Podcast: Axe to the Root
Topics: Christian Life, Doctrinal Studies
Every single practical covenant action follows these two principles: work and community.
Book of the Week:
– Bringing in the Sheaves: Transforming Poverty into Productivity by George Grant
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Welcome to Episode 23 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about charity. No, not welfare in the modern form of giving money to the poor, although a part of what we will be talking about will have to do with giving money to the poor. We will be talking about charity in the context of the Biblical Covenant; charity that builds the Kingdom of God and expands it beyond its present boundaries. Charity that honors God as King and is based on His Gospel of the Kingdom.
Before I start, I will say that most of the material in this podcast has already been published before in an article titled “Charity: The Covenantal Way,” in Faith for All Life of March/April 2013. Faith for All Life is a bi-monthly magazine published by Chalcedon Foundation, which was founded and run for decades by R.J. Rushdoony. It is now run by his son, Mark Rushdoony, who faithfully continues the legacy of his father. Faith for All Life is worth subscribing to, and Chalcedon is one of the few true and faithful legitimate ministries which deserve your support.
Every time we talk about Biblical charity, we need to understand that we today in America – and in most cultures around the world – do not really know what poverty is. Our so-called “poverty line” today would be immeasurably high in the eyes of the vast majority of the people in history. During most of human history, the average family survived on the equivalent of today’s $2 per day – a couple of pounds of bread or potatoes, very rarely meat, a shabby dwelling, and one set of clothes. Poverty meant something way below that: it meant the total lack of food, the inability to supply the body with enough calories to go to work the next day. Such poverty was still present in certain places in the world just 60 years ago, and was endemic 100 and more years ago. It was only in the last 150 years in the West, and only in the last 60 years everywhere that poverty started to be redefined to mean something else but poverty. In the US, only a very small portion of the population really knows what poverty is – the homeless – and even among them, it is not clear to what extent it is a self-conscious choice, and to what extent it is really unfortunate circumstances.
The Biblical definition for poverty – for a person who qualified for a charity loan, that is, a loan at no interest and only a symbolic collateral – is in Exodus 22:25-27, and that definition draws a very low poverty line: The person has only his cloak and it serves him as a covering during the night. Apparently, anything above that would be considered sufficient assets to disqualify a person from being poor. Leviticus 25:39 describes a poor person as someone who has to sell himself in slavery. So poverty in the Bible – and throughout much of history – used to be a really desperate condition, and poor were those people who today don’t even exist anymore. In fact, even today’s homeless beggars have much more to eat – out of the general abundance of the society – than most of the average folks hundreds of years ago.
Thus, we don’t really have poor people today – not in the Biblical sense. Don’t get me wrong, I am not having nostalgic dreams about the past and its levels of poverty. To the contrary, I like it when poverty is either eradicated or its definition is changed to denote something much better. And indeed, the definition of poverty today has been changed to mean not the lack of nourishment but the lack of prospective growth. The inhabitants of even the poorest neighborhoods in America have their basic needs covered; it’s the hope for improvement that is gone, and thus they are considered “poor.” And this is a good thing; this change of definitions, from “lack of food” to “lack of hope for improvement” is the product of the postmillennialism of the early colonists in America. Ronald Wright nailed it when he said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In the final account, we consider “poor” not those who lack basic sustenance but those who do not consider themselves temporarily embarrassed millionaires – because this is the product of the victorious, optimistic eschatology of America’s founding generations. And thus, socialism was able to get a foothold here only when that victorious eschatology was replaced with premillennialism and amillennialism in the church.
Either way, changed definitions or not, poor will always exist among us, Jesus said in Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7, and John 12:8, and “you can give to them whenever you want,” He added. Not when the government forces you, but whenever you want – establishing the voluntary nature of charity over against the pagan principle of forced charity. The question is then, When should we want to give? Or, How should we give? What is our giving supposed to be? What purposes is it supposed to serve? Obviously, we are to be free from government interference in our giving or not giving, but when and how are we supposed to be giving? When and how are supposed to be taking care of the needs of the poor?
