God’s Welfare System

Deuteronomy 15:

11. There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.

(NET Bible®)

What is the purpose of government? National defense? Law enforcement? Is that it? Ask many conservatives and they will say yes, that is all: the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty and property. Most of these same conservatives wax nostalgic over our nation's very Christian past, and claim that their views and our Constitution were inspired by the Bible...

Yet the Bible answers the question above quite differently! Biblical Law provided for no standing armies, no police, and no jails. Law enforcement was a mix of blood feud, lynch mob, and impromptu town meetings. National defense resembled the gathering of a Wild West posse. The ancient Israelites were perhaps the only civilized people to practice anarcho-capitalism while surrounded by other nations for a significant length of time. (The other examples I can think of were on islands.)

Though the ancient system paid no professionals to carry out the "core functions" of government as we know it, the Law did include an extensive welfare system. Ancient Israel was a welfare anarchy! Liberals and other leftists are entitled to a short neener dance.

But keep it short, because the Biblical welfare system was very different from the alphabet soup of do-good bureaucracies we have today. And the Biblical Law did contain a great many conservative and libertarian components. In fact, all political factions are entitled to a short neener dance when their opponents cite the Bible to bolster their case. And all factions should keep it short and humble themselves afterwards. For no significant modern political movement comes close to emulating God's example government.

And maybe they shouldn't. Ancient Israel was unique. The entire population of Israelites had witnessed divine intervention first hand, so mixing religious and secular law was just; all were believers and thus accountable. Today, not all are called to be Christians; God forbids many from believing. Imposing Christian standards of morality is thus inappropriate. Furthermore, parts of the Biblical Law may have been specific to the ancient Israelites, who lived in a particular time and place. Some of the provisions may not be apropos even for practicing Christians today. For example, is pork forbidden to Christians or was it forbidden to the ancient Israelites because they lived in a dry climate? (Pigs cannot sweat, so they need mud wallows to survive the heat.) I leave it for you to decide. Personally, I have given up on pork just to be sure. Others argue for eating pork based on some New Testament passages.

That said, maybe, just maybe, politicians of all stripes should give the Old Testament Law a fresh look. The Bible describes a bureaucrat-free welfare system! Given how modern welfare states are going bankrupt, this information could be useful. Even if the Law was particular to the ancient Israelites, it was meant to be an example of divine wisdom and justice for all nations, including ours today.

From Anarchy to Monarchy

Living without government is not easy. It requires civic virtue in great quantities to preserve order and defend the nation. Eventually, the Israelites tired of the responsibility that comes with freedom and demanded a king. The prophet Samuel complied, giving them a king, and a curse that rings true to this day:

1 Samuel 8:

10 So Samuel spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king.

11 He said, "Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you: He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot.

12 He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment.

13 He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers.

14 He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants.

15 He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants.

16 He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use.

17 He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants.

18 In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD won't answer you in that day."

(NET Bible®)

God's welfare system was quite progressive. It was no mere safety net. It was far more than alms for the "truly needy." God's welfare system had features straight from the far Left wish list including:

  • Worker safeguards, and workweek limits.
  • Guaranteed food for all, including healthy hippies.
  • Several exits from wage slavery.
  • Rehabilitation for robbers.
  • Support for unmarried mothers.
  • Laws to disperse inheritances, to prevent the rise of aristocracy.

The Law of Moses could be quite lefty, but it was lefty in subtle and creative ways, not in the simplistic program-for-every-problem fashion favored by many modern liberals. All this lefty goodness is found within a framework very conservative in the American sense: moralistic, nationalistic, propertarian, free-market, and low in taxes. Unlike today's welfare states, the Biblical welfare non-state encouraged thrift, enterprise, and family values. The result was a society in which all Israelites had a stake, and all were responsible for enforcing the law and defending the land.

At this point you might be wondering, "Why haven't I heard of this welfare system before?" My answer: you probably have heard at least parts, but your preacher probably breezed by many of them in embarrassment. The welfare system is buried in with the disturbing and politically incorrect parts of the Bible: the stonings, the thrashings, the slavery, the naughty bits. Nay, God's welfare system includes some of the embarrassing parts: slavery and polygamy were part of the system. So preachers downplay and politicians run away. But we can also glean plenty of politically correct prescriptions from God's welfare system, ideas palatable to both Left and Right. I will throw in some of the barbarous bits to be complete. But we need not adopt every idea within the ancient example. We are a wealthy society and can afford to be wasteful.

Now that I've hopefully piqued your interest, it's on to the study. For the next chapter we'll dispense with the boring feature: tithes. It turns out that tithes had very little to do with charity in Old Testament times. (Tithing as charity is a New Testament commandment as I show in The New Levites.) Then, in subsequent chapters we'll study the more subtle (and sometimes shocking) features of the ancient system, and possible ways we can make use of the underlying ideas today.