Friday, November 26, 2010

Give and Take

We are a section of Deuteronomy where Moses is reviewing to the new generation of Israelites (almost) all of the laws and commands given by God. It started out by instructing them to have zero tolerance for other faiths within their borders. Next in Deuteronomy 14, as in Leviticus, Moses reviews clean and unclean foods. Now it is time to cover lending.

Give and Take
There are some passages in the Bible which almost seem like they actually may be of divine inspiration. Yet, these even in these passages, there is often some odd twist or catch which still paints God in some hue other than blissfully pure love. Deuteronomy 15 is one of those passages.

God commands that every seven years, outstanding debts are to be canceled, no longer to be collected (Deuteronomy.15:1-2). Could you imagine a world like that? No one would even drown in debt forever, and people would get multiple chances to succeed without risk of utter economic ruin. It seems like a divine ideal, but it is unfair to the lender to some extent. Those who lend are most often lending out of their own surplus, so this almost seems to be a Godly policy of redistribution of wealth. A gallon of virtual ink could be spilled on this topic, but we need to set that aside for now to keep our eyes on the big picture.

We will come back to Deuteronomy 15:3 in a moment. Moving on to Deuteronomy 15:4-6, God contrasts the message of debts by essentially saying that there should be no need for the Israelites to borrow from one another, because God will richly bless them if only they obey His Law. This implies two things: One, financial security is a measure of how well you are obeying God. Two, God knew that not everyone would obey His Law to the letter, but He provided a system where people could make a new start, which is graceful.

In Deuteronomy 15:7-8, God commands the Israelites to be generous to the poor people in the Promised Land. Deuteronomy 15:9 goes on to explain how God considers it a sin if you withhold or adjust the amount you give to the poor people relative to the seventh year, the year when debts are canceled.

Did you catch that? When God is commanding to be generous to the poor, He is not talking about a pure gift giving. It appears rather that when you give to the poor, God wants you to consider it a loan, not a gift. You should expect to get something back, at least up until the seventh year. This contradicts what Jesus instructed in Luke 6:30. Yet even if you are to consider it a loan, not a gift, the command to be generous and the seventh-year debt forgiveness displays a sort of divine mercy.

Deuteronomy 15:10-11 closes the matter out with another plea to be generous towards the poor, because then God will bless you financially.

Summing it up, be generous because it is commanded by God, because you will be held guilty of sin by God if you do not, and because God will make you rich if you do.

OK, now back to Deuteronomy 15:3, where we find:
You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your [fellow Israelite] owes you.” NIV
God's merciful debt relief does not extend outside the borders of the Promised Land. As we discussed in a previous study, while the Israelites were chosen, they were not special. So there is no reason why God would not extend the same courtesy, the same act of loving mercy, to foreign debtors, other than to further differentiate between the Israelites and other nations. That, and possibly to foreshadow the Truth to come. As Christianity tells us, there is a time coming when God's mercy will only extend to the Elect, those who are in the eternal Kingdom of God.

Yet you cannot look at that verse divorced from the rest of the context. God tells the Israelites (through Moses) in Deuteronomy 15:6:
“For the LORD your God will bless you as He has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.” NIV
That is a sharp divide from any foreshadowing of Christian eschatology. Pictured here is the Israelite nation's financial and political dominance over its neighbors. In terms of foreshadowing the Christian version of the eternal Kingdom of God, that is dead wrong, because in that version all of the neighbors have been destroyed and are (debatably) undergoing eternal torment in a completely different realm.

Ultimately, this presents a very different God than what Christianity would like to present. This is a God who treats people differently based simply on where they are born. This is a God whose favor is made obvious in financial riches. This is a God whose Kingdom is on earth, a Kingdom which coexists with and dominates other nations. This is an eternal God with temporal interests.

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