YHWH, the God of Israel, Doesn’t Just Command Charity for the Poor
In an agrarian, subsistence economy like that of ancient Israel, individual families were bound to fall on hard times occasionally. One way that communities could mitigate this risk was through a principle that anthropologists call reciprocity—the idea that if you helped a friend in need during good times, it was expected that this same friend would help you when the wheel of fortune turned. In this view, generosity was wholly rational and contained an element of self-interest.
This principle underlies biblical commands to lend (at no interest) to your neighbor when he or she suffers from a period of financial austerity. Perhaps the best-known expression of this obligation is found in Deuteronomy:
דברים טו:ז כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן. טו:ח כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.
Deut 15:7 If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that YHWH your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. 15:8 Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.
What happens, however, when one gives to the truly indigent, who may never be able to reciprocate the favor?
Midrash Tannaim (3rd century C.E.) has a Greco-Roman philosopher ask this question of Rabbi Gamliel:
מדרש תנאים על ספר דברים טו:י שאל פלסופוס אחד את רבן גמליאל אמר לו כת' בתורתכם נתן תתן לו ולא ירע לב' בת' לו (דברים טו י) וכי יש לך אדם שהוא מבזבז נכסיו לאחרים ואין לבו רע עליו שמא יצטרך לבריות.
Midrash Tannaim on Deut 15:10 A certain philosopher asked a question of R. Gamliel. He said to him, “It is written in your Torah: ‘Give to (your needy kinsman) readily and have no regrets when you do so’ (Deut 15:10). And do you have such a man that can give away his property to others without entertaining the worry that he will eventually need help himself?!”
Gamliel’s response initially focuses on identifying the conditions under which the philosopher would be comfortable risking granting a loan to someone in financial distress:
אמר לו אם בא אדם ללוות ממך מלוהו את אמר לו לאו אם הביא לך את המשכון מלוהו את אמר לו הין אם הביא לך ערב שאינו כדאי מלוהו את אמר לו לאו אם הביא לך ערב ראש המדינה מלוהו את אמר לו הין.
He replied to him, “If a man comes to borrow from you, would you give him a loan? He replied, “no!” If he brought you a deposit, would you give him a loan? He replied, “yes!” If he brought you someone that was not quite fitting to stand as surety would you give him a loan? He replied, “no.” If he brought you as surety the head of the province would you give him a loan? He replied, “yes.”
After gaining the concession that the philosopher would grant a loan if it were secured via a deposit or guarantor, Gamliel citing Proverbs, notes that God is the ultimate guarantor:
אמר לו והלא דברים קל וחומר אם כשערבו בשר ודם מלוהו את קל וחומר כשערבו מי שאמר והיה העולם וה״א (משלי יט יז) מלוה ה' חונן דל וגמולו ישלם לו.
Well then, is not the matter a piece of a fortiori logic: If when an ordinary mortal will go surety for him, you will issue the loan, how much the more so when he who spoke and made the world goes surety for him. For scripture says, “He who is generous to the poor makes a loan to the Lord” (Prov 19:17).
St. Basil (4th century C.E.), a Cappadocian thinker from what is now central Turkey, offers the Christian version of this idea, using the same prooftext. He observes that when one assists the poor, one both offers a gift and issues a loan:
Whenever you have the intention of providing for a poor man for the Lord’s sake, the same thing is both a gift and a loan, a gift because of the expectation of no repayment, but a loan because of the great gift of the Master who pays in his place, and who, receiving trifling things through a poor man, will give great things in return for them. “He who is generous to the poor makes a loan to God” (Prov 19:17).
Basil is not saying that God acts merely as an accountant, however, noting that the poor benefit from the charity and laying aside the requisite reward for the good deed. Rather, he explains that it is God himself who receives these “trifling things.” God, as it were, resides among the destitute.
The portrayal of the poor man as a point of linkage between heaven and earth leads Basil to echo—inadvertently of course—the words of Rabbi Gamliel as he puts this question to his congregation:
If one of the rich men in the city would promise you payment on behalf of another, wouldn’t you accept his pledge?
The implied answer, as in the midrash, is undoubtedly “Yes!” Who wouldn’t make a loan that was guaranteed by a man of means? This leads Basil to his main point: “Yet you don’t accept God as surety for the gift you would give to the poor.” In exasperation over this lack of faith, Basil urges his audience to show faith in God and open up their pocketbooks:
Give the money, since it is lying idle, without weighing it down with additional charges, and it will be good for both of you. There will be for you [the donor] the assurance of the money’s safety because of [God’s] custody; for [the poor] who receives it, there is the advantage of its use. And, if you are seeking additional payment, be satisfied with that from the Lord. He Himself will pay the interest for the poor. Expect kindly acts from Him who is truly kind.
Charity in the Roman Empire
Roman emperor Julian “the Apostate” (late 4th century), in a letter to his priests in Anatolia, makes clear that he was struck by the care Jews and Christians showed for the poor. In that letter he observed:
It is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [namely, Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
Though Julian was raised a Christian, he turned sharply against the religion as a young man and when crowned as king embarked on a campaign to revive reverence for traditional Hellenistic cultic practices. Because he knew that charity to the poor was a significant reason for the vibrancy of the Jewish and Christian religions, he decided to introduce these practices into pagan religion. He not only instructed his priests to assist the poor, but he promised to fund their efforts:
In every city establish frequent hostels in order that strangers may profit by our benevolence; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money.
