Pleins, The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2001), 156–78, provides a critical review of how the exodus narrative has been appropriated by liberation theologians.

3 Gutiérrez, xxv–xxviii; Daniel G. Groody, ed., The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

4 See the exchange between Jewish scholar Jon Levenson and liberationist Jorge Pixley in Alice Ogden Bellis and Joel S. Kaminsky, eds., Jews, Christians, and the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 8, (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), 215–46, for a window into some of the issues involved. See also Norbert F. Lohfink, Option for the Poor: The Basic Principle of Liberation Theology in the Light of the Bible, ed. Duane L. Christensen, trans. Linda M. Maloney, 2nd. ed. Berkeley Lecture Series 1 (North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL, 1995).

5 See Appendix A. I suggest that Israel’s ubiquitous concern for the underprivileged throughout her canon is best explained as a trajectory of the exodus.

6 For an introduction to this discussion, see F. Charles Fensham, “Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in Ancient Near Eastern Legal and Wisdom Literature,” JNES 21, no. 2 (April 1962): 129–39; Moshe Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995); Herbert Niehr, “The Constitutive Principles for Establishing Justice and Order in Northwest Semitic Societies with Special Reference to Ancient Israel and Judah,” ZABR (1997): 112–30. Most recently, David L. Baker, Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), has given extensive treatment of Israel’s laws on wealth and poverty in relationship to the ancient Near East.

7 The distinctiveness of Israel’s social ethics in her cultural milieu is a point of dispute among scholars. It is undeniable that Israel shared many of the “constitutive principles” of justice and righteousness with her neighbors (see previous note), but to what extent was her particular theology definitive for her practice? Many recent commentators are quite pessimistic that Israel’s social legislation represents much else than an ideological power struggle masquerading in the altruistic garb of religion (e.g., Pleins, Social Visions; Harold V. Bennett, Injustice Made Legal: Deuteronomic Law and the Plight of Widows, Strangers, and Orphans in Ancient Israel, The Bible in Its World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]. For a levelheaded attempt to exegete the complexity of motives behind various ethical texts, see Walter J. Houston, Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament, rev. ed. [New York: T&T Clark, 2008]). Often, such positions presuppose that the exodus and legal narratives are late, fictitious constructions.

For this paper I will presuppose that the historical texts relating the early history of Israel contain authentic, though heavily edited, information about the pre-monarchic era. My argument will provide evidence that it is sensible to trace Israel’s social ethics back to her historical experience in the exodus. Jon D. Levenson, “Poverty and the State in Biblical Thought,” Judaism 25, no. 2 (Spring 1976): 230, wisely contends that “the historical dimension is especially important, for, in the religion of Biblical Israel, history is the mother of theology.” He goes on to assert that Israel’s historical experience in the exodus was so formative for her traditions that where parallels exist between her norms and other societies, they “must not be confused.” Similarity of content between Israel’s laws and other ancient Near Eastern law collections is undeniable. What is contestable, though, is that Israel’s (self) understanding represents a fundamental and thereby substantially distinctive tradition in comparison to her contemporaries precisely because of her theology. My argument does not stand or fall with such dating. Rather, it seems reasonable from a canonical perspective to conclude that the compilers of the canon surely intended the exodus to be understood as a theological watershed event that shaped Israel and her subsequent legislation.

8 For a fuller treatment, see Appendix B.

9 All citations of the biblical text are taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

10 In this section I will only transliterate the lexical stems of words. In the Hebrew Bible the verb for cry (zā⁽ aq), which occurs here, and its nominal form (ṣĕ⁽ āqâ), which occurs in 3:7, frequently denote cries for help in the context of acute situations of injustice or suffering; see A. Konkel, “זָעַק ,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 3:827–30. As such it is usually a cry that is directed either implicitly or explicitly to someone who can provide relief. Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 93, notes that the lack of an inobject for the Israelite’s cry is unusual and “underscores the anguish of their situation and most likely their lack of knowledge of God.” For a comprehensive account of the “cry” in the Hebrew Bible, see Richard Nelson Boyce, The Cry to God in the Old Testament, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 103 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

11 In Exod 1:20 God is said to have dealt kindly with the midwives who opposed Pharaoh’s genocidal policy; but it is ambiguous whether the midwives are Israelite or Egyptian. For discussion see Dozeman.

