In the Hebrew Bible, there are five different names for those facing poverty. Each gives a subtle variation on the identity of those facing poverty, with whom we all must engage if we are to obey Jesus:
chacer – those who lack or are inadequate in some way. For example, the chacer lack “food” (Job 30.3; Deut. 28.57; Amos 4.6), shelter (Prov. 6.32), or wisdom. This word is used thirty-six times.
ruwsh – those who are dispossessed of land, possessions, and dignity (2 Sam. 12.1-4; Prov. 18.23; 22.7). This word is used thirty-one times.
dal – those who are frail, weak, and helpless. For example, the oppressed dal need help from those with the power to provide help (Ex. 23.3; Lev. 14.21; 1 Sam. 2.8; Job 20.19; Isa. 26.6; Amos 8.6). This word is used fifty-seven times, most often translated into English as “the poor.”
ebyown – those who are in need and dependent. The ebowyn have no resources of their own and so depend on the charity and justice of others (Amos 4.1; Isa. 14.30; 25.4). This word is used sixty-one times, most often translated as “the needy” and often used with dal.
aniy – those who are oppressed. The aniy are exploited and crushed by the powerful (2 Sam. 22.28; Job 36.15; Ps. 9.18; 12.5; 14.6; Isa. 14.32; 26.6). This word is used the most of the five words in the Hebrew Bible; it is used eighty times.
These words describe the marginalization and oppression that the poor face and experience to the core of their very identity. The poor tend to internalize their marginalization and oppression. This affects their view of themselves and their place in the world; it makes them feel less than human.
Oscar Lewis, an anthropologist, did research into what he would call the “culture of poverty” that emerged from within migrant groups that were marginalized from the mainstream or oppressed in any way. Some of the characteristics that emerged include:
- suspicion and apathy toward the institutions within society;
- the production of little wealth and receiving back little in return;
- unemployment and the resulting lack of resources of cash and food;
- acceptance of middle-class values, but failure to live by them;
- hostility toward and mistrust of government and police;
- uncherished or unprotected childhood;
- a strong emphasis on the present and immediate gratification;
- preoccupation among men to prove their masculinity.
It is so easy for those of us not from a culture of poverty to be judgmental – of drug users, for example – and say they don’t deserve our help. Why don’t they just say ‘no” and make their choices like “us?” However, communities that are characterized by the above Hebrew words, and the resulting culture of poverty, are more vulnerable to violence and drug use than those free of such injustice and oppression. If life seems hopeless, living for the moment is all you have, and something to numb the pain is a relief.
Make Poverty Personal: Taking the Poor as Seriously as the Bible Does by Ash Barker (Baker Books, 2009); pp. 123-124