Generosity: An Old Testament Perspective

“Everything you have is God’s. Everything you have is on loan from God.” This is Dr. Scott Jones basic assessment of the Old Testament teaching on generosity. For more than ten years, Dr. Jones has served as the Professor of Biblical Studies at Covenant College. His particular area of research and teaching is the poetry of the Old Testament, especially Job.

We recently sat down with Dr. Jones to gain a better understanding of the Old Testament perspective on generosity. He explains the role of wealth and charity in the ancient Near East and its implications for Christians today especially as it pertains to justice.

God gave His people substantial blessings in the Old Testament that came in material form (ex: land, temple, wealth). What is the general attitude toward wealth in the Old Testament?

Dr. Jones: In the Old Testament, wealth is a form of honor and is something desirous. There’s nothing inherently wrong with working and producing wealth from your work. In fact, it is a virtue to be pursued. At the same time, it’s not an end in-and-of itself. You can think of it along the lines of the Abrahamic narrative. In Genesis 12, God says, ‘I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.’

No doubt, blessing in the Old Testament often came in the form of material wealth. In the Old Testament, blessing is not divorced from a religious worldview, but it does deal with material goods. Look at Solomon: He was blessed with wealth, and the nations around were subsequently blessed by his wealth.

What sort of responsibility came with these material blessings?

Dr. Jones: This honor also carries with it a duty—maybe even a burden. Those duties and burdens, in particular, are related to generosity, sharing the wealth. Proverbs 19:17 immediately occurs to me in this connection:

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord,

   and he will repay him for his deed.” (ESV)

The ideal was not to imagine someone as blessed in order to keep it for himself or herself. God is putting people in a position to mediate this blessing and justice to the world.

How did God’s mandate for generosity compare with other nations in the Ancient Near East?

Dr. Jones: In the ancient Near East, generosity wasn’t a peer-to-peer activity. People conducted their business at their local temple, including their charitable giving. Temples facilitated generosity in a community. However, they were often characterized by corruption. People were charged unjust interest rates on loans while widows, orphans, and strangers were neglected in the distribution.

Israel was called to be a generous and just community. They were to be fair in all their dealings and generous toward the marginalized. This would have certainly set them apart from surrounding nations.

God calls his people to be generous and just. How do justice and wealth relate?

Dr. Jones: Justice is about equilibrium. It’s an acknowledgment that not every part of society is the same—there are the have and have-nots. The issue is, who is going to care for those who are under-represented? How are the have-nots going to get justice? This is where the notion of justice becomes more concrete.

Creating this equilibrium is not merely about something God will do in the future, but it’s something he expects his people to do in the present. For those who are in power or those who have, it is their responsibility to look out for the orphan and the widow.

In Babylonian and Mesopotamian culture, kings would make declarations where they would call for a justice edict that would essentially reset the social equilibrium—the forgiveness of debts and such. In the Bible, we see this through the year of Jubilee. This idea of resetting the equilibrium is not purely a social program, and it’s not purely a religious program. It’s both. It’s justice.

What connections do you see between the OT practice of generosity and Jesus’ ministry?

Dr. Jones: The Year of Jubilee is not just something in the Old Testament. It’s central to Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 4, he said that he had come to enact the Year of Jubilee—freedom for the debt prisoners, in essence. The relationship between God and humans—even sin—is thought of in terms of finance.

That’s what’s in the Lord’s Prayer: we are in debt to God, and he forgives debts. This is fundamental. But it also seems to be contingent on us forgiving the debts of others. As you can see, this notion of debt and debtor is a really important concept in relation to justice, and I don’t think any of this works without generosity.

God forgives, so we forgive. God gives, so we give.

What implications do you glean from the OT for God’s people today?

Dr. Jones: Everything you have is God’s. Everything you have is on loan from God. That’s indisputable in the Old and New Testament.

In terms of giving to others—ministries, missionaries and other charitable outlets—we see many readily able examples in the New Testament. I think first of the commissioning of the Apostles. When Jesus sends them out, he tells them not to take too much. Through God’s provision, they’re taken care of. Secondly, I think of the book of Acts where everyone is taken care of through the generosity of others. Thirdly, you see Paul appealing to the church to give money to the churches in Jerusalem.

The idea in the Old Testament is that there is a deficit between the poor and the wealthy—the have and the have-nots. They are to meet each other’s needs. We’re family, and we have to take care of each other like we are family. There are lots of different ways we can go about doing that, but it’s important to keep in mind the underlying principle of the Old Testament: God gives, so we give.

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