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The Vision of Deuteronomy 15 With Regard to Poverty, Socialism, and Capitalism

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Abstract

Economic growth in the twenty-first century offers the possibility to eliminate extreme poverty in the world. This article argues that such a wonderful achievement would not contradict the vision of Deuteronomy 15:11 because the verse should be understood as referring to relative poverty, which, the verse maintains will always remain in the world. On the other hand, the eradication of extreme poverty in the world conforms to the vision of Deuteronomy 15:4 that there could be no poor from an absolute perspective. Thus, the vision of Deuteronomy 15 with regard to poverty is a potential world where relative poverty exists but not absolute poverty. This vision is in harmony with the capitalist system, which promotes economic growth but does not aim for absolute equality.
Andrew Schein
Netanya Academic College
Bar Ilan University
The Vision of
Deuteronomy 15
with Regard to
Poverty, Socialism,
and Capitalism
Journal of Markets & Morality
Volume 9, Number 2 (Fall 2006): 251–259
Copyright © 2006
Economic growth in the twenty-first century offers the possibility to eliminate
extreme poverty in the world. This article argues that such a wonderful achieve-
ment would not contradict the vision of Deuteronomy 15:11 because the verse
should be understood as referring to relative poverty, which, the verse maintains
will always remain in the world. On the other hand, the eradication of extreme
poverty in the world conforms to the vision of Deuteronomy 15:4 that there could
be no poor from an absolute perspective. Thus, the vision of Deuteronomy 15
with regard to poverty is a potential world where relative poverty exists but not
absolute poverty. This vision is in harmony with the capitalist system, which
promotes economic growth but does not aim for absolute equality.
In a recent fascinating book, Jeffrey Sachs (2005) has argued that extreme
poverty in the world can be eliminated by the year 2025. Sachs (20) defines
extreme poverty as a situation where “households cannot meet basic needs for
survival”; for example, “they are “chronically hungry” and lack “basic articles
of clothing, such as shoes.” Sachs distinguishes extreme poverty from moder-
ate poverty wherein a person’s basic needs are met, but just barely. This is
based on the World Bank’s measurement of the number of people whose
income is under one dollar a day (from a purchasing power parity [PPP] per-
spective) as opposed to the number of people whose income is between one
dollar and two dollars a day. A person is considered in extreme poverty if his
or her income is below one dollar a day, while those people whose income is
between one dollar and two dollars a day are considered to be in moderate
poverty.
251
Andrew Schein
252
Chen and Ravallion (2004) estimate that in 2001 in the developing world
there were approximately 1.1 billion people in extreme poverty and 1.6 billion
people in moderate poverty.1However, this enormous figure masks the sub-
stantial progress in reducing extreme poverty in recent times. Chen and
Ravallion estimate that from 1981 to 2001, the number of people who are con-
sidered to be extremely poor in the world has declined from 1.5 billion to 1.1
billion, due mostly to the huge decline in poverty in China (422 million) and a
large decline in poverty in India (23 million). However, in some areas, there
was an increase in extreme poverty; for example, in Eastern Europe (14 mil-
lion), in Latin America (14 million), and most significantly, in Africa where
the number of people living in extreme poverty almost doubled from 163 mil-
lion to 313 million.
This overall reduction in the number of poor people living in extreme
poverty in the world has encouraged Sachs to argue that if the richer countries
would offer financial assistance to the poorer countries to enable the poorer
countries to get their “feet on the ladder of development” then the ensuing eco-
nomic growth would lift all the poor people in the world out of the dire straits
of extreme poverty by the year 2025. Furthermore, if this goal can be attained,
then it can also be envisioned that if economic growth would continue, then
even moderate poverty could be stamped out in the world. While the actual-
ization of this noble goal remains in doubt, just the possibility of ending
poverty in the world raises the question of whether such an outcome contra-
dicts Deuteronomy 15:11, which records:
For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I
command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.2
This question is not just theoretical but also textual because the biblical text
itself, just seven verses earlier, postulates that it is possible that there could be
a world with no poor people, as Deuteronomy 15:4 states:
There shall be no needy among you—since the Lord your God will bless
you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion.
