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Giving in the Old Testament: The Poor and Needy

By Ryan Casselberry
with assistance from Generous Giving staff


Generosity toward the poor and needy is not optional for those who claim to follow Jesus, for God cares deeply about them. In the ancient world, poverty was a life-threatening matter, for the poor had no safety net if the daily charity of others failed them—no food, no shelter or no advocate. The dangers that came with poverty make the Old Testament commands all the more compelling, setting up generosity toward the poor and needy as the sign for obedience throughout one’s life. Even more, the New Testament demands that care for the poor be present in the life of every believer—the “materially poor” ever so much as the “spiritually poor” (Deuteronomy 16:12-13; Matthew 25:31-46; 1 John 3:16-18; James 1:27; 2:14-17).

For the Ancients, a People Left to Fend for Themselves

In the ancient Near East poverty brought truly terrible consequences. There was no welfare system in place to take care of the poor—to be a pauper, a widow or an orphan meant that one was primarily dependent on the charity of others for economic provision (see The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 101). Widows could not inherit their husbands’ property; orphans would be guaranteed no inheritance; and those without land lacked both an agricultural source of income and an inheritance to pass on to their children. This economic powerlessness often resulted in more complex social and political problems for the poor. Because many cultures in the ancient Near East followed the class system, the poor could be treated unfairly with little consequence, especially in matters of justice (see The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 102).

There is evidence that ancient Near Eastern law codes required rulers to exercise equity and justice toward the poor and to encourage economic assistance to alleviate their financial burdens. Some of these laws are similar to laws in the Old Testament (see The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 101-102). Without question, the poor of the ancient world were a group in need of protection and charity.

For the Israelites, a People of Special Concern to God

Just as in other ancient Near Eastern societies, being poor in Israel could be socially and economically disabling. But there was one critical difference: The God of Israel had such affection for the poor that he directly identified with them and required all others to provide for their needs and to give them justice (Psalm 12:5; 34:6; Proverbs 14:31; 19:17). The plight of the poor is one of the issues that matters most to God, and his Law made truly astounding provisions to help them, not the least of which were economic protections:
  • Gleanings and Harvests: The corners of fields and the grapes dropped by the workers were reserved for the poor (Deuteronomy 24:17; Leviticus 19:9-10). The poor were also allowed to eat from land that lay fallow or idle in the Sabbath years (Leviticus 25:1-7; Deuteronomy 15:1-11).
  • Protection from Creditors: Creditors could not charge interest or keep garments (which provided warmth and doubled as one’s blanket at night), nor could they take the tools of a man’s trade as security for a loan. These provisions ensured people’s ability to earn a living and also prevented extreme hardships (Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:12-13).
  • Right to Timely Wages: The poor worker, whether a stranger or brother, was to receive his wages on the day of his labor, all the more so if he had need of it immediately (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
  • Year of Jubilee: Once every 50 years, Jubilee provided a comprehensive program of debt cancellation, liberation from indentured servitude, and the complete restoration of each family’s ancestral property, granting the poor a fresh start (Leviticus 25:8-22).
  • Kinsman Redeemer: Family members were to help each other repurchase their land if they fell into debt and lost it (Leviticus 25:23-34). Family members could also purchase freedom for one another if they were forced into slavery to meet financial needs (Leviticus 25:47-55). Widows could also be saved from their plight by kinsman redeemers, as in the case of Boaz’s aid to Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 4:1-10).
God’s law also gave the poor unprecedented social protections:
  • Justice: Old Testament law prohibited judges to show partiality to the rich at the expense of the economically disadvantaged and oppressed (Exodus 23:1-9; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 24:17; Proverbs 31:4-9). The Lord declared that defending the cause of the needy and treating the poor with justice is the essence of what it means to know him (Jeremiah 22:16). Accordingly, the prophet Amos condemned the Israelites’ social injustice toward the poor as a violation of God’s law and priorities.
  • Levirate Marriage: Women who became widows with no male heirs had the right to gain an heir by their husbands’ brothers, thereby securing a son to care for them in their old age (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
Finally, God’s law made special provision for the poor’s inclusion in community worship:
  • The Right to Rest: Servants, slaves, strangers and even animals were to participate in the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:1-15).
  • Scaled Prices for Sacrifices and Offerings: Poor people who could not afford to present costly sacrifices and offerings were allowed to sacrifice less costly sacrifices that they could afford (Leviticus 5:7, 11; 14:21).
  • The Tithe: One of the tithes was collected with a particular command to include aliens, the fatherless, widows and other poor people in a yearly community feast and celebration (Deuteronomy 14:22-29).
These laws and others illustrate God’s deep concern for the poor. Ignoring or taking advantage of them brought God’s wrath (Exodus 22:22-24; Job 31:21-23). Care for the poor was such a serious matter that God viewed giving to the poor as the indispensable sign of obedience to his law (Deuteronomy 16:12-13), and when Israel failed to do so they suffered God’s judgment (Isaiah 1:15-17; Jeremiah 5:28-29).