The answers to this question must take us beyond the specific topic of giving. They must take us to a larger picture, and that is, What does covenant activity consist of? We already talked about covenant thinking, and we saw that covenant thinking is always ethical/judicial, that is, it is always concerned with issues of good and evil. But what about the practical living out of the covenant? For this we need to return to the first practical actions that Adam was commanded to do in the Garden, for they reveal to us the two major principles of covenantal action.
These two principles of covenant action we can see in Genesis 2:15: “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” The words “dress it” and “keep it” seem to be problematic words for translators for there are apparently no two versions that agree in translation. Some say “work it and keep it,” others “cultivate and keep it,” others “work it and guard it,” etc. It is important to us, though, to know what they mean, for these words seem to be the beginning of all covenant practical action, and certainly God has placed in them meaning that would be strategic for our understanding of how to apply the covenant.
The first word, “work,” or “cultivate,” is the Hebrew word abad, which means “serve.” Or, rather, this is the main meaning of the word, but it is used to mean other things as well. “Work” or “cultivate” is the second most common meaning. Gen 3:23, after the fall, God sent out the man from Eden to cultivate – abad – the ground. Cain was a tiller – obed – of the ground (Gen. 4:2, 12). After the sin and the banishment of Cain in Genesis 4, the word assumes the meaning of “serve” through the book of Genesis, and eventually means “forced slave labor” in Genesis 49 and Exodus 1. God then appears in the picture in Exodus 3, for the first time in a specific redemptive promise, and suddenly, the meaning of the word is changed – in Exodus 3:12 – to “worship.” From there, through Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments), the word is used simultaneously for slavery to Pharaoh and worship to God: as if two abads – slavery and worship – are at war against each other. The war is won for worship over slavery, and then, in a culmination, the meaning of the word is restored to “work,” “cultivate,” in the Fourth Commandment: “Six days shall thou abad.” The word is used twice in the Decalogue: “no abad” to foreign gods, “yes abad” for six days.
But the real overall culmination of the use of the word abad is in the New Testament, in John 5:17: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” The text is in Greek, but since the context has to do with the Sabbath and the Fourth Commandment, Jesus would have used the same word, abad. And the context also shows what Jesus considers real work, real abad: He had just healed a person. That is, He had just restored a man to a state of productivity and growth. The “cultivate” meaning of the word in Genesis 2-4, the “work” meaning of the word in the Decalogue, and the meaning of the word “work” in Jesus’s statement about His Father and Himself, all point to the same goal: growth and expansion. This is the first principle of covenantal action.
The second word, translated as “keep” or “guard” – shamar – is not as spectacular as abad, and is mostly a military term, meaning “guard, watch.” As in the name of the capital of the Northern Kingdom, Samaria, that is, a watch, or keep, or outpost of Yahweh. It is also used with the meaning of pasturing flocks (as in keeping the flock together), or of gatekeepers, or of watching or observing, etc. The etymology of the word comes properly from “hedge around with spikes or horns.” It presupposes a boundary protected against violations and incursions. The culmination of the use of the word shamar in the New Testament is in John 21:15-17 where Jesus commands Peter three times to tend His sheep. The Hebrew/Aramaic word He would have used for tending sheep would have been shamar.
The two words, then, abad and shamar, stand for the two principles of covenantal action of work and community, or expand and consolidate. Man had the Garden, the starting point, the initial capital of his expansion over the earth. His task was to work and expand the economy of the Garden outside the Garden. The Garden was also his community. He was supposed to protect it against capital destruction and depletion, and in the future, as he expanded, to protect his new conquests from returning to their chaotic and non-economic state. All covenant practice boils down to these two principles. Every single covenant practical covenant action follows one of these two principles: work and community.
There are, thus, two main groups of charity activities in the Bible, corresponding to the two main principles of work and community.
Under the first principle, work, poor and needy people were given the opportunity to participate in the productive life of the community by contributing services to the limit of their abilities – services that normally, under the regular market practices, won’t have the marginal value to make economic sense. Yes, I know, some listeners would object that in a Biblical, free, prosperous economy, where there is no additional cost on labor imposed by government regulations, every labor will make economic sense. While this is the belief of some libertarians, it is not exactly true: hiring labor does have certain expenses that are market expenses and are not incurred by government intervention or other disturbances on the market. The law of marginal utility also dictates that more workers on a particular job doesn’t always translate into more efficiency. (Think about unloading a truck with bricks: 10 workers would be better than 1 worker, but 10,000 workers would be much worse than 1 worker.) So, we expect Jesus’s words that there will always be poor among us to be true, and that there will always be people whose labor’s marginal value will be a bit lower than the expenses of hiring them. So, what do we do with these people who are, for one reason or another, useless from an economic perspective?