What is the vision of Deuteronomy 15 with regard to poverty—a world that is
always doomed to have poor people or a world with no poverty?
This article will examine various approaches to understanding the apparent
contradiction between Deuteronomy 15:4 and Deuteronomy 15:11. It will be
argued that the contradiction can be best explained by taking into consideration
the difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty: Deuteronomy
15:4 refers to the case of absolute poverty, while Deuteronomy 15:11 refers to
253
the case of relative poverty. With this understanding, Deuteronomy 15:11,
would not preclude the eradication of extreme and moderate poverty in the
world, but it would reject the idea of universal communism/socialism of com-
plete equality in the world.
Four Approaches to Understanding
Deuteronomy 15:4 and 11
One popular approach to understanding Deuteronomy 15:4 and 11 by com-
mentators both medieval and modern is that 15:4 refers to an ideal state where
the people are obedient to the law, while 15:11 refers to the realistic state that
there will always be poor people. For example, Wright (1996, 189) explains:3
Verses 4–6 portray an ideal situation: an Israel so rejoicing in God’s blessing
that they fully obey God’s law, and thereby enjoy further blessing in a mutu-
ally reinforcing cycle of gift and response. In such a context, there need be
no poverty.… Verses 7–11, on the other hand, are based on the equally char-
acteristic Deuteronomic awareness that Israel would not fully obey God in
the socioeconomic realm, and therefore those verses build their exhortation
on the realistic assumption that there will be those who need special care
and attention in society because of hardship and need.
This dichotomy between idealism and reality is not satisfactory. If Deuteron-
omy 15:11 is written from the realistic perspective that there will never be a
period of full obedience to God and, hence, that there will never cease to be
needy ones, then Deuteronomy 15:4 will never be fulfilled. Thus, this approach
implies that the vision of Deuteronomy 15 contradicts Sachs’ goal of eliminat-
ing poverty in the world. Another difficulty with the dichotomy between ideal-
ism and realism is that Deuteronomy 15:4 is a motive statement for people to
remit loans in the seventh year and that the remitting of loans will not cause
one to become poor. However, a theoretical blessing that will never occur will
not inspire people to remit loans. In addition, if poverty is the result of peo-
ple’s sin, then the approach stigmatizes the poor: They are sinners. Accord-
ingly, this would discourage people from lending to the poor, which contra-
dicts the intent of Deuteronomy 15:11.
A second approach to understanding the verses is that they have a different
geographical perspective; 15:4 is referring to the land of Israel where poverty
could be eliminated, while 15:11 is referring to the rest of the world where
there would always be poverty. Miller (1990, 137) writes:
The Vision of Deuteronomy 15
with Regard to Poverty, Socialism,
and Capitalism
Andrew Schein
254
Verse 11a should be translated, “For the poor will never cease off the earth.”
As verse 4 has indicated, in a land enriched by God’s blessing and filled
with those who obey the Lord’s instruction, there will be no poor. That word
is to be taken seriously. Equally serious and realistic is the awareness that
such conditions do not operate throughout the world.
With this understanding, the vision of Deuteronomy 15 only accords with
Sachs’ goal in the land of Israel, but in the remainder of the world, the vision
contradicts the goal of eradicating poverty. However, Hamilton (1992) rejects
this distinction. He points out that Deuteronomy 15:11 is part of a section that
begins with 15:7, which is intended to be a contrasting example to 15:4. Thus,
he argues that both verses are referring to the identical geographical area, and
Hamilton concludes (222), “the land in 15:11 cannot be other than a reference
to Israel.”
A third approach to understanding these verses is to argue that 15:11 does
not really mean that there will always be poor people. Friedman (2003, 614)
writes:
It seems to me that the problem arises because everyone takes the verse to
mean that there will never stop being indigent people. But it simply says
“there won’t stop.” I take that to mean that poverty will not just come to a
stop on its own one day—without any actions by humans.… The statements
here (15:11) and in 15:4 are consistent: there will be no poverty only if peo-
ple act to end it.