12 In the Hebrew there is no object for the last verb, though most translations supply one. The reader is left to speculate what exactly God knew until God supplies an answer in 3:7.

13 God’s compassion for the cry against injustice is not necessarily a new development. God has already demonstrated a similar response to the crying out (ṣā⁽ aq) of Abel’s blood (Gen 4:10) and the outcry of injustice (ṣĕ⁽ āqâ) against the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:21; 19:13).

14 Terence E. Fretheim, “יָדַע,” NIDOTTE, 2:410–11. See also Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 60: “God does not look at the suffering from the outside as through a window; God knows it from the inside. God is internally related to the suffering, entering fully into the oppressive situation and making it God’s own.”

15 Bruce C. Birch, et al., A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 112. The authors’ words are worth noting: “Such a radical divine identification with human suffering and the plight of the dispossessed at the heart of Israel’s birth story makes understandable the constant return throughout the canon to themes of God’s special regard for the powerless, the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.”

16 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 180, identifies this as the “most radical of all of Israel’s testimony about Yahweh.”

17 A theme that I will not emphasize here but one that is heavily stressed (too heavily, in my opinion) by Leslie J. Hoppe, There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), esp. 18, 21–24 is that of the origin of poverty and oppression. The exodus roots Israel’s suffering in the choices of the powerful Pharaoh. Poverty, Hoppe believes, is consistently presented in the Bible as a result of the conscious decisions of the powerful. Thus, God’s actions in the exodus were also to teach the Israelites that poverty is maintained by the abuse of power and is not primarily a “natural” condition. God overcomes the Egyptian powers because they are built upon the unjust exercise of power by the privileged (cf. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination[Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978], 19ff.). Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2004), 169–71, gives a succinct overview of the causes of poverty in the Old Testament. He rightly observes that the Bible recognizes that poverty can have natural or self-inflicted causes, but that by far the most widespread cause is oppression.

18 Indeed, in language that seems almost out of place, God details the consequences for breaking this command: “If you do abuse them . . . my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (22:23–24).

19 Samuel E. Balentine, The Torah’s Vision of Worship, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 132–33.

20 Brueggemann, Theology, 184, 199, 611. Bernhard W. Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 148, asserts that the exodus and Sinai traditions belong together for this reason.

21 The Hebrew root is  ⁾ -b-d, perhaps better translated “perishing,” emphasizing the vulnerable nature of the ancestry of the Israelites.

22 Cf. Num 20:14–21.

23 Levenson, 231.

24 Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 174; italics original.

25 Ibid., 175.

26 Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, 16, notes the social reality to which Israel is called must have a theological origin to explain adequately its revolutionary character.

27 Brueggemann, Theology, 193. The cliché “God’s preferential option for the poor” used to summarize the Bible’s treatment of the poor overlooks God’s larger concern for justice. See Walter Vogels, “Biblical Theology for the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have-Nots,’ ” Science et Esprit 39 (1987): 192–210, for a thought-provoking suggestion that the conquest provides a way to talk about God on the side of the oppressor as well.

28 A point stressed by Brueggemann, Theology, 461–62. He cites four passages as evidence: Ezek 34:3–4, 14–16; Isa 58:6–7; Job 31:5–39; Ps 112:5, 9. Baker’s study demonstrates that Israel is much more “aggressive” in her pursuit of the community’s good (and particularly the good of its weaker members) than are her contemporaries.

29 Exhibit A is the commotion caused by Fox News pundit Glenn Beck’s outrageous claims that “social justice” was a code word for socialistic politics. A variety of responses from Christian leaders, which offers a window into the discussion in America, is conveniently gathered together at the web forum “On Faith” located at http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/2010/04/beck_vs_wallis_social_justice/all.html.

30 This is no small question, for what is at stake is how one understands the role of election of the Jewish people in the biblical drama. Jon Levenson rightly calls out interpretations that ignore the chosenness of Israel as anti-Jewish and effectively unbiblical (see his two essays, “Liberation Theology and the Exodus” and “The Perils of Engaged Scholarship: A Rejoiner to Jorge Pixley,” in Bellis and Kaminsky, 215–30 and 239–46, respectively). On the other hand, Pleins, Social Visions, 170–75, believes that fully appreciating the nationalistic dimensions of the text finally usurps any ability of the text to address contexts of social liberation. In my opinion, Pleins reads far too much of his own postmodern power ideology into the text to merit his conclusion, though he appropriately notes the nationalistic context present in the text. The issues are multiple here. For the purpose of this essay, I will only present a way to read Exodus that does not dismiss the chosenness of Israel, although admittedly does not deal fully with it either.