For Christians, a People Entitled to Our Generous Care

Jesus Christ amplified generosity to the poor as an indispensable sign of obedience to the Lord. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus displayed his identification with and concern for the poor and oppressed (Matthew 6:3; 11:12-5; Mark 10:21; Luke 4:18-19; 6:20; 10:25-37; 12:32-34; 14:12-14; 16:19-31; 18:22-24; 19:1-10). He even presented care for needy brothers and sisters as the sign that we know God and are saved (Matthew 25:31-46). Make no mistake: Jesus was serious about caring for the poor, and he requires that we obey him.

Following Jesus’ example, the apostles also cast a strong vision of caring for the poor. One of the great concerns of Paul’s ministry was to raise funds for poor Christians in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-29; Galatians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 8-9). But his concern for the poor was also true more generally: In 2 Corinthians 8-9 he develops an extended argument that calls Christians who have in abundance to give to those who do not have enough. The result of such generosity is an increase in thanksgiving toward God and in rewards from his hand (2 Corinthians 9:11).

James also has a great deal to say about giving to the poor and needy: When he describes “dead” faith, he describes a person who does not provide food and clothing for a brother or sister in need (James 2:14-17). He also gives ominous warnings for the rich and those who show them special favor over the poor (James 2:1-7; 5:1-6). In contrast, pure religion consists in caring for the widows and orphans (James 1:27). If we love God, we will give to the needy, for it will be as though we have given to Jesus himself (1 John 3:16-18; Matthew 25:31-46).

The consistent scriptural theme of caring for the poor should jar us to purposeful and sacrificial acts of compassion toward those who are in need. Nearly one-half of the New Testament’s positive examples of giving are gifts toward the poor. The Bible could not be clearer about the responsibility of believers to obey in this area: Giving toward the poor and needy is an indispensable part of following Jesus.


Topical Concordance (The Poor and Needy, Giving to)

Generosity toward the poor and needy is not optional for those who claim to follow Jesus, for God cares deeply about them. In the ancient world, poverty was a life-threatening matter, for the poor had no safety net if the daily charity of others failed them—no food, no shelter or no advocate. The dangers that came with poverty make the Old Testament commands all the more compelling, setting up generosity toward the poor and needy as the sign for obedience throughout one’s life. Even more, the New Testament demands that care for the poor be present in the life of every believer—the “materially poor” ever so much as the “spiritually poor” (Deuteronomy 16:12-13; Matthew 25:31-46; 1 John 3:16-18; James 1:27; 2:14-17).

Biblical texts (click for study notes):

  • Exodus 3:21-22; 12:35-36; 22:25; 23:6, 9-11
  • Leviticus 19:9-10, 34; 23:22; 25:25, 35
  • Numbers 27:1-11; 36:8
  • Deuteronomy 14:27-29; 15:7-11; 23:24-25; 24:12-15, 19-22; 26:12
  • Joshua 17:3-6
  • Ruth 2:5-9, 11, 14
  • 1 Samuel 15:6
  • 2 Samuel 17:27-29
  • 1 Kings 17:5-16
  • 2 Kings 25:28-30
  • 2 Chronicles 28:14-15
  • Nehemiah 5
  • Esther 9:20-22
  • Job 20:10; 29:11-17; 30:25; 31:16-23, 32; 42:15
  • Psalms 37:26; 41:1; 72; 112:4-5, 9
  • Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 22:9; 25:21; 28:27; 29:7, 14; 31:9, 20
  • Isaiah 1:17; 21:14; 58:6-7, 10
  • Jeremiah 22:3, 16; 39:10
  • Ezekiel 18:7-9, 16; 46:17; 47:23
  • Daniel 4:27
  • See New Testament passages

    Return to index
  • Related theme essays:

  • Caring for the Poor (Ruth)
  • Collection for the Poor (1 and 2 Corinthians)
  • Extravagance (Amos)
  • Faith and Works (James)
  • Generosity and Justice (Job)
  • God’s Special Concern for Outcasts (Luke)
  • Human Need (John)
  • Knowing God (Jeremiah)
  • Partiality to the Rich (James)
  • The Poor (Luke)
  • The Poor (John)
  • Possessions (Luke)
  • Receiving in Order to Give (Isaiah)
  • Remembering the Poor (Galatians)
  • Tithing and Generosity (Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy)
  • What God Commands (Exodus)


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