This reading means that Deuteronomy 15 fully accords with the goal of elimi-
nating poverty in the world. This reading, however, is difficult even following
Friedman’s translation of the verse 15:11, which is that “there won’t stop being
an indigent in the land” because the verse still means that there will always be
poor people. In his commentary, Friedman adds the qualifying phrase “without
any actions by humans,” but this is not in the text.
A new and fourth approach to understanding Deuteronomy 15:4 and 11 is
that the apparent contradiction between the verses can be resolved by taking
into account the difference between the terms absolute poverty and relative
poverty. Extreme poverty and moderate poverty are both examples of defining
the term poverty from an absolute perspective,4but poverty can also be defined
from a relative perspective—that some people have less income than others.
Many governments use this relative perspective to determine the poverty line
in their countries. For example, in modern-day Israel, the poverty line is 50
percent of the median income of the country.
255
The Economist (2005) presents a fascinating example of the concepts of rel-
ative and absolute poverty. The journal compared two different individuals: an
unemployed person living in America who receives $521 a month from gov-
ernment assistance to a surgeon in the Congo whose salary is $250 a month
but who can earn another $400 by working extra hours. While these two peo-
ple had similar incomes, from a relative perspective, the unemployed person is
considered to be poor in America where the median income is $3,400, while
the surgeon is considered to be well off in the Congo. However, from an
absolute perspective, the poor in America live better than the surgeon. For
example, the surgeon’s house does not have running water, has electricity
maybe twice a week, and has no air conditioning. In America 75 percent of the
poor households have air conditioning.
These two definitions of poverty lead to different implications as to whether
a society can eliminate poverty. For example, if the standard of absolute pov-
erty is one dollar a day, and the standard of relative poverty is an income less
than 50 percent of the median income of the country, then it is possible that
there could be no poor people from an absolute perspective because everybody
could have an income of more than one dollar a day. Still, there could be rela-
tive poverty in that a person has an income less than 50 percent of the median
income.5On the other hand, these different definitions could lead to the oppo-
site case. In this scenario, there is absolute poverty but no relative poverty, as
in the case where everybody in society has an equal income of fifty cents a
day.
With this understanding of the terms absolute and relative poverty, the
apparent contradiction of Deuteronomy 15:4 and 11 can be resolved. Deuteron-
omy 15:4 should be understood to mean that if the people follow the laws,
then there will be no absolute poverty in society. Everybody would be able to
purchase the minimum amount of goods needed to survive. Accordingly, a per-
son should be willing to remit loans in the seventh year. Deuteronomy 15:4
concludes by recording that God would bless the land, which refers to absolute
levels of wealth, but there is no promise of equality.
On the other hand, Deuteronomy 15:11 should be understood to mean that
even if the people obey the laws, there will always be relative poverty because
the national income will never be distributed completely equally in society.
Accordingly, there is an obligation to lend to the poor who are less fortunate
even if there is no absolute poverty. Thus, Deuteronomy 15:8 records that “you
must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs,” which
means that the lending is for all the needs of a poor person and not just to
maintain a minimum level of subsistence.6
The Vision of Deuteronomy 15
with Regard to Poverty, Socialism,
and Capitalism
Andrew Schein
256
This understanding of Deuteronomy 15:4 and 11 means that Sach’s plan to
eliminate poverty by the year 2025 does not contradict the vision of Deuteron-
omy 15; his goal is to eradicate absolute poverty in the world. The large income
gaps among the different nations in the world would remain, however. Yet,
this understanding of Deuteronomy 15:4 and 11 raises questions as to whether
the vision of Deuteronomy 15 accords with the idea of universal communism
(socialism) of absolute equality in society.