31 I am here borrowing language from the helpful discussion of Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 272–75. Wright points to Gen 18:20–21 as previous context in which the outcry against injustice causes God to act among a non-elect people. I might add that the covenant with Abraham is equally present in this text as well (vv. 18–19).

32 Though Amos 9:7 stunningly suggests that the exodus for Israel is not unique.

33 Wright, The Mission of God, 274. Wright briefly discusses other texts where the exodus motif is evoked as the background for God’s judgment against injustice both for and against Israel, and then concludes: “All these affirmations about God, made at the time of the exodus, are repeated elsewhere in universalizing contexts. So although the exodus stands as a unique and unrepeatable event in the history of the Old Testament Israel, it also stands as a paradigmatic and highly repeatable model for the way God wishes to act in the world, and will ultimately act for the whole creation” (275).

34 Fretheim, Exodus, 24–26.

35 There are other variants of this in 7:5; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 29.

36 Arguably, God’s first words to Israel at Sinai (Exod 19:4–6) couch Israel’s existence as a priestly people whose work is to mediate God’s blessings to the whole earth by becoming a distinctive counter community. By her practices Israel provides a paradigmatic picture of God’s intentions for the entire world. Granted, this centripetal movement is not at the forefront in Exodus (cf. Deut 4:6–8). However, Second Isaiah obviously saw in the exodus a pattern that could be extended and applied to the world stage. Isaiah explicitly calls Israel God’s “witness” to the nations of the transformation of the world (42:3–6; 49:6; 51:4–5; 55:4–5). I suggest that what Isaiah prophesied about Israel’s future is latent in Israel’s past experience of the exodus (see Lohfink, 53–58).

37 Fretheim, Exodus, 58–62. The Song of Moses (Exod 15) celebrates the exodus in such transhistorical terms. The historical events are magnified by cosmological language of creation. Cf. Pss 74:11–17; 89:8–13; Isa 51:9–11. On the “cosmologization” of the exodus, see Bernard F. Batto, Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), ch. 4.

38 Birch et al., 107. See Exod 9:14, 16.

39 Ibid., 120.

40 Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination, 17–18. He further states that an understanding of Israel in any terms other than a call to “alternative social reality” is wrongheaded.

41 Enrique Nardoni, Rise Up, O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World, trans. Seán Charles Martin (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 59–60: “By virtue of God’s presence, the Exodus event transcends its supposed facticity and becomes a foundational event, a memorial, and a paradigm of liberation. One might even say that the biblical Exodus is not a paradigm in itself, rather it is the application of a paradigm—the fight of the God of order against the power of chaos. Since the Exodus from Egypt is, however, the event par excellence that embodies the extension of creative action into history, one could say that it is paradigmatic for any possible later Exodus. In fact, the mythical battle that pervades the narrative gives it a suprahistorical dimension, and it makes it applicable to similar situations. Moreover, since the struggle is that of God the creator against the power of chaos and because all people come from the hands of the same creator, the lessons of Exodus can be extended to all people who suffer the tragedy of oppression in its diverse forms.”

42 See nn. 6 and 7 above.

43 Lohfink, 20.

44 Most recently, in his judicious and thorough treatment of the laws on wealth and poverty, Baker, esp. 307–15, demonstrates that while Israel’s laws overlap substantially with other ancient Near Eastern laws, Israel’s laws go beyond most other ancient Near Eastern collections particularly in the responsibility for humane treatment of the most vulnerable of society and the “rights” conferred on such individuals.

45 Lohfink, 32–33.

46 Exod 4:10; 5:15–16, 21; 7:10, 20, 28–29; 8:5, 7, 17, 20, 25, 27; 9:14, 20–21, 30, 34; 10:1, 6–7; 11:3, 8; 12:30, 44; 13:3, 14; 14:5, 31; 20:2, 10, 17; 21:2, 5, 7, 20, 26–27, 32; 32:13.

47 Exod 1:13–14; 3:12; 4:23; 5:18; 6:5; 7:16, 26; 8:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7–8, 11, 24, 26; 12:31; 13:5; 14:5, 12; 20:5, 9; 21:2, 6; 23:24–25, 33; 34:21.

