Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009. 411 pp. $36.00.
Some may remember the opening decade of the 21st century as the time when many churches turned wholeheartedly toward helping the poor. Young missionaries flocked to the poverty stricken areas of the majority world, new congregations popped up in blighted neighborhoods of American inner cities, and workers sprinted to every major disaster area. While this development gives me great satisfaction, I sense that our practice of mercy has outdistanced our theology. Whenever I preach or teach about the biblical call to justice, too many people continue to respond by saying, “That’s the first sermon or class I’ve ever heard about the poor.” Our theology of justice should motivate and define our practice.
David L. Baker addresses this exact issue. After years of living among the poor in Indonesia, with academic training in the Old Testament, and now working as senior lecturer in Old Testament at Trinity Theological College in Perth, Australia, Baker focuses on what the Pentateuchal laws say about wealth and poverty within the ancient Near Eastern context.
He takes a canonical approach which offers a common ground for those with a variety of views on Scripture. He limits the work to the Pentateuch. Given the assumption that the entire Bible has a consistent view of a just God, what we learn about the theology of wealth and poverty in the law could serve as a foundation for all that the Bible says on the subject.
Baker follows a distinct pattern. After a brief introduction to each category of law relating to wealth and poverty, he presents how the 16 extant ancient Near Eastern non-biblical law codes treat that category of law before turning to the biblical material. In each section, a conclusion summarizes the data and draws limited implications.
Baker’s volume is noteworthy for its range of coverage. His work is exhaustive: comprehensive in its identification of biblical laws relating to wealth and poverty, meticulous in finding corollary laws in the non-biblical codes, and thorough in citing the secondary literature (the bibliography runs 53 pages). Baker clearly provides the reader with the raw data.
By this raw data, Baker affirms the claim of Deut 4:8 that the Mosaic laws are more just than those of Israel’s neighbors. For example, biblical law penalizes lawbreakers less frequently with mutilation, beating, or death than the ancient Near Eastern laws. The biblical laws are more just than the other codes in these ways: they more often protect the vulnerable, more frequently favor the poor who borrow or rent over the rich who own, more equally apply to all members of the community, and more often are rooted in concern for a just community over economic protection of the wealthy. Additionally, Baker finds few or no laws in the ancient world outside Scripture that prohibit coveting, protect resident aliens, call for a Sabbatical Year, provide for gleaning, regulate tithing, permit scrumping, demand judicial impartiality, or designate holidays for rest. Each of these biblical laws has distinct implications for the community’s most vulnerable people.
Despite this remarkable achievement, Baker leaves much unsaid. First, the volume does not explain the structure of the study. The book is organized into three broad categories of “Property and Land,” “Marginal People,” and “Justice and Generosity,” each with multiple sub points, yet there is no explanation about why these categories were chosen or how they function in comprehensively describing Israel’s laws on wealth and poverty.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, some of the presentations end abruptly without drawing out the implications for a theology of justice. On occasion Baker does synthesize and theologize, showing that he recognizes the significance of moving beyond the data, but there is no consistency to these moves or attempt to provide a comprehensive theological view based on the laws about the poor.
His treatment of slavery illustrates both the achievements and the shortcomings of this work. The biblical and non-biblical laws differ radically on the matter of fugitive slaves. The ancient world obligated all citizens to return a fugitive slave while the Pentateuch commanded Israelites to provide hospitality and refuge. The ancient Near Eastern laws about slaves rested on economic concerns, while the biblical laws grew out of the value of human life. This compassion toward slaves recalled Israel’s own slavery in Egypt. He argues that fixed-term slavery in Israel would be roughly the same as paid employment today. Baker helpfully explains the various kinds of slavery implied in the biblical laws. These kinds of significant insights are too infrequent in this volume, and even these are never stitched into a visualized whole.
For instance, Baker draws attention to how the biblical laws allow fugitive slaves freedom to determine where they are to live. He notes that generally the Old Testament laws provided this choice to those at the margins of society, not the elite (David and Solomon must live in Jerusalem). Given one definition of poverty as the lack of choices, this is a striking revelation, but Baker stops short of such implications.
In another case, he argues that the ancient world was not ready for a ban on slavery any more than the contemporary world, which statistically has more enslaved people than any other point in history. However, Baker makes no attempt to process this remarkable conclusion. The reader often wishes for another paragraph or two that reflects theologically on the justice implications of these laws.
Baker’s volume provides the valuable raw material for constructing a comprehensive theology of justice and in a way reminds us that much work remains to be done. Contemporary Christians seemingly willing to go anywhere or do anything to help the poor would do well to ponder the implications of the Old Testament laws about the marginal and, in that reflection, find biblical motivations for going and theologically sound goals to accomplish.
Professor of Old Testament
Oklahoma Christian University
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA
Dr. Shank has written broadly on the topic of social justice. A bibliography of his work appears at http://www.haroldshank.com.