Economic Law in the Hebrew Scriptures, A Brief Introduction

Other than the Bible’s many genealogies, the laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers may be the most overlooked part of the Bible. This is unfortunate, because the laws give us our first glimpse of the Kingdom of God. By bringing the Hebrew people out of Egypt God is revealed as a God who liberates God’s people from oppression and leads them out of slavery into the promised land (Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 7:8 and others). There is no King, because God is their king (1 Samuel 12:12), and the law attempts to set up society in a way that is pleasing to God.

Even when the law is discussed, it usually focuses on rules for food and rules for sex. In fact, the law covers everything from agriculture, to home-building, to where to locate the latrines. Now, I am not suggesting that we revert to 2,800 year old methods of agriculture, construction, and plumbing, but I am willing to suggest that there are certain general principles in the law that we should pay attention to. The law did set out to make Israel a righteous people that were set apart from their neighbors in terms of their religious practice and purity, but it also set out to make them different in the way in which they treated the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the orphan. A few of the notable laws include:

  • During the harvest, anything that falls to the ground is to be left for the poor to come and gather (Deuteronomy 24:19-22).
  • Every seven years debts are to be forgiven  (Deuteronomy 15:1).
  • Slaves are to be freed every seven years (Exodus 21:2-4, Deuteronomy 15:12).
  • Every fifty years land is to be restored to its original owners (Leviticus 25: 8-28).
  • There is to be no oppression of strangers living among them (Exodus  22:21, Exodus 23:9)
  • Do not oppress the widow or the orphan (Exodus 22: 22-24).
  • The terms of lending are not to include interest payments or take as collateral the borrowers means of production and shelter (Exodus 22:25-27, Deuteronomy 24:6).

This was a radically egalitarian way to set up the economy back then, and remains radical now. Could you imagine returning land to its original owner every 50 years? Or forgiving debt every 7 in a society where student loans often take 15 to 20 years to repay and mortgages take 30? As it turns out, historically the Israelites weren’t all that great at implementing these laws. But the point is not devotion to the law, but to the vision of society that God’s law embodies. Having been oppressed in Egypt, the Israelites envisioned a society of radical economic egalitarianism. That vision gets picked up the prophets and by Jesus (more on that later this week) but this is where it starts. It would be a shame to continue to overlook that.

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