48 Exod 1:14; 2:23; 5:9, 11; 6:6, 9; 12:25–26; 13:5; 27:19; 30:16; 35:21, 24; 36:1, 3, 5; 38:21; 39:32, 40, 42.

49 Interestingly, it is not until 7:16 that Moses makes this explicit request to Pharaoh. On his first visit Moses changes (softens? disguises?) the demand: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness’ ” (5:1). William H. C. Propp, Exodus 1–18: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale, 1999), 207, notes that there is evidence for Egyptians giving their workers week long vacations for religious holidays, so that Moses’ initial request could have sounded reasonable to Pharaoh (though Moses says nothing about a return).

50 Propp, 257, nicely accents the irony of 5:18: Pharaoh dismisses the complaining Israelites without compassion: “Go, work.” Pharaoh will utter that exact phrase when he finally gives in to Moses’ full demands: “Go, worship” (12:31).

51 Donald E. Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1998), 137.

52 Fretheim, Exodus, 163–64.

53 Wright, Mission of God, 270.

54 Pleins, Social Visions, 162.

55 Ellen F. Davis, “Slaves or Sabbath Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” ATR 83 (2001). See Balentine, ch. 5, for an astute discussion on the relationship of Sabbath, creation, and worship. In a personal communication, Dr. Davis also pointed out to me that it is significant that the slaves of Israel’s community were specifically included in the Sabbath legislation (Exod 23:12).

56 Davis, 83.

57 See Balentine, 136–41.

58 To take one example of how a liberationist-centered interpretation of Exodus is shortsighted, Gutiérrez’s reading fails to see that one of its principal concerns, namely, a liberated Israel who can freely “shape their own political destiny,” finds in the construction of the tabernacle the epitome of such a “world building” activity (35:20–36:8).

59 The interplay of worship and service should cause us to hesitate with categories that bifurcate the focus of God’s salvation. For example, the dichotomization of mission into spiritual or physical, soul or body, is an unhelpful way to frame mission talk because it is finally unbiblical.

60 On the issue of the Old Testament’s contribution to missional practice more generally, it is widely recognized that David Bosch’s seminal Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), gives scant attention to the Old Testament as a resource for missional theology. Unfortunately, his approach is largely illustrative of the discipline as a whole; see the discussion of Stephen B. Chapman and Laceye C. Warner, “Jonah and the Imitation of God: Rethinking Evangelism and the Old Testament,” Journal for Theological Interpretation 2 (2008): 43–51. More than anyone else, Chris Wright’s 2006 volume, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, is moving the Old Testament back into the center of the conversation. I heartily recommend his chapters on Exodus and Jubilee as a place to begin re-envisioning how the Old Testament proves most fertile for a theology of mission.

61 Several recent book-length studies survey the immense breadth of this theme in Scripture: Pleins, Social Visions; Hoppe; Nardoni; Bruce V. Malchow, Social Justice in the Hebrew Bible: What is New and What is Old (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996). A succinct article length treatment is provided by Mignon R. Jacobs, “Toward an Old Testament Theology of Concern for the Underprivileged,” in Reading the Hebrew Bible for a New Millennium: Form, Concept, and Theological Perspective, ed. Wonil Kim et al., Studies in Antiquity and Christianity (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 1:205–29.

62 The Book of the Covenant (Exod 21–23), the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 12–26), and the Holiness Code (Lev 17–26) constitute the three basic law collections of Israel. The most thorough study on this issue is Baker.

63 See Martin J. Selman, “Law” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 500–8, for an overview of the different opinions regarding the origins of the law collections.

64 Richard D. Patterson, “The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor in the Old Testament and Extra-Biblical Literature,” BSac 130, no. 519 (July–September 1973): 228.

65 This summary follows the succinct work of Malchow, “Social Justice in Israelite Law Codes,” WW 4, no. 3 (Summer 1984): 302–5.

66 Some of these Scripture citations do not specifically mention the poor, but the cry for fair justice nevertheless applies to such people. Moreover, the commands are likely directed to such situations because of life’s exigencies which render people vulnerable socially and economically (cf. Donald E. Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty in the Old Testament: The Case of the Widow, the Orphan, and the Sojourner,” Interpretation 41, no. 4 [October 1987]: 350).