I have but now made a plan by which you may be well provided for this; for I have given directions that 30,000 modii (pecks) of corn shall be assigned every year for the whole of Galatia, and 60,000 pints of wine. I order that one-fifth of this be used for the poor who serve the priests, and the remainder be distributed by us to strangers and beggars.
Julian’s efforts, though well-intentioned, did not establish deep roots. The sociologist Rodney Stark explained this failure as grounded in the fact that there was no natural home in Hellenistic religion for these practices to attach themselves.
It was not that Romans knew nothing of charity, but that was not based on service to the gods.... Since pagan gods required only propitiation and beyond that left human affairs in human hands, a pagan priest could not preach that those lacking in the spirit of charity risked their salvation.
The midrash highlights this striking difference between Hellenistic and Jewish religion by having “a certain philosopher” pose a question about the logical basis of the commandment to loan to the poor. R. Gamliel defends said commandment by appealing to the character of Israel’s God. Distinctive to biblical religion is both the moral obligation to care for the poor and God’s providential commitment to assure that such care will not go unrewarded.
God Speaks on Behalf of the Poor
That God participates within the charitable deed helps to clarify the command not to hold back from the needy during the sabbatical year:
דברים טו:ט הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן יִהְיֶה דָבָר עִם לְבָבְךָ בְלִיַּעַל לֵאמֹר קָרְבָה שְׁנַת הַשֶּׁבַע שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ וְקָרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל יְ־הוָה וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא.
Deut 15:9 Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to YHWH against you, and you will incur guilt.
The Torah underscores the safety of fulfilling this obligation by assuring the would-be-donor of YHWH’s blessing in all his undertakings.
דברים טו:י נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ.
Deut 15:10 Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return YHWH your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.
As in Proverbs 19:17, YHWH is presumed to the ultimate guarantor of the transaction.
Assnat Bartor notes that the motive clause in the closely related law in the Covenant Code (Exod 21–23) reflects the impassioned plea made by the poor person whose creditor has taken his clothing in pledge: “Please return my mantle to me before the bitter cold of the evening arrives! It is the only covering I have; in what shall I sleep?” But in the rhetoric of this particular law, the words of the sufferer have been assumed by YHWH and it is YHWH who speaks them:
שׁמות כב:כד אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ לֹא תִהְיֶה לוֹ כְּנֹשֶׁה לֹא תְשִׂימוּן עָלָיו נֶשֶׁךְ. כב:כה אִם חָבֹל תַּחְבֹּל שַׂלְמַת רֵעֶךָ עַד בֹּא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ. כב:כו כִּי הִוא כְסוּתֹה [כְסוּתוֹ] לְבַדָּהּ הִוא שִׂמְלָתוֹ לְעֹרוֹ בַּמֶּה יִשְׁכָּב וְהָיָה כִּי יִצְעַק אֵלַי וְשָׁמַעְתִּי כִּי חַנּוּן אָנִי.
Exod 22:24 If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. 22:25 If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; 22:26 it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.
Bartor concludes: “God, the lawgiver is the poor person’s patron.” Unlike all other motive clauses in the Covenant Code, which reflect the “lawgiver’s style, position, and point of view,” in this case—uniquely—YHWH adopts the voice of the poor.
A similar notion appears in the gospel of Matthew’s description of a future day of judgment, in which Jesus says of himself:
Matt 25:34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, 25:35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 25:36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Anticipating questions from the people about when they might have done these things for him, Jesus describes himself as so tightly aligned with the plight of the sufferer that how a person treats the poor is tantamount to treating Jesus that way:
Matt 25:40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
This concept did not originate with Jesus but had a deep, structural source in ancient Israelite law. As Bartor suggests, the identification of YHWH with the poor is so close that mistreating someone in need is tantamount to offending YHWH himself. A swift and certain punishment awaits those who show such wanton disregard.
In the Covenant Code, YHWH does not generally intervene in judicial affairs. It is the task of the Israelites to carry out its mandates. But mistreating the poor is a wholly different sort of affair. Depriving them of their legal rights brings one face to face with YHWH. On this point, biblical law and wisdom speak from the same playbook:
משׁלי יד:לא עֹשֵׁק דָּל חֵרֵף עֹשֵׂהוּ וּמְכַבְּדוֹ חֹנֵן אֶבְיוֹן.
Prov 14:31 He who withholds what is due to the poor affronts his Maker; he who shows pity for the needy honors Him.
The point of this saying is not a Kantian one; i.e. be kind to the poor because YHWH stands behind the moral law. That would be too weak of a reading. Rather, because YHWH has identified himself with the poor, any mistreatment is tantamount to mistreating YHWH directly, and for this reason, the Covenant Code declares that YHWH will pay special attention to the cries of the poor.
The Role of God in Charitable Giving
A defining feature of contemporary discussions of charitable giving is its focus on the motivations of the donor (altruism) and the effectiveness of the donation (social justice). To be sure, each of these factors has deep roots in the Bible and subsequent Jewish and Christian theology. But what is lacking in modern discourse is any significant role for God. When we turn to the sources that informed the structure of charity in the biblical period, however, the single most important factor was that of divine agency.
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Prof. Gary A. Anderson is Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Thought at Notre Dame University's Department of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and is the author of Sin: A History (Yale, 2009), Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale 2013), Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis (Baker, 2017), and most recently, That I May Dwell Among Them: Incarnation and Atonement in the Tabernacle Narrative (Eerdmans, 2023).
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