A Theology of Obligation

A Theology of Obligation


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 the oppressor oppresses the poor because they are poor and powerless,

the poor have become poor in the first place because they have been oppressed



 Option for the Poor: Challenge to the Rich Countries (1986) / The Preferential Option for the Poor (1988)   /   Salvation and Liberation (1984)

Good News to the Poor: The Challenge of the Poor in History of the Church (1979)

 Towards a Church of the Poor: The Work of an Ecumenical Group on the Church and the Poor (1981)

Champions of the Poor: The Economic Consequences of Judeo-Christian Values (1998)

The Social Vision of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction  (2001)  Bible of the Oppressed (1982)

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A Theology of Obligation & Liberation

The Poor & Oppressed in the Pentateuch

By Rudolph Lewis



            Though the U.S. government expends billions of dollars yearly on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, the attitudes and perspectives of most Americans towards the poor after the 1960s and 1970s era of reforms have spiraled downward. Today, too many Americans are quite hawkish toward the poor and cynical about the seeming permanency of poverty in our midst, especially in the urban centers in which African-American and Hispanic predominate. This is indeed an extraordinary and troubling dilemma.

            This political and socio-economic situation has generated complaints about the payment and expenditure of government taxes and widespread repressive actions against the poor and the oppressed peoples in the United States. Politicians have concocted government policies that have driven mothers out of homes to work for starvation wages, a situation that has increased further neglect of their children with respect to education and health.

Young men are hounded and terrorized and criminalized by policing and criminal-justice agencies. In Baltimore City, for instance, nearly a 100, 000 arrests will be made in 2002. Of this number, only a quarter of such arrests are prosecutable. Our prisons are bursting at the seams. One of the fastest growing industries in America is the building and the privatization of prisons. American leads the world in this business of criminalizing and humiliating the poor.  

Clearly, these government agencies are responding to political pressures from the wealth and power centers of our communities. They are responding to real and imagined threats against their security and well-being. These more fortunate elements of our community have made their adjustments to the status quo and have hardened their hearts toward the less fortunate and the oppressed. These kinds of attitudes exist not only nationally but have extended themselves internationally towards countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

How can such a scenario be possible in a Christian nation that prides itself in its  ethical views which are steeped in and conditioned by Judeo-Christian values which call for social justice? The most obvious response is that we now live in a secularized society in which commercial values are dominant; that is, we are governed by a hunger for money, profits, and power. Our so-called Judeo-Christian community is not “guided by the message of the Bible which confronts poverty with simple but penetrating rules” (DeVries, 4).

The rule of love, the dignity of the individual, and reform of financial and property structures, as put forth by the author of Champions of the Poor, seemingly, have no consistent and continuous forum in our media and public discussions (DeVries, 5). Though hypocrisy plays a role in our dilemma, ignorance of the literature that undergirds these Judeo-Christian values, because of the secularization of our society, may indeed be partially to blame for the present harsh attitudes toward the poor. A review of the pentateuchal literature and some theological commentary on the poor codes contained in three of these first five books of the Bible with regard to the disenfranchised may indeed be a worthwhile enterprise.

Who Are the Poor & the Oppressed

            In the beginning, of course, there were no downtrodden classes or races. For as Genesis 1:27 states, “God created man in his own image./In the image of God he created him./Male and female he created them.” God gave man the entire earth, to enjoy, to prosper, and to propagate. Our troubles and our dilemma is not of our Lord’s making. Or as stated in Good News to the Poor:

But what Yahweh wills and what in actual fact takes place among his people and his creation are never one and the same, which is the essence of the Fall. The needs and rights of human beings have been violated and one of the results is poverty. This is not what Yahweh wills (Pilgrim, 21).

Our Lord yet remains the ultimate mediator and righteousness must be our goal.

            Let us define more closely who are the poor and the causes of their poverty. There are indeed negative views of poverty and negative views on the causes of poverty in the Bible, many of which can be found prevalent in today’s society. As can be seen in Deuteronomy 28:15-24 and Leviticus 26:14-26, the wealthy and the proud are indeed threatened with impoverishment for disobedience and violation of the Law. Those who received the wrath of the Lord did not fully appreciate that their bounty had their source as divine blessings.