67 For a discussion on the institution and practice of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years with different conclusions, see Stephen A. Kaufman, “A Reconstruction of the Social Welfare Systems of Ancient Israel,” in In the Shelter of Elyon: Essays on Ancient Palestinian Life and Literature in Honour of G. W. Ahlström, ed. W. Boyd Barrick and John R. Spencer, JSOT Supplement Series 31 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1984), 278–84; Baker, 77–94, 223–32; Houston, Contending for Justice, 191–204.

68 Brueggemann, Theology, 190; cf. Houston, Contending for Justice, 195–203.

69 C. G. Moucarry, “The Alien According to Torah,” Themelios, n.s., 14 (October–November 1988): 17–18; Mark Sneed, “Israelite Concern for the Alien, Orphan, and Widow: Altruism or Ideology?” Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 111, no. 4 (1999): 504. Christiana van Houten, The Alien in Israelite Law, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991): 161, says the evidence is not clear enough to determine if all sojourners were used for such projects. See her discussion on 158–78 for relevant information.

70 Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 10:18–19; 24:17.

71 Baker, 177, remarks that the ancient Near Eastern texts show no comparable interest in the sojourner.

72 John T. Willis, “Old Testament Foundations of Social Justice,” Restoration Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1975): 77.

73 Levenson, 236. He states succinctly that Israel is “fond of the poor, so fond as to be committed to their disappearance.” Houston, Contending for Justice, 180–88, sees a contradiction in this passage.

74 Houston, Contending for Justice, 180–88.

75 See Jeffries M. Hamilton, Social Justice and Deuteronomy: The Case for Deuteronomy 15, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 136 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 135. His treatment of Deut 15 (pp. 99–138) is especially valuable in relating the exodus to the care for the poor (133), but is more significant in showing the centrality of Deut 15 to Israel’s testimony to Yhwh’s rule in the community. See additionally Brueggemann, Theology, 188, for commentary on the exodus paradigm in this passage.

76 The Jewish canon includes Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings under the rubric of the Prophets. These books comprise the Former Prophets, and the Major and Minor Prophets (in the Protestant canon) comprise the Latter Prophets. J. David Pleins, “Poor, Poverty (OT),” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:413, notes that these narratives exhibit little interests in the social issues concerning the poor. The lack of vocabulary for the “poor” in these books leads him to this conclusion. He is right to conclude these narratives are less interested in the plight of the poor; but their interest in critiquing the kingship and subsequent foreign invasion is surely related (if not central) to understanding the concern over social issues related in the Latter Prophets. Furthermore, the Former Prophets are not completely silent on the issue. See 1 Sam 2:4–8; 8:3; 12:3–4; 2 Sam 11–12 (the David and Bathsheba narrative is a story about, among other matters, the abuse of power); 1 Kgs 17:8–16; 21:1–21; 22:1–28; 2 Kgs 4:1–7. Hoppe, 42, is closer to the mark: “If one focuses on the number of times words for ‘the poor’ appear in the Deuteronomistic History, one could conclude that the oppression of the poor and the need for a just society were not part of the Deuteronomist’s agenda. But that would be to misjudge the writer who wished to tell the story of how Israel acquired and then lost the land. What happened to the poor and the oppressed is at the heart of that story.” See his discussion on 42–67.

77 Stuart Love, “Failing to Do Justice: The Quandary of the Poor in Eighth Century Israel and Judah,” Leaven 1, no. 2 (1990): 11–12.

78 For an overview of different theories/models of the ancient social context that gave rise to the oppression, see Houston, Contending for Justice, ch. 2.

79 Amos 2:6–8; 3:9–10; 4:1; 5:7–12, 14–15, 24; 6:12; 8:4–6; Hos 4:2; 7:3–7, 16; 8:4–10; 10:6–15; 12:7; 13:10; Isa 1:17, 21–23; 3:14–15; 5:7–23; 10:1–27; Mic 2:1–5, 8–9; 3:1–3, 9–11; 6:8, 10–12; 7:3. This summary of verses follows Love, 13. Other prophets also have much to say about the plight of the poor. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel offer much on the subject, although they speak from different time periods. Their message concerning social justice is in harmony with the eighth century prophets. See, for example, Jer 5:26–29; 7:4–16; 22:2–3, 13–17; Ezek 18:5–9; 22:7–12. Cf. Houston, Contending for Justice, ch. 3.

