Yahweh’s Covenant and Call – Moral Economy Series Part 2

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), there is witness and testimony that poverty and oppression factor significantly in the sin and brokenness of the world. Because of this, God demands justice for the poor and oppressed as part of the reconciliation that must occur.

God’s sense of justice for the world began with creation as the world was created to be just – a world where poverty and oppression do not exist. God longs for this justice from humankind that has distorted God’s vision and purpose for the world. God hears the cries of the afflicted and oppressed and calls on faithful human agents to work for God’s justice.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:7-8a, 9-10 NRSV)

The Israelites were an impoverished and oppressed people on account of their enslavement by Pharaoh in Egypt. God sees the suffering and hears their cries and calls Moses to lead them out of poverty and oppression. God assures the Israelites that in their deliverance that: I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. (Exodus 6:7a). With Moses as God’s human agent, God delivers the Israelites out of their bondage.

On their journey in the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai, God sends manna (bread) from heaven to provide daily food and establish communal patterns for the Israelites. God commands that the food be gathered according to need so that no one goes without:

This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omeri to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents. The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. (Exodus 16:17-18 NRSV)

God demands equitable distribution of the daily provision of bread. What is provided and available to all is intended to meet the needs of all.

When the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, God establishes a covenant with them (Exodus 20:1-17, 22-23:33). As an example of humanity’s purpose being created in the image of God, God demands that his people imitate God (Exodus 22:20-22; cf. Jeremiah 34:8-14). Explicit in this covenant is concern for the vulnerable in society (the poor, widows, orphans, resident aliens) that they not be oppressed (Exodus 22:21-22). God also demands reciprocity with the poor (Exodus 22:25) and that the people do not pervert the justice of the poor (Exodus 23:6).

The Sinai covenant establishes a community of reciprocity where God demands distributive justice – the redistribution of wealth and power so all have enough.ii In the gospels, Jesus insists on a socio-political-economic structure based on a system of reciprocity rooted in God’s distributive justice. Walter Brueggemann comments:

It is fair to say that given its subsequent exposition through time, the Exodus event and the Sinai structure do indeed witness to Yahweh’s preferential option for the poor, the weak, and marginated…The intention of Mosaic justice is to redistribute social goods and social power; thus it is distributive justice. This justice recognizes that social goods and social power are unequally and destructively distributed in Israel’s world (and derivatively in any social context), and that the well-being of the community requires that social goods and power to some extent be given up by those who have to much, for the sake of those who have not enough.iii

Israel’s testimony is that all members of society must benefit from God’s resources and no one is to be left without necessary provisions of life and dignity. God creates a covenant and expects justice from his people.

The covenant holds true throughout the Old Testament. We see this in Leviticus and Deuteronomy with the practice of Jubileeiv (Deut. 15:1-11; Leviticus 25) as a release from oppressive debt that saw the loss of ancestral land and enslavement of family – therefore robbing people of their inherent rights, dignity, and the means essential for their livelihood. Leviticus 25 was the inspiration of the Jubilee 2000 Campaign – that achieved some significant reductions in crushing developing world debt. The biblical tradition of Jubilee remains a central theme in the call to complete debt relief for impoverished nations so investments can be made in food, health, education, and infrastructure.

i  An omer is a dry measure equaling three-fifths of a bushel, source: Paul J. Achtemeier, General Editor, HarperCollins’ Bible Dictionary,(San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 784.
ii Numerous biblical scholars have presented discussions on distributive justice. I have benefited greatly from Walter Brueggemann’s discussion in Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997). Other significant sources on the topic include: Rolf P. Knierim, The Task of Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 86-122, and Moseh Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995).
iii Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 736.

iv Jubilee is the fiftieth year at the end of seven cycles of seven years each, in which all land was returned to ancestral owners and all Israelite slaves were set free. The Jubilee year is most notably described in Leviticus 25. The teachings on the Jubilee year are the basis for the movements to cancel the crushing burden of developing world debts (most notably the Jubilee 2000 campaign at the beginning of the new millennium in 2000).

About the Moral Economy Series

The Moral Economy Series looks at the faith tradition of proclaiming economic justice, economics’s roots in moral philosophy, and how we might restore a sense of ethical economics toward building a moral economy that works for all. The Rev. Jay Lawlor draws on over twenty years of exploring the intersection of faith and economics in this new blog series on the Moral Economy. You can follow the Rev. Jay Lawlor’s blog – including the Moral Economy Series, by subscribing to updates via email, and/or following post updates on Facebook, and Twitter.