There are a number of criticisms of the poor that occur in the Wisdom literature, especially the book of Proverbs “that sounds all too familiar.” The poor are lazy (Prov. 6:6-11; 10:4; 20:4-13; 24:30-34), or drunkards and gluttons or carefree spenders or pleasure-seekers (Prov. 21:17; 23:20-21). Here, “poverty is self-inflicted” (Pilgrim, 20; see also Santa Anna [1979], 1). The general tenor of Proverbs, as pointed out in Good New to the Poor, is “an exhortation to work and a serious and earnest approach to life” (Santa Anna [1979], 1). Nevertheless, the “pervasive and fundamental theme throughout the Old Testament” is that Yahweh is “the protector of the poor and needy” (Pilgrim, 20).  

In his response to Richard J. Coggins (“The Old Testament and the Poor,” EP 99), who believes “the poor are essentially those who are destitute, totally lacking in material possessions, the Reverend Dr. J. Emmette Weir argues to the contrary that the Bible teaches, the “poor are the powerless.” Weir goes on to argue that two conditions of the poor—economic destitution and lack of power—are related. Using the case of Nathan’s parable told to David (2 Samuel 11) and Psalm 72 and the case of Ahab and Jezebel’s murder of Naboth for his vineyard, Reverend Weir concludes that poverty and oppression result from the abuse of power.

This misuse of power, rather than adultery, was David’s cardinal sin, Weir further concludes.. Those who have power over others (the rulers) are “divinely charged to make sure that there [is] no oppression of the poor in the community based upon a covenant with the God who stood on the side of the disadvantaged” (Weir, 13-14). For Reverend Weir, then, the poor are oppressed, but the oppressed are not necessarily destitute.

In their book Salvation and Liberation (1984), Leonardo and Clodovis Boff present a more restrictive definition of the poor. “Today,” they conclude, “the poor are a whole class of marginalized and exploited persons in our society, marked as that society is by an exclusive partnership with a dependent capitalism” (Boff, 2).Robert Benne’s representation of the poor seems to be much broader.

There are obviously many kind of poor people among the 33 million encompassed by the government’s official definition. Appalachian hillfolk, unemployed steelworkers, children of poor families, bankrupt farmers, the urban homeless, teenage welfare mothers, unemployed and often unemployable minority youth, drug addicts, a portion of the elderly, the people with very low-paying jobs come to mind as examples (Benne, 60).

Benne’s steelworkers and farmers, as well as drug addicts, seem quite out of place in his listing of the poor.

For some among this number their circumstances could be just temporary. Although many in this class of workers have fallen far below their former wages of  $50 to $100,000 a year jobs. Of course, a great number of small farmers and industrial workers are indeed exploited and oppressed. As far as drug addicts, they could occur among the rich and well-off.; for we see them often among entertainers, athletes, and businessmen who are millionaires. This class of persons often align themselves with the rich and powerful.

Boff’s marginalized class seems then to be more akin to the majority of those found  in Benne’s list. In the U.S. setting, this group of individuals is called the underclass, “that group of low-income Americans numbering about nine million, that exists on the edge of society and is associated with much of the crime, welfare dependency, and illegitimacy, that have come to afflict American life [my italics] in recent decades” (Benne, 60). Many of these individuals and their families on the whole listed by both Boff and Benne suffer poverty over generations. Clearly, many of the individuals in Benne’s list are among America’s oppressed minorities, African-Americans and Hispanics.

Characterization of Oppression & the Oppressor

In her Bible of the Oppressed, the Costa Rican theologian Elsa Tamez, in contrast to both Boff and Benne, provides a more penetrating definition and broader scope for the representation of the poor and the oppressed. In her estimation, they are those who “suffer exploitation and death, both physical and psychological; they suffer discrimination and degradation” (Tamez, 3). “For the Bible,” according to Tamez, “oppression is the basic cause of poverty. . . .The oppressed are therefore those who have been impoverished, for while the oppressor oppresses the poor because they are poor and powerless, the poor have become poor in the first place because they have been oppressed” (Tamez, 3).  

