As the formulaic association of the poor with widows and orphans in ancient Near Eastern literature in general and in the Hebrew Bible in particular shows, poverty was an undesirable condition and not an ascetic discipline to be embraced for a higher goal. Protection and special care for these economically deprived members of society was a responsibility of kings, who demonstrated their power in part by their ability to help those unable to help themselves (see Kingship and Monarchy). This royal responsibility is found in Israel as well, as the interchange between David and Nathan in 2 Samuel 12.1–6 implies and the royal instruction in Proverbs 31.8–9 makes explicit; see also Psalms 72.2, 12–14; Proverbs 29.14.
In premonarchic Israel this obligation was incumbent on the nation as a whole. In some of its earliest legislation, Israel is instructed to ensure that the poor have both a fair hearing in judicial contexts and food from the harvest and sabbatical fallowness (Exod. 23.6, 11; see Lev. 19.10; 23.22), and to lend money to the poor without interest (Exod. 22.25; see Loans and Interest). The prophets repeatedly reminded Israel of these obligations; see Isaiah 10.1–4; 58.7; Amos 2.6–7; 4.1; Ezekiel 18.
What was incumbent on the nation as a whole was also required of the individual. Job's passionate declaration of innocence is a summary of the individual Israelite's moral code; as part of his assertion of complete righteousness, Job details his concern for the poor (Job 29.11–17; 31.16–22; see also Deut. 15.11). This ethical obligation continues to be stressed in the New Testament and in the Qurʾān.
Those who oppressed the poor, then, were the wicked (Ps. 37.14; Prov. 14.31), and God was the protector of the poor (Ps. 140.12). He would reward those who gave to the poor (Prov. 19.17) and would ultimately provide for them himself (Isa. 41.17).
All of these texts make it clear that poverty was an unfortunate state. Its origins are explored only in wisdom literature, where it is often attributed to moral shortcomings or at least to a lack of industry, an example of the dominant biblical view that God rewards goodness and punishes wickedness. It must be noted, however, that this point of view is found in literature originating in well‐to‐do circles, mainly in Proverbs (10.4; 13.18; 14.23; 20.13; 23.21; 29.19).
In the New Testament as well, poverty, especially self‐impoverishment, is not an ideal in itself, but rather a condition temporarily assumed for the sake of some higher goal. Paul illustrates this when he speaks of “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8.9). The larger context of the verse is the collection for the poor of the church in Jerusalem, an effort to which Paul was committed (see Gal. 2.1–10; 1 Cor. 16.1–4; Rom. 15.25–27); Paul appeals to the Christians of Corinth to imitate the selfless love of Jesus, out of concern for their more needy brothers and sisters. This idea of the “imitation of Christ,” also present in Philippians 2.5–8, is made a general ideal in later, monastic Christianity, where poverty is embraced not just or not even primarily for the sake of others but as a means of freedom from material goods that enables one to attain a higher spiritual state in union with Jesus, who in an apparently hyperbolic proverb, said to one who would follow him: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8.20; Luke 9.58).
The advice of Jesus to the rich young man to “sell all and give to the poor” (Mark 10.21 par.; cf. 10.23–31) must be interpreted in the light of the eschatological urgency felt by early Christians and probably by Jesus himself, as well as the narrative context, despite later abstraction of that command into an ideal of “evangelical poverty.” Following earlier biblical descriptions of divine judgment, Jesus is apparently anticipating a reversal of fortune when the kingdom of God appears: the undesirable conditions of the poor, hungry, mourning and persecuted will be altered (Luke 6.20–23; cf. 1 Sam. 2.4–8 and Luke 1.51–53; Isa. 61.1–4 and Luke 4.16–21).
Michael D. Coogan