Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Leslie J. Hoppe, There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004).  Pp. 197.  Paper, US$22.00, UK£15.99, CAN$31.99.  ISBN 0-687-00059-9.

            This book attempts to articulate a biblical theology of poverty for the benefit of interested post-moderns. Its objective is to “determine how the Bible can help individual believers and communities of faith shape their response to the poor and poverty today” (p. 7). The author surveys the Old and New Testaments for clues, using an eclectic mix of historical, literary, and sociological tools. Hoppe, a professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a Visiting Professor at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem, divides his survey into eight short chapters, dealing in turn with the “Torah” (pp. 17-41), the “Former Prophets” (pp. 42-67), the “Latter Prophets” (pp. 68-103), the “Wisdom Literature” (pp. 104-121), the “Psalms” (122-30), the “Apocalyptic Literature” (pp. 131-42), the “New Testament” (pp. 143-65), and the “Rabbinic Tradition” (pp. 166-70). Chapters 1-3 are much stronger than chapters 4-8, and each chapter concludes with “questions for reflection” (e.g., “How did the prophets use ‘the vocabulary of the poor’?” [p. 103], and “What action does the wisdom tradition suggest as one response to poverty in the Jewish community?” [p. 121]). Footnotes are kept to a minimum and there are many gaps in the “select bibliography” (pp. 185-87; e.g., C. Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions [New Studies in Biblical Theology 7; Leicester: Apollos, 1999]; J. Bassler, God and Mammon: Asking for Money in the New Testament [Nashville: Abingdon, 1991]; S. Rodin, Stewards in the Kingdom: A Theology of Life in All Its Fullness [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000]).

            Still, this book has much to commend it. First, this subject stands in dire need of attention, particularly by informed biblical scholars like Hoppe. Addressing itself to an audience of readers living in the richest nations on earth, this paperback successfully surveys many of the key Old and New Testament passages on poverty and wealth and incorporates them into a user-friendly handbook. This alone should commend it to a wide audience. Second, the author occasionally uses creative new methods in his effort to suggest new insights into old problems. Both Hannah and David, for example, “identify themselves as poor” (p. 56, citing 1 Samuel 1 and 18), yet where Hannah’s poverty leads her to praise God, David’s poverty leads him to a life of manipulation bordering on ruthlessness. By noticing this intratextual juxtaposition, Hoppe shows how “poverty leads one person to prayer and another to scheming” (p. 56).  This kind of creativity is refreshingly welcome.

            Third, Hoppe understands that readers who segregate deuteronomistic theology from prophetic morality do so at their own peril. This point becomes especially clear in his fascinating discussion about Jehu (pp. 62-63), a character many contemporary exegetes simply (and simplistically) label a “terrorist.” Hoppe, however, recognizes and explicates the socio-economic factors behind this text and concludes, on the basis of this analysis, that Jehu’s behavior, while morally problematic, nevertheless “shows the depth of alienation the people felt” under the hated Omride dynasty (p. 62). Thus, in contrast to fundamentalist literalists on the right and liberal universalists on the left, Hoppe steers a sane middle course through a difficult text (and a difficult issue: “violence”), articulating a socio-economic case for Jehu’s purge with clarity and precision, thereby challenging the simplistic ideological analyses of many of his colleagues.

            On the other hand, this book bristles with a number of problems. First, the author simply adopts one economic ideology to the exclusion of all others. This becomes clear in the first two paragraphs of the opening section entitled “The Economy of Ancient Israel” (pp. 8-9). Here the book’s opening argument breaks down as follows: (a) Israel is an agricultural economy; (b) various challenges to Israel’s agricultural productivity come from both land and climate; (c) further challenges come “more so from the social and economic structures of Canaan”; (d) these Canaanite sociopolitical structures force “the early Israelites” to “withdraw their allegiance from the political and economic system of Late Bronze Age Canaan” because “the governments of the Canaanite city-states supported themselves by taxing the peasants”; (e) this in turn forces the peasantry to “sell their children into slavery and, in some cases, sell their land to satisfy their creditors”; and (f) all this leads to one conclusion: “the city-states of Canaan, then, were responsible for the creation of poverty among their citizens” (pp. 8-9).

            Notice that the author does not say “contributed to the creation of poverty”—he simply removes the element of personal volition altogether. Nowhere does he discuss the rather wide range of scholarly opinion regarding the beginning of Israel and its economy, nor does he even introduce readers to a variety of economic theories. He simply presumes a hard and fast boundary between “Canaan” and “Israel” at its earliest stages, and reads the biblical material through a “peasant-revolt” lens like that most often associated with N. Gottwald and his primary theoretician, K. Marx. Such ideological bias may appear to work well when analyzing the prophetic literature, but elsewhere it breaks down completely.

            In the section on the wisdom literature, for example, the book makes several unwarranted presuppositions: (a) that Sirach’s assignment of the sages to a Hellenized “elite” class applies to earlier Hebrew wisdom as well (p. 104); (b) that both Torah and Prophets claim more “divine authority” than do the wisdom writings (p. 105); and (c) that in Qoheleth, “diligence and thrift are simply subtle forms of greed” (p. 112). Against this reasoning one should note that (a) Hans Heinrich Schmid and Erhard Gerstenberger long pointed out the deep ideological differences between old, Hebraic wisdom and late, Hellenized wisdom; (b) theories of “selective inspiration” usually lead to subtle forms of neo-Marcionism; and (c) to equate “thrift” with “greed” is simplistic and dangerous, and indicative more of ideological bias than exegetical balance (N.B. that Whybray’s Wealth and Poverty in the Book of Proverbs, though listed in the bibliography, is never even engaged in this chapter).      

            The author seems well aware of these sandtraps, even as he falls into them. He knows that the task of “attempting a synthesis of what the biblical tradition says about the poor is risky and almost foolhardy” (p. 121). Unfortunately, he does not seem aware that the task becomes riskier when one set of ideological presuppositions is elevated over all others as universally normative. At times this book carefully recognizes that being “poor” does not automatically equate to being “righteous” (e.g., pp. 72, 75, 171), but the heavy ideological Tendenz within which it is packaged makes it difficult to see these remarks as anything other than “exceptions.” In sum, this would have been a much better book had it been (a) more transparent and (b) more variegated in its ideological presuppositions about the ultimate causes (pl.) of poverty and wealth.

Michael S. Moore
Fuller Theological Seminary