Contrary to Benne’s view of the poor who afflict society, Tamez allows that there is indeed  “antagonism that exists between the rich and the poor” but argues more strenuously that it is the poor who are afflicted  by the rich and powerful. This kind of affliction occurs not only within sectors of a nation but also occur with whole nations as Israel was afflicted by Egypt and Babylon. Juan Alfaro agrees with Tamez’s international view of oppression when he states, “Israel was a Third World country, while Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and others took their turn as First World powers’ (Alfaro, 28).

In her Bible of the Oppressed, Tamez sketches out the forms and methods in which oppression takes place. On the international level, the oppressors makes use of enslavement and exploitation of workers, but also genocide, false characterization of workers (myth of idleness), deceitful concessions (as in Ex. 8:26, 27; 10:8; 11:26), the meeting of unequal forces (military and police), plunder and slaughter, imposition of tribute, and exile (Tamez, 42-45). On the national level, there is also exploitation of workers, but also, fraud, usury, bribery of officials, deception and complicity, murder, and sexual violation of women (Tamez, 46-48).

Although the oppressors are murderers and thieves, “their ultimate goal is not to kill or impoverish the oppressed.” These are secondary consequences. “Their ultimate objective is not to kill or impoverish the oppressed, “ according to Tamez. “Their primary objective is to increase their wealth at whatever cost” (Tamez, 41).  When not under the yoke of a foreign power, Tamez believes, the poor are oppressed “more harshly.” Behind these methods, there is an inversion of values in which people love evil and hate the good, as the prophets Micah (3:2) and Isaiah (5:20) exclaimed (Tamez, 46, 47)

Law & Justice for the Poor

In the Pentateuch, the two modes of theological discourse are narrative and law According to Elsa Tamez, both narrative and law texts use “sixteen different lexemes or roots to speak of oppression, oppressors, and the oppressed. Many of these terms are used in the law codes, including nagash (exert pressure, Ex. 5:6, 10, 14), ‘anah (to afflict, Deut. 26:6), lahats (harass, Deut 26.7), ‘ashaq (rob, Lev. 19:13), daka (dehumanize, Deut 23:1), and yanah (dominate or suppress, Lev. 25:14) [Tamez, 9-17].

Rather than the narrative, it is the “voice of law” that is the center of the Hebrew Bible (Pleins, 41, 42). Most of the pentateuchal legislation can be found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Those sections which institutionalize and deal with the ethical concerns for the poor are the Sinai Covenant Code (Exodus 21-23), Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12-26), and the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26). The biblical writers of all three codes value Moses as the “patron saint” of the Law.

These traditions that “speak to the plight of the disenfranchised in ancient Israel” represent three historical periods (Pleins, 46). The oldest of these traditions is the Sinai Covenant Code and the latest is the priestly legislation of the Holiness Code. Though these  codes overlap, they are distinctive in their interests and concerns. They are, however, more specific in their concerns for the poor than the prophetic literature (Pleins, 75-76).  

The Ten Commandments occur twice: Exodus 20:1-14 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18.  This body of law represents “a distillation of the essence of ancient Israel’s faith and ethic” (Pleins, 46) The Covenant Code (Ex. 21-23) seems to be a commentary on the Ten Commandments and together they might be viewed “as a preliminary contract and an expansive set of stipulations” that makes justice to the poor central, providing a variety of protections (Pleins, 51).

In Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27 slaves are provided protections against the abuse of their masters. When a slave owner strikes a slave who in turn loses an eye or tooth, the slave is to gain his freedom” (Pleins, 53). In 21:1-11, slaves acquired by debt are released in their seventh year, and in 23:10-11 land is required to lie fallow, vineyards and orchard are required to go untended in the seventh year all for the benefit of the poor.

