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Make poverty history? – understanding Deuteronomy 15

August 2005 | by D. A. Carson

One of the striking features of the many passages in Deuteronomy that describe what life should have been like once the people of Israel had entered the Promised Land is the tension between what is held out as the ideal and what would prove to be the reality.

Thus, on the one hand, the people are told that ‘there should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today’ (Deuteronomy 15:4-5).

On the other hand, the same chapter frankly acknowledges, ‘there will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land’ (15:11).

Poverty trap

The former passage, that declares ‘there should be no poor among you’, is grounded in two things – the sheer abundance of the land (a sign of covenantal blessing) and the civil laws God wants imposed so as to eliminate any form of the wretched ‘poverty trap’.

These laws included the cancellation of debts every seven years – a shocking proposal to our modern ears (15:1-11). There is even a warning about harbouring the ‘wicked thought’ of refusing to lend to others in the run-up to the seventh year because the lender knew the debt was unlikely to be repaid (15:8-10).

The extent to which these idealistic statutes were ever enacted is disputed. There is very little evidence that they became widely observed public law in the Promised Land. Thus the second passage, that ‘there will always be poor people in the land’ is inevitable.

It reflects the grim reality that no economic system can guarantee the abolition of poverty because all such systems are operated by -human beings – human beings who are greedy, human beings who will keep tweaking and eventually perverting the system for personal advantage.

Realistic

This is not to suggest that all economic systems are equally good or equally bad. Transparently, that is not so. Nor is it to suggest that legislators should not constantly work to correct the system and fill loopholes that encourage -corruption.

But it is to suggest that the Bible is painfully realistic about the impossibility of any utopia, economic or otherwise, in this fallen world. Moreover, on occasions, the Israelites would become so corrupt, both within the economic arena and beyond it, that God would withhold his blessing from the land.

For instance, the rain might be withheld (as in the days of Elijah). And then the land itself would not be able to support all the people living there.

Hence the insistence that there will always be poor people – a point that Jesus reiterates in Matthew 26:11. This is not a surreptitious fatalism, but rather an appeal for open-handed generosity.

Source: For the love of God by D. A. Carson (IVP, ISBN 0-85111589-6). This extract quoted in Irish Baptist Life July/August 2005.