Deuteronomy 15, Socialism, and Capitalism
In 1902, Nachman Syrkin (1868–1924) an early Zionist socialist leader in-
voked Deuteronomy 15:4 as a basis for socialism. He stated: “It was this people
that thousands of years ago said that ‘there shall be no poor amongst you’ and
made social laws such as the Jubilee, the sabbatical year and all the laws of
gleaning in order that justice rule in the world.”7Apparently, Syrkin under-
stood the term poor in Deuteronomy 15:4 from a relative perspective that there
would be no relative poverty; thus the verse accords with the idea of absolute
equality.8However, as argued above, the term poor in Deuteronomy 15:4
should be understood from an absolute perspective. In this case, the verse cor-
responds better to the capitalistic system because capitalism generates greater
economic growth than does socialism. For example, Chen and Ravallion (2004,
17) credit the economic reforms in China that “de-collectivized agriculture and
introduced the ‘household responsibility system’ giving farmers considerably
greater control over their land and output choices” as being the most likely
reason for the large decline in the number of people living in extreme poverty
in China in the 1980s. Thus, it was the introduction of capitalism in China that
reduced the number of people living in absolute poverty. This relationship
between Deuteronomy 15:4 and capitalism accords with Novak’s (1991, 421)
observation that “the strongest moral claim for democratic capitalism is that it
is the most practical hope of the world’s poor: no magic wand, but the best
hope.”
In addition, the differentiation between relative and absolute poverty in
Deuteronomy 15 means that not only does Deuteronomy 15:4 not reject capi-
talism but also that Deuteronomy 15:11 is in harmony with the capitalist sys-
tem. If the term poor in Deuteronomy 15:11 is understood from a relative per-
spective, then the verse proclaims that there will always be relative poverty;
some individuals will have less income than others. These different levels of
income are intrinsic to the capitalist system because it is these differences that
serve as incentives for people to work harder. Yet, it must be noted that this
257
reading of Deuteronomy 15:11 does not justify all possible distributions of
income in society. The verse requires one to aid the poor, which reduces the
level of relative poverty. However, even with this aid, in the end, some income
differences will exist and hence relative poverty will always remain.
Conclusion
Economic growth in the twenty-first century offers the possibility to eliminate
extreme and moderate poverty in the world. Such a wonderful achievement
would not contradict Deuteronomy 15:11, because the verse should be under-
stood as referring to relative poverty, which, the verse maintains, will always
remain in the world. On the other hand, the eradication of absolute poverty in
the world would conform to the vision of Deuteronomy 15:4 that there could
be no poor from an absolute perspective. Thus, the vision of Deuteronomy 15
with regard to poverty is a potential world where relative poverty exists but
not absolute poverty. This vision is in harmony with the capitalist system,
which promotes economic growth but does not aim for absolute equality.
Notes
1. Chen and Ravillion’s data is based on poverty lines of $1.08 and $2.15 in 1993
PPP prices. Their estimates mean that in 2001, at least 44 percent of the approxi-
mately 6.1 billion people in the world were either extremely poor or moderately
poor, and these numbers could be higher depending on the number of poor people
in the developed countries.
2. This translation and all subsequent quotes from Deuteronomy are from Tigay
(1996). This declaration is also recorded in Matthew 26:11, “The poor you will
always have with you.” See also Mark 14:7 and John 12:8.
3. Other proponents of this approach include the medieval commentator, Rashi
(1040–1105, [1985 edition]), and modern commentators, Driver (1965), Von Rad
(1973), Tigay (1996), and Christensen (2001).
4. It should be noted that both the one-dollar- and the two-dollar-a-day income levels
are very low levels with which to measure absolute poverty. The United States
also measures poverty from an absolute level, but the poverty line in the United
States in 2004 was $9,645 (U.S. Census Bureau) for a single individual, consider-
ably more than two dollars a day.
5. This is the present-day situation in most Western countries if one accepts Sachs’
(20) assumption that “extreme poverty only occurs in developing countries.”
The Vision of Deuteronomy 15
with Regard to Poverty, Socialism,
and Capitalism
Andrew Schein
258
6. An interesting example of this understanding of Deuteronomy 15:8 is that the
Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 67b) explains that the verse obligates one to provide
a horse and a slave to run before the horse for a poor person who had been accus-
tomed to these amenities. The horse and the runner are not needed for the poor
person to reach a minimal level of existence but are an attempt to alleviate relative
poverty.