The verses Exodus 22:21-27 provide protection for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. In Exodus 22:24-26, the charging of interest to the poor is forbidden: “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body.” The kidnapping and selling of persons is forbidden under the penalty of death (Ex. 21:16). Verses 23:6-10 defend the needy, the weak, and the powerless: individuals are encouraged in their in lawsuits; thus bribes are forbidden and resident aliens can not be oppressed.

            The motivation for all the laws of the Covenant Code is the remembrance of the exodus event. These laws are not intended to be read in the abstract. “This concretization of a concern for the poor and the efforts to institutionalize remedies stand at the heart of the Covenant Code. . . .If our surmising is correct,” J. David Pleins concludes, “we can go further to state that the ancient village federation found in such laws and commandments a mechanism for consolidating their position over against an encroaching monarchic elite” (Pleins, 54). That is, the Sinai Covenant attempted to strike a balance between the city and the village.

            The Deuteronomic Law Code is structured topically to follow the order of the Ten Commandments and “became a veritable commentary on both the Ten Commandments and the entire Exodus Covenant Code” (Pleins, 56).

As before, there is to be no charging of interest, no keeping of a pledge from the poor, release of slaves, no cheating of hired hands (Deut 24:10ff,, 14ff), no perversion of justice and no taking of bribes (Deut. 16:18-20; 24:10-22) The command to leave some sheaves or olives or grapes for the poor is extended beyond the 7th year to each harvest time and becomes an important welfare measure in Israel (Deut 24:19-22-29). . . . We note once again the mention of strangers, fatherless and widows (Deut. 24:14, 17, 19, 21).

According to Tamez, Israel had a reputation for treating slaves well. And as a result, slaves of many nation sought refuge in Israel. Thus, there was no fugitive slave law that required the return of slaves. On the contrary, Deut.23: 15-16 states, “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master; he shall dwell with you, in your midst . . . you shall not oppress him” (Tamez, 49).

As in the covenant code, the theological underpinning of this regard for the poor is echoed in the repeated refrain, “You shall remember you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord redeemed you” (Deut. 24:18,22).Yahweh  affirms his promise to provide relief for those who cry out to him (Tamez, 21).

Deuteronomy updates the Sinai legislation. There are both deletions and additions. The laws concerning oxen, the safekeeping and borrowing of animals, the earthen altar are deleted (Deut. 20:24-26; 21:28-37; 22;6-14).  Such deletions lead scholars to believe that Deuteronomy had an urban focus, a shift away from the agrarian background of the Covenant Code (Pleins, 60). In Deuteronomy there is an emphasis on authority figures (17:8-20), warfare (20:1-20), and sexual matters (22:13, 23-27; 23:1). The context for the compilation of Deuteronomy, some have suggested, was during the courts of Hezekiah and Josiah, early seventh century before Christ. “By implication, the question of justice to the poor served as at least a litmus test for the measuring of the failings of these monarchs” (Pleins, 61).

            The material of the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26), though containing traditions from the earliest time, is usually dated from the time of the Exile (6th century B.C.), a political program inaugurated probably in the second temple era (Pilgrim, 26-27; Pleins, 61-62).

Much of it repeats what we have already found, such as the command to leave gleanings in the field and grapes in the vineyard for the poor and sojourner (Lev. 19:1-10; 23:22) and not to oppose one’s neighbor in any way (Lev. 19:13-14, also the deaf and blind). Jesus was familiar with this section of Scripture, since from it he quoted the second of the two great commands upon which all the law and prophets depend, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). [Pilgrim. 23-24].

In Leviticus 19, where the poor receives considerable attention, the priestly writers “broaden the understanding of the disenfranchised to include the physically disabled and, presumably, the senior citizens of society (v.14) [Pleins, 67].