80 Weinfeld, 8. See Ezek 18.

81 Gowan, Prophetic Books, 10. Ronald E. Clements, Prophecy and Tradition, Growing Points in Theology (Atlanta: John Knox: 1975), 55–56, says that the traditional view of the prophet was as a “spokesman of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel,” although he states that the eighth century prophets are silent on the issue of covenant. On the contrary, Anderson, 181, notes the covenantal language of these books leaves little doubt that they worked out of a covenantal understanding. See Amos 2:4; 3:1–2; Hos 1:9; 8:1; 11:1; 12:9, 13; 13:4; Jer 2:4–6, 8; 7:5–7. Cf. Houston, Contending for Justice, 93.

82 See, e.g., Amos 2:8; 5:12; Hos 12:7, Isa 5:23; 10:1–2; Mic 3: 9–11; 6:10–11.

83 Brueggemann, Theology, 645.

84 Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 341, calls attention to this text.

85 Malchow, Social Justice, 47.

86 Rick R. Marrs, “Worship and Social Responsibility in the Psalms,” Leaven 1, no. 2 (1990): 6.

87 Malchow, Social Justice, 55. Many other psalms speak of the righteous activity of people who are imitating the character of God. See Pss 9:7–9, 16–18; 10:14, 17–18; 12:6; 15:5; 22:5; 35:10; 37:21; 40:17; 72:1–4,12–14; 82; 86:1–7, 15–16; 94:1–6, 15–17; 99:4; 102:17; 111:5; 113:7; 132:15–16; 146:7–9.

88 For example, Pss 10:14, 17–18; 34:7; 86:1–2; 140:12. Temba L. J. Mafico, “Just, Justice,” in ABD, 3:127–129.

89 McPolin, “Psalms as Prayers of the Poor,” in Back to the Sources: Biblical and Near Eastern Studies, ed. Kevin J. Cathcart and John F. Healey (Dublin: Glendale, 1989), 80.

90 These include economic disparity, political oppression, affliction, etc.

91 Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, trans. Keith Crim (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 188–93.

92 Marrs, 9.

93 Walter J. Houston, “The King’s Preferential Option for the Poor: Rhetoric, Ideology and Ethics in Psalm 72,” BI 7, no. 4 (October 1999): 560, states that Psalm 72 harmonizes the interest of the kingship and the poor, but only at the expense of abolishing the doctrine of the divine right of kings. In other words, the psalm is no longer a text “intended to validate [the king’s] rule” as some scholars, who want to see only an elitist rhetoric in the appeal to do justice, would maintain. Rather, the text “becomes, because of its ethical foundations, a warning or challenge” to the king’s right to reign.

94 For a good example of how a psalm calls Israel into this understanding, see Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms 9–10: A Counter to Conventional Social Reality,” in The Bible and the Politics of Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Norman K. Gottwald on His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. David Jobling, Peggy L. Day, and Gerald T. Sheppard (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1991), 3–15.

95 Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes comprise Israel’s Wisdom literature. This discussion will revolve around Proverbs, but significant passages in Job and Ecclesiastes include Job 22:5–7; 29:11–17; 31:16–22; Eccl 4:1; 7:7.

96 Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 124. Murphy states that “the covenant relationship to the Lord does not figure in directly in the wisdom experience; it is bracketed, but not erased.” See chapter 8 for his fuller treatment. Anderson, 260, says that the sources of wisdom included the Torah. See Jer 8:8; 18:18.

97 Pleins, ABD 5:413, asserts that the parts of the Wisdom literature (Proverbs in particular) present a “divergent position,” reflecting an elitist tradition that regarded the laziness or judgment of God as the source of the condition of the poor (Prov 10:4; 13:18; 19:15). Roger N. Whybray, “Poverty, Wealth, and Point of View in Proverbs,” ET 100, no. 9 (June 1989): 332–36, questions this conclusion. He defends the view that the Proverbs offer a consistent view of the poor throughout.

98 In this way Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 348, explains the proverbs that seem to say the condition of the poor is deserved. These proverbs are not justifying the conditions but encouraging diligence to stay out of such circumstances. This observation is in harmony with the Wisdom literature’s overall emphasis on daily life. Hoppe, 104–8, points to the elitist origin of much of Proverbs as the reason for its particular take on the poor. Proverbs that appear to blame the poor are better understood as warnings to sons of the wealthy against sloth and foolishness with resources.