7. Quoted in Frankel (1981), 306.
8. Syrkin also invoked the laws of the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 as support for socialism,
but these laws concerning the return of each person to his ancestral land every
fifty years should be understood not as generating absolute equality but as an
opportunity for the poor to better themselves.
References
Chen, Shaohua, and Martin Ravillion. 2004. “How Have the World’s Poor Fared Since
the Early 1980s?” World Bank Research Working Paper 3341.
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21:9. Revised. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Driver, S. R. 1965. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy. Edinburgh:
T & T Clark.
Economist. 2005. “The Mountain Man and the Surgeon.” December 24, 377:24–26.
Frankel, Jonathan. 1981. Prophecy and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
Friedman, Richard Elliot. 2003. Commentary on the Torah. San Francisco: Harper-
SanFrancisco.
Hamilton, J. M. 1992. “Ha’ares in the Shemitta Law.” Vetus Testamentum, 62, no. 2:
214–22.
Miller, Patrick D. 1990, Deuteronomy. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teach-
ing and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press.
Novak, Michael. 1991. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. New York: Madison
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Silbermann and M. Rosenbaum. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1985.
Sachs, Jeffrey. 2005. The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime.
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Tigay, J. H. 1996. The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: The Jewish
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The Vision of Deuteronomy 15
with Regard to Poverty, Socialism,
and Capitalism
Article
Cultural frames, or myths we use to communicate, shape how we understand social problems, such as child hunger. In 48 interviews, we identified metaphors and myths, such as “the poor will always be with you,” “meat product,” and “butterfly effects” that point to cultural frames of child hunger. Three different frames were identified – the welfare state, the free market, and the resilience and resistance frame. Speakers used frames to communicate different types of social responsibility for hunger. Understanding which frames we invoke with our stories may allow for more effective collaborative action to end child hunger.
Article
A new assessment is made of the developing world's progress against poverty. By the frugal $1 a day standard there were 1.1 billion poor people in 2001--almost 400 million fewer than 20 years earlier. During that period the number of poor people declined by more than 400 million in China, though half the decline was in the early 1980s and the number outside China rose slightly. At the same time the number of people in the world living on less than $2 a day rose, so that there has been a marked bunching up of people living between $1 and $2 a day. Sub-Saharan Africa has become the region with the highest incidence of extreme poverty and the greatest depth of poverty. If these trends continue, the 1990 aggregate $1 a day poverty rate will be halved by 2015, meeting the Millennium Development Goal, though only East and South Asia will reach this goal. Copyright 2004, Oxford University Press.
Ha’ares in the Shemitta Law” Vetus Testamentum Miller, Patrick D. 1990, Deuteronomy. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teach-ing and Preaching The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism Chumash with Rashi’s Commentary The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime
  • J M Hamilton
  • Novak
  • Michael
Hamilton, J. M. 1992. “Ha’ares in the Shemitta Law.” Vetus Testamentum, 62, no. 2: 214–22. Miller, Patrick D. 1990, Deuteronomy. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teach-ing and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press. Novak, Michael. 1991. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. New York: Madison Books. Rashi. 1985. Chumash with Rashi’s Commentary. Translated and edited by A. M. Silbermann and M. Rosenbaum. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1985. Sachs, Jeffrey. 2005. The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime
A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy
  • S R Driver
  • Clark
Driver, S. R. 1965. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
World Bible Commentary: Volume 6a Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9
  • Duane L Christensen
Christensen, Duane L. 2001. World Bible Commentary: Volume 6a Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9. Revised. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Mountain Man and the Surgeon
  • Economist
Economist. 2005. "The Mountain Man and the Surgeon." December 24, 377:24-26.
Commentary on the Torah
  • Richard Friedman
  • Elliot
Friedman, Richard Elliot. 2003. Commentary on the Torah. San Francisco: Harper-SanFrancisco.
Deuteronomy. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
  • Patrick D Miller
Miller, Patrick D. 1990, Deuteronomy. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press.