In the Israelite religion – of which we are a part – charity is not a choice, it’s an obligation, and is the bedrock on which the economic system of the bible functions. Although a generous person may be seen as magnanimous, an Israelite would not see charity as an act of magnanimity or benevolence but of righteousness. Hence the Hebrew word for charity, ts’daqah (pronounced tsuh-daa-KAA) actually means ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’. Charity is a just and righteous act ordained by God to enable YHVH to support even the least of human society.
God’s part in the functioning of the charity system
The role that God plays in the concept of charity is pivotal in understanding it. YHVH is the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe; therefore, all life and all land belongs to God, and we are merely tenants. As a result He claims rent – the 10 per cent tithe – on the land. Whereas a human ruler would then tend to misuse and squander this income, instead God uses it for the benefit of the poor. God claims from His gifts to humanity – that is, from the produce of the earth – a share for the poor, and as the actual owner of the land, YHVH claims certain portions of the produce for the fatherless and the widow, the Levite and the resident foreigner:
“Give generously to [the poor] and do not hold any grudge in your heart when you give to [the poor]; then because of this YHVH your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. For there will never cease to be poor people in the land. Because of this I command you and I say, Open your hands wide towards your brothers, and towards the poor and needy in your land.” (Deut. 15:10-11).
“If there is a poor person amongst you in any of the towns of the land that YHVH your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tight-fisted toward your poor. Rather be open-handed and freely lend them whatever they need.” (Deut 15:7-8)
Even the poor were expected to give a small part of what they received from God. Now, ten per cent of a poor person’s income may not seem much to most people, but it is a lot to a poor person (remember the tale of the Widow’s mite)? However, if the charity system functioned properly, what a poor person would receive back in return for their 10 per cent should far outweigh what they originally gave.
That is why even the poor considered it a virtue to give back to God what they received from Him, because they expected their just and compassionate God to take care of them.
In addition, a poor person should not feel embarrassed to receive charity, nor refuse to accept charity. If one refuses charity, one is putting an obstacle in the way of another person fulfilling their duty to God.
God of the poor, who are all ‘His people’
An important concept to realise within the Israelite religion is that the poor and destitute are under the special protection of God, who is “Father of the fatherless and judge (= Warrior-defender) of the widows” (Deut. 10:18; Ps. 68:6, 15).
The cry of the poor must be answered, in case God, who “executes the judgment of the fatherless and widow” (Deut. 10:18) hears it and punishes those who remain deaf to the call (Ex. 22:20-25, Christian bibles 22:21-26). The poor are “My people,” says YHVH (Isa 3:15). Furthermore, YHVH says, “If your brother becomes poor . . . you shall relieve him that he may live with you” (Lev. 25:35). He is “of your own flesh,” and when you see him naked you should cover him, and give him bread when he is hungry, and shelter him when he is cast out (Isa. 58:7).
The call of the prophets to protect the poor
The functioning of a just and fair Israelite society, living according to God’s laws, meant everyone playing their part, from the very richest to the very poorest. Unfortunately, as time went on, the rich and powerful, and also many ordinary people who just couldn’t be bothered, ignored the righteousness of God’s laws, and the poor went without. As a result, whenever God chose and sent out His prophets to speak, through them He often reminded people that they were ignoring the poor at their peril:
“Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, and plead the case of the widow. Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.” (Isa 1:17, 23)
The prophets railed against those who “issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights, and withhold justice from the oppressed of My people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isa 10:1b-2)
When an Israelite lent money to a fellow Israelite, they were not meant to charge interest. The prophet Yeshua` was following in the footsteps of the Israelite prophets of past generations when he said:
‘Give to anyone who asks you for something on loan; don’t turn away someone who wishes to borrow from you.’ (S.Yesh 33:1)
“Better still, give it to someone from whom you won’t get anything back at all.” (S.Yesh 32:2)
A different light on the sacrificial system
The underlying effect of the sacrificial system was almost like charity for the priests and Levites. The practical effect of having the sacrificial system was to feed the priests and Levites, since they had no economic means otherwise of supporting themselves. They had no land or property, since YHVH was to be their sole portion and inheritance.
People nowadays say that charity has replaced sacrifices, but in fact, most meat and grain sacrifices that were not burnt WERE charity. Sacrifices merely ritualised the support that society gave to the priests and Levites. Without the sacrificial system, the priests and Levites would starve.
Giving freely to all
As well as the poor, charity was designed to help the fatherless, the widow, and the resident foreigner. Those without a father or a husband had lost the only person in their family capable of supporting them, so it was a considered a virtuous act to support these two groups. And non-Jews who lived among Jews (the ‘resident foreigner’) were often disadvantaged, since they had no inheritance of land in Israel, and therefore had no direct access to the economic means of supporting themselves.
Foreigners are included in the list of those who are to receive charity; therefore Jews do not restrict their charitable giving to other Jews. The largest group of charities to whom Jews give ts’daqah are actually non-Jewish organisations. Nor do Jews restrict giving their help during their free time to other Jews; YHVH desires of His followers to help the poor of all nations, so that the holiness and justice of His reputation can be maintained, by showing His unfailing love to the poor of all nations.
YHVH is the Father of the Poor, and ALL the poor are His people.