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No Poor Among You

The idea of Israel as an alternative economic community

by Jonathan Cornford

In the last edition of Manna Matters we discussed the foundational story of how the Hebrew people were sustained in the wilderness by manna from heaven. There we are given a picture of a confused and disoriented people who have been liberated from a bondage in Egypt that is at once spiritual and economic, but who cannot imagine a new way of being. Their rehabilitation requires them to unlearn all they have learned about work, production and accumulation in Egypt, and to spend forty years living by the strange manna economy. This teaches them many lessons, but most fundamentally that 'man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord' (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4) - the economy should never become a God.

All this is a precursor to a much bigger idea; the idea that these people are intended for a 'promised land', a land flowing with milk and honey in which they will live in harmony with God, each other, and with the land itself. And as the Israelites are led through the wilderness they are given rules for this promised land, the Torah - the law or instructions - which is primarily found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy (actually the first five books of the Bible are collectively referred to as the Torah).

For many modern Christians there is a tendency to see the 'the law' in a condescending or even contemptuous light, largely based on a misreading of the attitude of the Apostle Paul. It is viewed as a burdensome set of irrelevant religious instructions from which we have thankfully been liberated.

Perhaps a better way of understanding the Torah is as a vision, painted in elaborate detail, of a whole new way of living. The components of this vision cover the whole realm of issues we face in life, including religion, family, society, politics and, yes of course, economics. Indeed the Torah has quite a lot to say in the economic sphere, including property rights and land rights, debt and credit, agriculture and land use, workers' rights, charity, care for the poor, inequality, and even treatment of work animals.

The beauty of this vision is that it is given in detail; however, it also means that much of its meaning and intention can be obscure to us, who are separated by a vast chasm of history and geography from the circumstances of the ancient Middle-Eastern farmers and livestock herders to whom it was given. There is much value to be gained by unpacking the particular historical meaning and significance of the diverse elements of the Torah, and that is something we will surely do in later editions of Manna Matters, but for now it is enough to unpack some central principles.

Firstly, the Torah is given specifically in relation to occupation of  'the promised land', a place characterised by the economics of abundance, flowing with milk and honey. Indeed, observance of the Torah is the fundamental condition upon which the land is promised and it is only by following its provisions that the land will be bountiful. That is, the extent to which the community is economically blessed by God through creation (the land) depends directly on the form of economic organisation that they follow.

Secondly, the key descriptor that is used for this community living by the Torah is that it would be a holy people - 'You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy' (Lev 19:2). Holiness is one of those big religious words that makes people's eyes glaze over - it is often associated with distance and other-worldliness. However, the best way to reclaim the true meaning of the word is through its root in the English language - wholeness. Holiness is therefore the healthy (another related word) integration of mind, body and spirit, of conviction and action, and of self and other. Far from distant and otherworldly, holiness means being present and earthy, and that is what the Torah is calling Israel to be; a community that models the integration of life, faith and action.

Thirdly, and related to the previous point, it should be obvious that a community living in this way will be counter-cultural to the world around it. A repeated refrain throughout the Torah is that this community is to live in an entirely new way: 'You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.' (Lev 18:3) The point is not that Israel become a private fan club for Yahweh (as it tended to think of itself), but that it be a blessing and a light to the nations (Genesis 18:18, Isaiah 51:4).

Fourthly, and flowing directly from the previous point, the distinctive economic life of this community is directly dependent on its rejection of false gods. The Torah is quite clear, as are the prophets, that the form of economic life of a community is directly related to the God (or gods) that it worships, and vice versa. Moses and the prophets understood winning over the people to Yahweh necessarily meant winning them over to an alternative economic ethic; without it, they would inevitably end up chasing after baals who promised them all they could desire.

So what are the hallmarks of this economic community and how is it a witness to the character of God? Behind all the details about how people harvest their fields or lend money are some consistent fundamental intentions:

  • There shall be abundantly enough for all
  • There shall be no poor among you
  • The vulnerable are protected.
  • Obscene inequality will be impossible.
  • The land (and its animals) shall be respected and cared for.

The Torah makes clear that not only is Israel to be a distinctive religious community, it is to be a distinctive economic community. It demonstrates that central to God's way of working in the world - 'reconciling the world to himself' (2 Cor 5:19) - is to form together communities of people whose whole lives, including their economic arrangements, are a living witness to the life that is in God. It is one of the big ideas of the Bible - a central thread that runs continuous through the Old Testament and into the New Testament. For the calling to be an alternative economic community does not end with Israel, but rather takes on an even fuller meaning in that community we call the Body of Christ. But that is a story for another day...

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