POOR LAWS, HEBREW: Poverty was unknown in the earliest Hebraic age. The nomad has few needs, and those are provided for by the tribe, since pasture-land is common property. Even after the conquest of Canaan there was at first no necessity for legal provision in behalf of the poor. But as soon as the people settled in the cities, the usual results of urban development followed. As the old simplicity disappeared, especially after Saul and David, national independence came in, politics began to have force, property became private, social distinctions arose, and with them the need of protecting the weak from those having the advantage in wealth.
The first efforts in that direction are found in the ancient law known as the Book of the Covenant (Ex. xx.-xxiii.). Very significant are the injunctions regulating the relation between debtor and creditor. To take usury from any of the people was forbidden (Ex. xxii. 25). A garment taken as pledge was to be returned before the sun set for the debtor to use as a covering (Ex. xxii. 26-27). The Hebrew slave was to be set free in the seventh year together with his wife and children (Ex. xxi. 2 sqq.). Field, vineyard, and olive-grove were to lie fallow the seventh year, and all that grew of itself during that year belonged to the poor (Ex. xxiii. 10-12). These enactments were no doubt observed by the right-minded in Israel, but there are reasons for believing that selfishness knew how to evade them. But even where they were observed, they did not suffice to check poverty. Under Solomon Israel began to engage in commerce. The riches which came into the country influenced all conditions of life. Prophets like Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah complained of the luxury of the rich, of their greediness, and of their usurious oppression of the poor. The rich land-owners joined house to house and field to field, till there was no place for the poor (Isa. v. 8, 22 sqq.; Mic. ii. 1 sqq.), and the usurer was not afraid to sell the poor for a trifle (Amos ii. 6-7, cf. iv. 1 sqq., v. 11, viii. 4). Naturally under these circumstances the well-meaning in Israel sought to find new means for the protection of the poor. So the law-book known as Deuteronomy came into existence during the later regal period and its author belonged to the prophetic school of thought. The legislation of Deuteronomy is in part social. Humaneness to the weak, consideration for widows, orphans, Levites, and strangers, are fundamental in the book. Former protective enactments are repealed, new ones are added (cf. Deut. xiv. 28 sqq., xv. 2 sqq., 12 sqq., xxiii. 20, 25-26, xxiv. 6, 10). The great priest-code, which obtained canonical authority after the exile, continued this effort to give protection and relief to the poor (Lev. xix. 9, xxiii. 22, xxv.). But with the decline of the monarchy, the executive authority to carry out these and like regulations vanished, and it is no wonder that they became a dead letter. Aside from laws which were impracticable (Deut. xv. 2 sqq., Lev. xxv. 2 sqq.) other laws were ignored. Such a law was the prohibition of usury, probably often kept, but just as often neglected. Though the immediate result of this legislation was not great, it must not be overlooked that the ideals which it expressed were not in vain. They produced their effects and promoted the knowledge that poverty and riches are differences which do not prevail before God but which as realities afford a field of labor for the highest ethical forces. The declaration of Jesus that the poor (in spirit) are blessed had its root in this legislation, which propounded the principle that the poor in spite of his poverty is a member of the people of God, and on account of it enjoys God's special protection.