99 Prov 11:24; 19:17; 22:9; 28:27.

100 Prov 13:23; 16:11; 19:5, 9, 28; 20:10, 23; 21:28; 22:22; 24:23–26; 28:21; 29:7, 14; 31:8–9.

101 Prov 11:1; 14:31; 15:25; 17:5; 19:17; 22:2, 22–23; 29:13.

102 Whybray, 335.

103 This analysis follows the work of Pleins, ABD 5:402–14. The order of words discussed corresponds to his treatment with the exception of the placement of ⁽ ānî. Also, the texts cited for each word usage are representative, not comprehensive.

104 Exod 23:6, 11; Deut 15:4, 7, 11; Isa 25:4; 29:19; Jer 2:34; 5:28; Amos 5:12, 8:4; Pss 9:19; 72:4; 107:41; 109:16; Prov 31:20; Job 24:14; 29:16; 31:19. Pleins, ABD 5:403–405; W. R. Domeris, “אֶכְיוֹן,” in NIDOTTE, 1:228. Every genre includes the word; however, it is rare in the Wisdom literature. The word further connotes an undernourished, economically deprived individual.

105 Several factors besides the aggressive agenda of the greedy or covetous resulted in vulnerability. See Ronald E. Clements, “Poverty and the Kingdom of God—An Old Testament View,” in The Kingdom of God and Human Society, ed. Robin S. Barbour (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 13–17, for a discussion about poverty in light of the agricultural practices of that time.

106 Exod 23:23; 30:15; Lev 14:21; 19:15; Isa 10:2; 14:30; Jer 5:4; 39:10; Amos 4:1; 8:6; Zeph 3:12; Pss 41:2; 82:3; 113:7; Prov 14:31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:16; Job 20:10, 19; 31:16; 19:10. Pleins, ABD 5:405–7, notes that dal is a preferred word in the Wisdom literature. M. Daniel Carroll R., “דָּלַל,” NIDOTTE, 1:951–54, states that the Bible does not regard the dal as completely destitute, supporting the understanding that the dal is a poor peasant farmer.

107 Recent discussion over this word centers around its relationship to both ⁽ ānāw and its plural form ⁽ ānāwim; see Pleins, ABD 5:413–14; W. J. Dumbrell, “עָנָו,” in NIDOTTE, 3:454–56; Marrs, 7; Susan Gillingham, “The Poor in the Psalms,” ET 100, no. 1 (October 1988): 18; McPolin, 92–97. Some have postulated that the ⁽ ānāwim (particularly in the Psalms) denotes a pious political movement among Israel’s poor. Others believe ⁽ ānāwim is simply the plural form of ⁽ ānî /⁽ ānāw and reflects a socio-economic understanding of the term. The former argument finds support only if the relationship between ⁽ ānî and ⁽ ānāw is distanced, leaving room to define ⁽ ānāw in a metaphorical sense of humbleness with no connection to physical circumstances. However, the majority of texts suggest ⁽ ānî and ⁽ ānāw derive from the same root. Furthermore, the contexts in which ⁽ ānāw and ⁽ ānāwim occur (when read in light of ⁽ ānî texts) customarily envision an authentic distress or need. The Psalter occasionally uses these words to refer to a spiritualized poverty. In some cases, the poor in the Psalms are those who recognize their abject neediness before God. However, on the whole the word’s socio-economic nuance is to be preferred. See Hoppe, 128–29.

108 Deut 24:12, 14; Isa 10:30; 14:32; 41:17; Amos 8:4; Zech 11:7; 9:9; Pss 25:16; 35:10; 37:14; 40:18; 68:11; 70:6; 86:1; 109:16; Prov 30:14; 31:9; Job 34:28; 36:6. Dumbrell, NIDOTTE 3:454, connects ⁽ ānî with physical disability, but Pleins, ABD 5:408, stresses the concept of oppression. Deut 27:18 and Lev 19:14 are two texts that specifically address the physically disabled. ⁽ Ānî, dal, and  ⁾ ebyôn constitute most of the language used for the poor in the Hebrew Bible except for the Wisdom literature (see discussion above).

109 Prov 6:11; 11:24; 14:23; 21:5; 22:16; 24:34. Pleins, ABD 5:407, distinguishes it as a wisdom term and declares that its usage in Proverbs reflects self-inflicted poverty as a result of laziness or excessive living.

