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Nov27FriThese five Hebrew words give us insight into poverty. November 27, 2020 by Dion Oxford
It has been said that if you ripped out all the pages in the Bible that have to do with poverty, you’d be left with a book hanging in shreds. About 2,000 passages deal with people who are poor. In the Old Testament, poverty is the second-most prominent theme. In the New Testament, one in every 17 verses is about the poor and, in the Gospels, it’s one in 10. Since the Bible is the Word of God, then it’s obvious that God cares deeply about issues of poverty and injustice.
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But this emphasis loses something in the translation from the original biblical languages to English. In Hebrew, several words are used to describe people who are poor and how they ended up that way. In English, we just have the word “poor,” which is somehow supposed to describe every person experiencing poverty. It doesn’t. Here are five Hebrew words that demonstrate what I mean.
1. ’āni. This is the most frequently used word for poverty in the Old Testament. It is used 80 times and refers to people whose poverty is caused by affliction and oppression. People who have experienced violence, been violated, sexually exploited or have PTSD for one reason or another fit this description. These are people who have been victims of oppression, making them unable to function, leading to their poverty.
2. dal/dalal. These are people who are frail and weak. This word is used 62 times in the Old Testament. Those who are sick, infirm or have mental-health concerns fit this description. Some of the poorest of the poor are the dal, yet they are the neediest people and we often leave them on the streets. (I hope you can already see major differences between ‘āni and dal and why it’s so important to respond to them differently.)
3. rā’eb. This is a word meaning hungry or famished. It is used 38 times in the Old Testament. It is an agricultural word meaning land that doesn’t yield anything—famine. People can do everything right, but if it rains too much or doesn’t rain at all, their efforts do not yield any fruit. Then they end up seeking government “welfare” to feed their families. In North America we have a famine of work. Many people are rā’eb. This is why it’s so important that we create work and take employment seriously.
4. rûsh. This word describes those who are impoverished through dispossession. It is used 31 times in the Old Testament. People become rûsh when the government comes and takes their land. We can see the outcome of that all around us in Canada right now when we think of Indigenous people. The process of becoming rûsh is that you lose your stakeholding, becoming a non-person, and then you lose your voice. A Christian response, a biblical response to rûsh, therefore, is to speak on behalf of people until they get their voices back.
5. ‘ebyôn. This is a word used 61 times in the Old Testament, and it describes someone who is needy and dependent—a beggar. In many ways, welfare has created a dependency. We’ve invented the system that created this. We get angry when we see dependent people and try to create new rules. This is not a new problem, of course. The people of Israel became dependent on Pharaoh and wanted to run back to Egypt at the first sign of trouble in the desert, because they didn’t know how to be free. These are the people that we get most mad at, yet we are the ones who created dependence in the first place.
These words show us why we need to treat people as individuals. Each person or family struggling with poverty that we encounter is dealing with different issues. So, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t—and can’t—work. I hope this brief overview about the different causes of poverty can help us start to make a dent in this massive issue.
Dion Oxford has spent more than 25 years working among people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, most recently as the director of mission integration for Toronto Housing and Homeless Supports. He was the founding director of the Salvation Army Gateway, a shelter for men.