            It is in Leviticus that we encounter the concept of the Jubilee Year, related closely to the Sabbatical Year found in Deuteronomy 21 and 23). “According to Leviticus 25:10ff., every 49th year the following is required: a) the land lies fallow; b) slaves are freed; c) debts are remitted; and d) the new Jubilee prescription, the ancestral land is returned” (Pilgrim, 24). The return of ancestral lands was to assure that poverty did not become instituted and that great disparities of wealth would not occur among the Israelites. The land belongs to Yahweh and he gave it to the tribes as a sacrament, a gift; that gift could not be permanently removed  in perpetuity (Pleins, 66).

            In all three codes, one theme is emphasized, God is the defender of the poor and the disenfranchised, and needy. God desires justice, mercy for slaves, the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the resident alien. The ideal good of society is presented, “there will be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4). If there is the poor among you, “you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand to him and his need, you shall open your hand to him and freely land him enough to meet his need. . . . When you give to him, give freely and not with ill will; for the Lord, your God, will bless you for this in all your works and undertakings” (Deut. 15:7-11).

A Closing Thought on Then & Now

            The attitude toward the poor and the oppressed in the Pentateuch is in great contrast to that which we observe today. Now the poor and the oppressed are hounded at home and abroad. The most negative aspects of the oppressed, resident aliens, and foreigners are those which receive the most attention in our media. Though we have preachers, prophets, and churches aplenty, few rail against politicians who institute injustices and inequities that repress exploited workers and the poor. Rather today’s theology, religious, and theologians “confirm the poor in their condition,” operating “from the center of power.” They have “internalized the social conditions of his context” (Santa Anna 1981, 116) and thus  blame and shame the poor for  their condition of poverty and powerlessness.

Poor estranged fathers are hounded by the courts and jailed for their poverty. Yet billions are dollars are allocated to make war on impoverished nations and more billions are spent to build fine edifices for worship and entertainment. Year after year, politicians cajoled and bought by business lobbyists defeat legislation to assure a living wage. As Frederick Herzog asked in 1974, “Do we want to continue Social Darwinism forever, always competing with one another, tied to each other mainly through the cash nexus?”  (Herzog, 318).

            The world of the Pentateuch is indeed far more primitive than our contemporary world. But in sentiment and purpose, it seems qualitatively much more advanced and humanistic than today’s commercial emphasis. No, the Pentateuch may not be a revolutionary manual likened to that of Marx, Lenin, and Mao. Yet for its insistence on the sacredness of humanity and the planet on which we live, today’s generation has much to learn from its vision of human selfhood as part of a greater community and its encouragement of a heartfelt willingness to sacrifice for others. I admonish our leaders to adhere to its precepts. I encourage the poor and the oppressed to meditate on the words and sentiments of the Law toward their condition and be inspired.  If they cry out earnestly to the Lord they will be heard and indeed they will be delivered.

Works Consulted

Alfaro, Juan. “God Protects and Liberates the Poor—OT.” In Option for the Poor: Challenge to the Rich Countries. Eds. Leonardo Boff and Virgil Elizando. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, LTD, 1986, pp. 27-35.

Benne, Robert. “The Preferential Option of the Poor and American Public Policy.” In The Preferential Option for the Poor. Ed. Richard John Neuhaus. Grand Rapids: Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, pp. 53-71.

Boff, Leonardo, and Clodovis Boff. Salvation and Liberation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984.

De Santa Anna, Julio. Good News to the Poor: The Challenge of the Poor in History of the Church. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979.

De Santa Ana, Julio. Towards a Church of the Poor: The Work of an Ecumenical Group on the Church and the Poor. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1981.  

DeVries, Barend A. Champions of the Poor: The Economic Consequences of Judeo-Christian Values. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1998


Herzog, Frederick. “The Liberation of White Theology.” The Christian Century (March, 20, 1974), pp. 316-319.

Pilgrim, Walter E.. Good News to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981.

Pleins, J. David. The Social Vision of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Tamez, Elsa. Bible of the Oppressed. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1982.

Weir, J. Emmette. “The Poor Are Powerless: A Response to R.J. Coggins.” The Expository Times 100 (1988), pp. 13-15.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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posted 29 September 2007




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