110 Eccl 4:13; 9:13–16. Pleins, ABD 5:407.

111 Prov 13:23; 14:20; 18:23; 19:1; 19:7; 28:3; Eccl, 4:14; 5:7. Pleins, ABD 5:407–8.

112 Pleins, ABD 5:402. J. Emmette Weir, “The Poor are Powerless: A Response to R. J. Coggins,” ET 100, no. 1 (October 1988): 13 notes that these two situations are related. In addition, even though nearly all the language insinuates economic and/or political categories, the factors of honor and shame also underlie thoughts about poverty (T. R. Hobbs, “Reflections on ‘The Poor’ and the Old Testament,” Expository Times 100, no. 8 [May 1989]: 293). This observation opens another discussion, but is mentioned in passing here to point out that not only did the poor contend with harsh realities of life, they also faced social distresses of which the Western world knows very little. On a similar note, McPolin, 88, comments that initially the poor in Israel suffered largely in economic terms. However, with the change in social, economic, and political structures, the powerful began equating economic inferiority with social inferiority.

113 For an overview see Patterson; Baker, ch. 7. There are thirty cases in which widow and orphan appear together and eighteen instances when all three appear. For example Deut 10:18; 24:17–22; Pss 94:6; 146:9; Jer 7:6; 22:23; Mal 3:5.

114 See, for instance, in the Torah: Exod 22:21–24; 23:9; Lev 19:10, 33; 23:22; Deut 16:11; 14:29; 24:17–22; and in the Prophets: Isa 1:23; 10:1–2; Jer 7:1–14; Ezek 22:6–7, 25, 29; Zech 7:9–10.

115 Clements, “Poverty and the Kingdom,” 14–16. H. Eberhard von Waldow, “Social Responsibility and Social Structure in Early Israel,” CBQ 32, no. 2 (April 1970): 185–87, maintains that these persons did not enjoy the security of a natural kinship group. Thus, the law provided measures to aid these situations. But Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 347, notes the law assumed that such people worked to alleviate their harsh circumstances—they just needed regular assistance and protection.

H. G. M. Williamson, “The Old Testament and the Material World,” EQ 57 (January 1985): 16, remarks that “Israel’s law, her instruction literature and her prophetic writers are deeply influenced by her understanding of society which works for the benefit of the poorest rather than the most privileged.” On the more general discussion of welfare measures in ancient Israel, see Baker; Kaufman, 277–86.

116 C. van Leeuwen, “אַלְמָנָה ,” in NIDOTTE, 1:413–14; Paula S. Hiebert, “ ‘Whence Shall Help Come to Me?’: The Biblical Widow,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy L. Day (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 137. There has been some discussion over whether or not a widow did own property. Hiebert makes clear that although property ownership for a widow was possible, it by no means could have supported her.

117 V. Hamilton, “יָתוֹם,” in NIDOTTE, 2:570; Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 346; Johan Renkema, “Does Hebrew ytwm Really Mean Fatherless?” VT 45, no. 1 (January 1995): 119–22, argues that an orphan has lost both father and mother.

118gēr can be translated alien, stranger, or sojourner. The precise identification of the gēr has been subject to much debate (see Baker, 178–82). The Hebrew word tôšāb more appropriately fits the designation of alien in our sense. The tôšāb is less integrated into society than the gēr; for example, the tôšāb cannot celebrate Passover (Exod 12:45). It occurs 14 times, half of which are in Leviticus 25. See A. Konkel, “תּוֹשָׁב,” in NIDOTTE, 4:248.

119 A. Konkel, “גּוּר,” in NIDOTTE, 1:836, says he is “generally in the service of an Israelite.” Some laws pertaining to the gēr are Deut 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:14; Lev 17:8–16; 19:10; 24:22; 25:6. Also see Moucarry, 17–20.

120 Baker, 188, lists two: they own no land and have no family network.

121 Sneed, 500, believes these categories constitute the “worst of the worst.” He notes that the frequent inclusion of the general “poor” with the triadic formula, widow, orphan, sojourner, indicates that these three groups represented the “poor par excellence.”

122 For similar conclusions, see James Limburg, The Prophets and the Powerless (Atlanta: John Knox, 1971), 25–38; Gowan, “Wealth and Poverty,” 344; Whybray, 334; Weir, 13–15.