Moses and Ancient Israel’s Social Welfare System

Modern Christianity tends to be very individualistic. Many think the only biblical obligation we have to the poor is personal charity, giving to the poor themselves or giving to charities to distribute it. Some Christians even think it is wrong to have a social welfare system with laws and taxes to fund it. But God expects nations and rulers to look after their poor too, and condemns nation who don’t. Israel was meant to be an example to nations around them, and the Old Testament Law established the nation of Israel with a comprehensive social welfare system to take care of the poor.

Tithes: Levites weren’t given an inheritance of land in Israel, they were meant to look after the Israelites spiritual needs not spend their time farming and herding flocks. As such they were among the poor in the land. They were to be provided for through the tithe,10% of all produce and herds going to 8% (1 in 12) of the tribes. So a generous provision for the poorest tribe. However the tithe was not just for Levites, they were also a provision for other poor people, for widows and orphans, and for immigrants especially those living in cities. Deut 14:27-29, 26:12&13. Unlike the misery of modern tax returns paying your tithe was mean to be a great big party for you all you household too Deut 22:14-27.

Gleaning: The poor living in the countryside were also supported through gleaning. Land owners were not allowed harvest all their crop, only allowed for example to beat their olive trees once, they could not go over them a second time as more olives ripened. The same applied to grapevines and all the grain and sheaves that had fallen to the ground in those pre-combine harvester days. These gleanings were for the poor and immigrants Deut 24:19-21.

Fallow Ground: Every seven years, the Sabbath Year, fields were to be left fallow. But wheat would still grow in wheat fields, olive tree and vines would still produce their fruit. Again this was for the poor and for immigrants. Also included were wild animals, so a very green social policy, Exodus 23:11, Lev 25:2-7. This was a social welfare contribution of up to 14% of harvests on top of the 10% tithe. The Sabbath year of the land should have been an abundant source of provision if the wealthy landowners didn’t cheat on their obligations. Proverbs 13:23 The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.

Redistribution of wealth: The most politically radical of Moses laws were wealth redistribution through the cancellation of debt and return of land and houses. The debts of Israelites were cancelled in the Sabbath Year when the land was allowed lie fallow Deut 15:1.

Every 50 years this went even further in the Jubilee year: Land, the main source of wealth in an agrarian society was redistributed from the rich who had accumulated it over the previous 50 years and given back to the families and clans who owned it before. Houses in walled cities were not included in this, though the houses in cities belonging to Levites were returned. Outside cities, houses were returned in Jubilee years too Lev 25:10-55. All of this was meant to reset the economy every 50 years so the wealth that had been accumulated in the form of land and debts owed to the rich (read: banks) could be turned back to the more level playing field created by the Jubilee 50 years before.

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