Proverbs 29:7 says, “A righteous person knows the rights of the poor; a wicked person does not understand such knowledge.” Unfortunately, because these rights were clearly understood by God’s people at the time, God did not spell them out in writing for us.(And even if God did spell out these rights, would we be willing to accept what God said to people in the Late Bronze Age? Or would we dismiss what God said to them on the grounds that times have changed?)
While God did not spell out an explicit list of the rights that the writer of Proverbs 29:7 had in mind, I have recently come to believe that we can identify some of those rights in Deuteronomy 23 and 24. Here are just a few:
1. Exod 22:25, Lev 25:35-37, and Deut 23:19-20 all forbid charging interest to a fellow Israelite who is financially destitute. These verses do not forbid commercial loans. That’s why it was OK to charge interest to non-Israelites; such loans would always be commercial loans. What God forbids is charging interest on food or necessities, making profit off of a fellow Israelite’s poverty.
2. In Deut 24:6, God makes it illegal to require anything vital for survival as collateral to be repossessed, particularly their means of production. Today, a car might fit this definition.
3. In Deut 24:10-13, God protects the privacy of the poor by forbidding the creditor to enter a house to obtain collateral. God also makes it difficult to use the coat or bed in which one sleeps for collateral (see also Exod 22:26-27).
4. Deut 24:14-15 – Withholding wages is another forbidden means of violating the rights of the poor. See also Lev 19:13: “The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until morning.” Deadbeat employers steal their employees’ labor this way. Deadbeat corporations steal the use of their suppliers’ money this way. Even Rushdoony the theonomist writes, “Work must be promptly paid, or it is theft and should be prosecuted as such.”
5. Deut 24:17, Exod 22:21, and Lev 19:33 all remind us not to oppress the alien or the orphan, depriving them of justice. The meaning of “oppression,” which is best described as “coercion” or abuse of power, will be discussed in my next blog. Israel’s experience in Egypt is cited in the Torah as a prime example of oppression. And only in Deut 24:17 is the widow’s garment explicitly forbidden as collateral.
6. Deut 24:19-21 – Leaving part of the harvest for the poor is also in the Holiness Code (Lev 19:9-10, 23:22). It was a way of giving the poor a chance to harvest for themselves. It required generosity on the part of the landowner, and offered productive work for those who were in need. The salvaging of unwanted food from supermarkets and restaurants to feed the poor, the salvaging of clothes and other goods by resale stores, and the salvaging of recyclables from trash, can all claim Biblical precedent in this law. But the heart of this law is the requirement that the producer of food set aside part of his potential profit so that those in need who were willing to labor for it could also earn their living.
Did the poor have other rights that have not been spelled out in the Hebrew Bible? We have no way of knowing for sure, and we must be careful about adding rights to this list without sufficient Scriptural warrant. But these commands are enough for starters. They give us examples of God’s passion for justice expressed in specific actions.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 28 years, is currently serving at First Church in Herrin, Ill., and as an adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill.