Oppression and Resisting Evil


Exodus 22:21-27; 23:9


The world is full of powerless people getting stomped on by those who have legal, political, or economic strings they can pull. The Law of Moses teaches us that God sides with the powerless. God is a God who defends those who have no one else to defend them, and God wants us to share his passion for the powerless.

In the Law of Moses, God commands us repeatedly not to oppress the widow, the orphan, or the alien, the groups who were the most vulnerable to exploitation. Likewise, Isaiah 1:17 says, “Seek justice, correct oppression, defend the orphan, plead the widow’s court case.” Isaiah 58:6 says that God wants us “to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke.” The prophet Amos thunders God’s word against the rich women of Samaria “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy.”

What exactly does God mean when God uses the term “oppression”? Does God give us any explicit examples of oppression? And what does oppression look like in today’s world?

There are several different terms for “oppression” in the Hebrew Bible. Two of them are used in the very first verse of today’s scripture reading. One of them means to press someone hard. It’s used for Balaam’s donkey shoving Balaam’s foot against a stone wall. It’s also used for when the Amorites shove the tribe of Dan back into the hills after they try to settle in the coastal plain. The other word is a word that means to exploit someone. This word is used in Lev 25:14, where it says that in selling land, Israelites are not to exploit one another by charging more than the land is worth.

Another common word for oppression clearly means to practice extortion. Another word means to humble or subdue someone by treating them harshly. In Isaiah’s famous line “Seek justice, correct oppression,” the word is a word used only once that means “ruthlessness.” And in Isaiah’s famous line “to let the oppressed go free,” the word means literally “crushed.”

As we look at specific Bible passages where this word is used, we find that oppression is the abuse of power, to mistreat powerless groups by coercion, extortion, or discrimination. The poor, particularly widows and orphans, were vulnerable to such abuse. Aliens and escaped slaves were also easy targets to be pushed around. Deut 23:16 commands Israelites not to send an escaped slave back to his master, but let him live wherever he wants to: “you shall not oppress him.”

The classic example of oppression cited in the Law of Moses is Israel’s experience in Egypt. Exodus 1 says the Egyptians oppressed the Hebrews with forced labor. It uses the word “ruthlessness” to describe the way they were treated. When God explains how to treat fellow Hebrews who had to sell themselves into slavery, God uses the same word “ruthlessness” and says, “Don’t ever treat a fellow Hebrew that way!”

One potential form of oppression or extortion was in lending practices. Three times (Exod 22:25, Lev 25:35-37, Deut 23:19-20) the Law of Moses forbids charging interest to a fellow Israelite who is financially destitute. These verses do not forbid commercial loans. That’s why it was OK to charge interest to non-Israelites; such loans would always be commercial loans. What God forbids is charging interest on food or necessities, making profit off of a fellow Israelite’s poverty.

Years ago, an economist in Bangladesh noticed how hard it was for poor women to get loans to finance their small businesses because the interest rates were unaffordable. He started a bank that ended up winning a Nobel Prize for helping poor businesspeople lift themselves out of poverty.

In Deut 24:10-13, God protects the privacy of the poor by forbidding the creditor to enter a house to obtain collateral. In Deut 24:6, God makes it illegal to require anything vital for survival as collateral to be repossessed, particularly their means of production, such as a millstone for grinding grain. Today, a car might fit this definition. God also makes it difficult to use the coat or bed in which one sleeps for collateral. And Deut 24:17 explicitly forbids a widow’s garment as collateral.

Withholding wages is another forbidden means of violating the rights of the poor. Lev 19:13: “The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until morning.” Deadbeat employers steal their employees’ labor this way. Deadbeat corporations steal the use of their suppliers’ money this way. A small company may be forced to borrow money to survive while waiting for a large company to pay them, while the large company earns interest on the money it owes. One scholar writes, “Work must be promptly paid, or it is theft and should be prosecuted as such.”

The Law of Moses repeatedly urges us not to oppress the “alien,” a word that has been translated “sojourner,” “stranger,” or “immigrant.” Back in 2010, I did an article published online by the Presbyterian Layman called “The Immigrant in the Hebrew Bible.” One theme that comes through loud and clear as we examine the 93 times this word is used in the Hebrew Bible is that the alien must obey the law. In Deut 31:12, the alien “shall learn to fear the Lord your God and observe diligently all the words of this law.” Several times Moses’ law insists, “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen.”

God commands us not to deprive the alien of justice. In Deut 24:14-17, Israel is forbidden to practice the exploitation of immigrants that prevailed in virtually all surrounding cultures at that time, which was similar to today’s treatment of illegals by smugglers, or by employers who exploit the immigration status of their workers with threats to deport them if they complain of unjust working conditions. The difference is that in ancient Israel, we’re talking about people who entered the country legally.

What are some modern examples of oppression? One recent example might be Twitter’s lawsuit against a small Des Moines company who holds the copyright on the use of the word “tweet.” Twitter seeks to simply crush the small company’s right, rather than to pay what the copyright is worth, because it has the muscle to do so.

Eminent domain might be another example of oppression. Lev 25:23 proclaims that all land belongs to God, and cannot be confiscated. The story of Naboth’s vineyard shows that even wicked King Ahab understood that he did not have eminent domain over the inalienable rights of Naboth to his ancestors’ property. Only Jezebel, a Canaanite, thinks she has the right to seize that land for her husband.

What about the issue of price gouging? Is all fair in a free market? What does God say is a free price? Other law codes in Moses’ day give us official fair prices for wages, rent, and even doctor’s fees; the Hittite Law even gives a list of fair prices for merchandise. God’s law gives us none of these specific fair prices. But there does seem to be a difference between the price of a Super Bowl ticket or the price of lodging that night in that city, neither of which are necessities, and the price of necessities after a hurricane. Proverbs 11:26 says, “The people curse those who hold back grain [in order to gouge the public], but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it.”

Whenever you have a monopoly, you have the kind of power that can lead to oppression. Both business and union labor have at times collected the kind of coercive power that can lead to oppression. The same danger holds true for centralized health care. If all health care is controlled by the state, the state has the ability to decide who gets a kidney or who gets a heart operation based on political favoritism. The same is true whenever the state tries to control who earns what: we end up with an inequality based on “political influence and bureaucratic favoritism” (Paul Ryan). That is just as evil as racial or gender discrimination. Oppression is the abuse of power in any form.

God’s people have a duty both to avoid abusing power, and to fight the abuse of power around us. As individuals, that may involve lobbying our elected officials. That may involve groups that provide legal aid to those who can’t afford it. The church can also get involved in reforms that lead to a more just society, although we must be very careful when we speak where God has not clearly spoken.

But Kay Warren points out that God has weapons against evil that the enemy doesn’t have: truth, holiness, compassion, and love. She says, “It’s tempting to lash out at evil with the same weapons evil uses, but doing so blurs the lines between evil and good.” Paul says in Rom 12:21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Friends, the Good News is that Jesus Christ has come to set us free, not only from earthly oppression, but from the power of the evil one. All of us were born under the thumb of the evil one, bound by the chains of sin. Jesus Christ has come to break those chains and set us free. What he did on the cross was enough to put you right with God now and forever. All we can do is reach out and receive it in faith. Letting Jesus break your chains is the first step toward setting others free. And getting a handle on God’s passion for justice for the powerless is the first step toward living out that passion in the way we deal with others in today’s world.