Poverty and Complacency in Ancient Israel

The prophecies of Amos, Micah, and others hold the elite classes in ancient Israel accountable for their mistreatment of the poor. The prophet Amos was “especially scathing of the indolence and conspicuous consumption of the elites” (Yee, 2015, p. 18). The biblical text provides details about the living conditions of the 1%. According to Amos (3:15), some wealthy Israelites owned both a summer and winter home. Without military threats and other uprisings, the privileged Israelites grew comfortable with their luxurious lifestyles (Loras, 2022). Over time, they grew complacent and disregarded the provisions of the law that directed them to care for the poor people of society.

But what about the 99% of the poor and needy people who lived in the shadows of the elite? They were the subsistence farmers, the indentured servants, the landless day laborers, “the debt slaves, the chattel slaves, the child laborers, the conscripted soldiers, the prisoners of war, the prostitutes, the beggars, the orphaned, the diseased and disabled, refugees and displaced. Their voices are generally silent in Old Testament scripture. If we hear about their oppression and exploitation, it is chiefly through their advocates, the prophets” (Yee, 2015, p. 3).

We can discern much about the lifestyles of the marginalized people of ancient Israelites from the information that does exist. They lived simply, often dwelling in houses made of clay bricks cured in the sun. Many homes had outdoor steps leading to a flat roof, where families sometimes slept during hot weather. Theirs was an agrarian society. Most people made their living off the land, growing crops of wheat, barley, figs, grapes, and olives. They supplemented everyday meals with bread made of barley or wheat, vegetables, fish, cheese, and fruit, and ate meat on sacred holy days and special occasions. As subsistence farmers, they produced only enough food to keep their families alive (Riordan, 2022). Regardless of their poverty and modest way of life, they were targets of the privileged elite who found ways to exploit them.

Ironically, God’s Covenant and associated laws existed to shield the poor from poverty and inequality. For example, provisions in Leviticus protected poor men from losing their land (Leviticus 25:10, 13, 25-34). Laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy protected the poor from exploitation by the rich (Exodus 22:22-23; Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Leviticus 19:13).  The law placed special emphasis on justice for the poor in courts of law, but it did not give unfair partiality to the poor (Exodus 23:3; Deuteronomy 27:19, 25).

These same codes urged the rich to lend money to the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). Still, the codes prohibited them from charging interest (Exodus 22:25). The law specified that the poor must not remain permanently in debt and provided for the remission of all debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15: 1-2). When a poor man sold himself into servitude to pay his debts, the law mandated his freedom in the seventh year (Leviticus 25:39-55). Also, freedmen should not go away empty-handed but should have provisions from the flocks and the harvest (Deuteronomy 15:12-15). These and similar provisions reminded people from all classes in the society that they had once been slaves in Egypt, and God took care of their needs. In return, God expected them to do the same for each other (Birch, 1975)

Over time, the privileged indulged in self-interest, growing complacent and disregarding the provisions of the law that directed them to care for the poor people of society. This was true during Israel’s monarchic period (900-586 BCE), with increased social stratification between the “haves” and the “have nots.” At the top of the socioeconomic pyramid were the king, the ruling classes, and the merchants that supported them. Because there was no middle class in Israel, the kings and their elites relied on the hard physical labor of the poor to contribute to the agrarian economy (Yee, 2015). “Instead, they parasitically live off the 90% by extracting what little surplus these farmers have and converting it for luxury items and ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption” (Yee, 2015, p. 10).

She noted that when farmers could not meet their quotas because of crop failure or drought, they had to take out a high-interest loan from the elites because the kin groups they typically depended on were no longer viable. Farmers who could not pay back their loans had to sell their land. Those who could not sell their land sometimes had to sell their children into debt slavery or become a debt-slave themselves. Yee (2015) reported on the “cycles of extraction”:

You farmers face two cycles of extraction, the first when you must hand over the little surplus you have above your subsistence needs to meet heavy taxation quotas. These are your crops and flocks for the royal court, along with your sisters, nieces, and aunts for the royal kitchen and harem, and your sons, brothers, nephews, and uncles who work as soldiers or corvée laborers in the king’s service. The second extraction cycle comes when you cannot meet your quotas and must take out high-interest loans, initiating ruinous cycles of tax and debt. (Yee, 2015, p. 15-16).

This exploitation continued despite the warnings that appeared throughout the sermons of Amos. For example, the prophet announced punishment against those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who tramples the head of the poor into the dust and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7). He spoke to the people who “afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11-12). The prophet also condemned them for their self-indulgence:

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore, they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (Amos 6:4-7).

Amos warned the elite class that God was not pleased with their exploitation of the poor (Loras, 2022). Failure to repent would result in severe consequences.

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