As the work begins to engage social inequality and the means for addressing vulnerable populations, there must be a willingness to start with an intrinsic “why.” The National Association of Evangelicals and its partner ministries laid a basis for the biblical foundation for why we should advocate and act on the behalf of others in its “For the Health of the Nation” publication.

One of the means for understanding the nation of Israel’s responsibility to vulnerable populations is recognizing Israel’s history of landlessness. Within the Old Testament, there is a fluidity of land that arguably begins with the Garden of Eden (land) and the banishment of Adam and Eve after their disobedience (landless). Eventually, Abram is directed back to the area that will later become the Promised Land, but the actions of Jacob’s sons ultimately bring his family to Egypt where the Hebrew people become slaves (landless). God frees them and leads them into the Promised Land (land) but their disobedience leads to their captivity in Babylon (landless). They later return (land) and we move into the New Testament literature where a new dichotomy emerges between the religious Jews and followers of Jesus.

Who Are the Poor?

The word, ebyown, often translated poor, references both those without financial substance but also those who are oppressed and abused. The poor are the marginalized. Additionally, it also carries a general connotation of low class. It is noteworthy that the writers of the Old Testament do not view poverty as a moral problem. Christopher Wright correctly points out, “the problem for Israelites was the loss of status and the shame that poverty entails.[1] He goes on to argue, “material poverty in itself is rarely the issue for Old Testament writers, but rather the injustice of oppression in society that reduced some, where others prospered.”[2]

What Was Israel’s Response to the Poor?

In response, Israel is charged with offering provision for those in poverty. They are given specific instructions to not cast judgement (Exodus 23:6), leave a remnant of the harvest to feed them (Exodus 23:22; Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 23:22.), offer assistance (Deuteronomy 15:7, 11), and speak on their behalf (Proverbs 31:8–9). As a whole, readers of Scripture can confidently assert that Israel is directed to remember their own roots as the oppressed strangers in the land and look after those of low position: the poor, the afflicted, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger (Exodus 22:21, 23:9).

This highlight of remembering the oppressed is found multiple times throughout the biblical texts with the focus on the missio dei.[3] The entire reason Israel is blessed is to carry out the mission of God. Others were to see the blessing and inquire, giving Israel the opportunity to invite others to serve their God. Abraham’s descendants will multiply to become a nation and their relationship with God would be the vehicle of God’s blessings to other nations. Israel is blessed and becomes the conduit for blessings to extend to other nations. It is the embodiment of the missio dei, the sending of God, that others may know him.

Israel is charged with the responsibility of ensuring the poor are not destitute.[4] They were to take a special interest in protecting those without land of their own. They are expected to show generosity to ease the burden of the landless by giving from their bounty.[5]

Within the biblical text, the “other”[6] is the outcast. The “other” is both invisible and inaudible — but not to the God of Israel.[7] Throughout the narratives and prophetic literature, readers see God’s plan of salvation and the restoration of all things. Time and time again, God disrupts the status quo and challenges the social constraints of identity. He chooses the younger brother, the lesser tribe, the woman, and the foreigner to rise above their social status as representatives of God himself through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

How Does This Impact Us?

We are created in the imago dei, a Latin phrase for “image of God.” It stems from the Genesis account of the creation of humanity where Adam is described as “made in the image of God.” Rather than a visible image, this refers to being made to represent the likeness or nature of God. In essence, humanity is created as caretakers of God’s creation. We are meant to represent the character of God to others.

Being created in the imago dei means we accept the missio dei, or mission of God. As Christian believers, we recognize our purpose is to look for those who are marginalized and lead them to a place where they can come to know God and experience his provision.

Why Do We Fall Short?

The modern challenge now (for some) is the Bible has lost its ability to disrupt and reorient culture. Instead of allowing Scripture to reorient our perspective and be challenged to surrender our limited understanding to the grace of God’s restorative mission, we have moved to a reader-centered approach that projects our flawed humanity into the text. We have moved to a place where restoring the “other” is someone else’s problem. We are passive; yet in passivity, prejudice prevails.

As readers, it is our responsibility to recognize the redemptive history but not stop at the stories contained in Scripture. Instead, we are meant to allow the stories to transcend the text. Not only does Scripture contain the redemptive message, but the Holy Spirit also continues the act of redemption in readers.[8]

In our reading, we recognize that the stories themselves reflect roles that were normative in their social setting but do not necessarily reflect the imago dei. Therefore, the missio dei calls the reader to reconsider the text. Through the eyes of the Redeemer, the reader must experience the humanness of the “other.” We must learn to see ourselves as the “other.” When we learn to identify with the stories and read them differently, we learn to grieve in the transformative process of redeeming creation.

Israel is blessed with the purpose of being infused with the mission to bring the good news of God’s redemption to those who surround them. They were the landless people unexpectedly called upon to bring about God’s missional intent. When I classify the poor as “them,” I miss my place in God’s redemption.

Our role is twofold, we are to speak up and act on behalf of the “other,” but we have a spectacular playbook, within the biblical text, of seeking ways to disrupt and reorient culture by finding ways to give voice and position to the vulnerable.

[1] Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 168.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Missio Dei is a Latin term meaning mission of God or sending of God.
[4] “Poor,” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Blue Letter Bible, (last modified May 5, 2003).
[5] Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 158.
[6] There is a natural human response to grouping people we identify as different from ourselves as “other” or “them.” It is a natural means of distancing.
[7] Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 176.
[8] Cheryl Bridges Johns, “Grieving, Brooding, and Transforming: The Spirit, the Bible, and Gender,” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies v. 35, no. 1 (March 2013), 141–153.