The Biblical answer, under the principle of work, is, teach them to be useful and productive. But most of the time teaching itself is not a productive work – that is, the results are not immediately visible, they only come after some time. So the poor and the needy need to be employed in a work that does not yield positive economic results right away. The two main Biblical solutions under that heading are gleaning and indentured servitude.
The right of the poor to gleaning was established by the commandments in Lev. 19:9-10 and Deut. 24:19-22. The text in Leviticus commanded that a landowner specifically refrains from harvesting the corners of his field and vineyard. The text in Deuteronomy added the stipulation that the owner doesn’t go through the field or the vineyard a second time to pick up the fallen or forgotten sheaves or grapes, nor beat his olive tree a second time. All that was dropped or forgotten, plus the corners, was to be left to the poor and the needy. Sometimes the poor and the needy would even directly follow the reapers and the pickers to pick what was left, as in Ruth chapter 2. In addition, even before harvest, anyone was allowed to enter a field or a vineyard and satisfy his hunger from the fruit of that field, without picking for commercial use (Deut. 23:24-25); the poor would have been most likely to take advantage of that law. The laws for gleaning were directed not to the civil government to enforce but to the private landowners. In his commentary on the passage in Deuteronomy 24, Rushdoony said, “A community without charity is quickly dead.” Landowners were supposed to know this truth.
Gleaning was a hard and uneconomic work. The amount of work put into it was far more than the expected results. There really was no economic reason for any landowner to glean his own fields or vineyards – especially in the time of harvest, when every hour counted. (There’s a very short window of time within which the harvest must be done.) Thus, the only real reason for a landowner to glean his own fields and vineyards was if he specifically wanted to spend resources to deprive the poor of their sustenance. God forbade such malice.
Gleaning was also open to all. There was no limitation as to who could glean: strangers could also participate, whether they lived in Israel or not. In a sense, the whole world was invited to glean on the fields of Israel – which was the point of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:28, “even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” The poor of Israel and of all the world were invited to take advantage of Israel’s abundance, work hard for their sustenance, and through work, learn to be productive, demonstrate character, and get out of poverty. Just like Ruth.
What was limited to the covenant people was the combination of charity loans and indentured servitude. A man and his family could fall on hard times, for one reason or another. It might have been because of his character and lack of wisdom. It might have been because of unfortunate circumstances. For one reason or another, he could down to having only his cloak for his covering at night – and that cloak was his only movable property which he can offer as a collateral for a loan. No matter what the circumstances were that led to his poverty, as long as he was a faithful member of the covenant of God, he was entitled to a charity loan from his wealthier neighbors. Deuteronomy 15:7-8expressly commands his wealthier neighbors to extend charity loans to him, for his sustenance. They were not allowed to profit from these loans: no interest on charity loans, no keeping of the collateral overnight (it’s his only covering), and only a limited period of validity, until the Sabbath year, after which all outstanding loans are forgiven. And the neighbors were not allowed to refuse to extend a charity loan close to the end of the period; Deut. 15:9 calls such a thought “wicked,” using the same word, belial, as Paul uses in 2 Cor. 6:15, “What agreement can there be between Christ and Belial?”
Creditors were not allowed to profit from charity loans, but the poor still had to work to pay them back. A poor person who didn’t make his loan payments could be taken into slavery. That slavery, of course, was limited to six years, but it meant work. After the sixth year, the master was commanded to free his Hebrew slave and give him enough starting capital to set him on the road to independent productivity. This, again, mean that the poor person was expected to grow above his previous state of dependency and poverty.
So, as far as the principle of work was concerned, the wealthy were not allowed to grow or profit off the backs of the poor people. (And poor meant poor, not hired workers who received wages.) On the other hand, the poor were not left without responsibility: they had to work to pay back the loan. Or, in case they were not making their payments, they could be sold in servitude. Both the loan and the servitude were limited in time, but both required work. And the ultimate goal was growth out of poverty, out of dependency, into dominion and independence.
But growth is not everything in the Covenant of God. Community is the other principle of covenant action. In the principle of work the people were divided in terms of wealth, and those in poverty were placed in a lower position – gleaning, debt, slavery – with the purpose of encouraging them and training them to grow out of their dependence. But in the principle of community all the inequalities between the members of the community had to be erased and even the poorest and destitute members of the community had to be given the opportunity to be equal to everyone else, and thus, their loyalty to their community be strengthened. The lines were to be drawn not between the individuals within the community but between the community and the world outside; just as Adam was commanded to protect, shamar, the Garden, thus, the community action was meant to consolidate the community and thus protect its integrity and health.
Applied to charity, this principle worked out in the form of community feasts. The community feasts were supposed to include everyone living in the community – poor and rich, adults and children, homeborn and strangers living in the community. There was to be no difference in the feast. There was to be no separate feast for the rich and famous and influential oligarchy of the community. There were to be no elitist cocktail parties. The poor – even if they had nothing to contribute – were to be part of the feast.
The third year’s tithe of all the crops was supposed to be such a community feast and a charity event. Deut. 14:22-29 establishes such a feast of the tithe each year, and then every third year, the tithe had to be deposited in the town for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. Deut. 26:12-15 repeats the same commandment and adds a special prayer of devotion and a prayer for blessing, with the blessing centered around the fact that the third year’s tithe was given to the Levite, the alien, the orphan, and the widow. The end of the harvest was a celebration, a feast, and the poor were to benefit from that community feast in two ways: first, by participating in the feast, and second, by being able to freely feed on every third year’s tithe, deposited in the town.
The New Testament continues the same tradition in the church. First of all, the early church was an agape feast, not a pews/pulpit setting. The Supper was the center of the service, and it was where all the members of the church, freemen and slaves, poor and rich, women and men and children, etc., were to be equal and full-fledged members of the community. Paul’s criticism against the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 makes no sense in the modern church service. (Can you imagine anyone getting drunk or full with the amount of food at the modern ritual that passes for the Lord’s Supper?) It only makes sense if the center of the early church’s service was the community feast. For that community feast to remain a community feast, they had to wait for each other instead of a few who have come earlier fill their stomachs. Given that most of the time it was the poor and the slaves who couldn’t make it earlier, Paul’s rebuke was in fact a restoration of the principle of the Law that the poor were to be invited to celebrate with the wealthy. In the same way, James’s admonitions in James 2:1-7, making the poor sit on the floor or farther away, while the rich were given an honorable place, only makes sense in a community feast around a table. The poor sitting on the floor is the same symbolism as that of dogs who eat the crumbs under the table. Again, in the context of the church service being a community feast, James’s point is the same; the poor must be allowed the same honor as the rich around the table, so that no one feels useless in the covenant community. The way to protect the borders of the community was by consolidating the community, rich and poor. That was done by the charity of the community feasts.
Between these two principles, the covenant community’s poor were to be taken care of, both through work and growth, and through community cohesion. They were to be taught to prosper, and they were to be protected as members of the community. Their inferior economic status was to be both acknowledged – through gleaning, loans, and servitude – and their full membership was also to be honored, in the community feasts and their share of the abundance God has given. In all this, the covenant community’s life depended on how they treated their poor. And what applied to Israel, applies today to the church.
And how these two principles should work in the modern church is a topic which we will leave for another podcast in the future.
The book I will assign for reading today is Bringing in the Sheaves: Transforming Poverty into Productivity, by George Grant. A short book but very important, explaining charity from the perspective of the Law of God.
And, as always, I will dare bring to your attention the mission field that I have always had on my heart: Bulgaria, and Eastern Europe in general. After a generation of Communism, the culture there I still plagued by economic legacy which destroys productivity. Part of our mission has been to preach and teach the Biblical principles for both economic action and covenantal charity. We have translated quite a few books on these topics. We already have fruit, but we still need to do more. In order to build the intellectual foundation fort the future Christian civilization, we need to out-publish the competition. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to our newsletter, and donate. It is a good cause, and the ministry has proven it can win against all odds. God bless you.