The Torah’s laws ensure sure that everyone in Israel had basic needs like food because it is truly God’s will that no one starves and that everyone is provided for. Jesus teaches this in Matt 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22-34 when saying that God feeds the birds and clothes flowers so he will the same and more for his people. In Matthew 7:7-11 and Luke 11:11-13, Jesus also said that when asking the father in faith for provision, he will provide for us because he loves us just like human fathers and gives an example saying that no father would give their children a stone instead of bread, a snake instead of fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg. In addition, Jesus displays God’s provision when he feeds the 5000 Jewish families (Matt 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15) and the 4000 Gentile families (Matt 15:32-39, Mark 8:1-10).
Even in the Old Testament, God provided for his people in the wilderness (Deut 29:5-6):
Deut 29:5 For forty years I led you through the wilderness, yet your clothes and sandals did not wear out. 6 You ate no bread and drank no wine or other alcoholic drink, but he provided for you so you would know that he is the Lord your God.
God’s provision made sure that everyone had enough:
Ex 16:15 The Israelites were puzzled when they saw it. “What is it?” they asked each other. They had no idea what it was. And Moses told them, “It is the food the Lord has given you to eat. 16 These are the Lord’s instructions: Each household should gather as much as it needs. Pick up two quarts for each person in your tent.” 17 So the people of Israel did as they were told. Some gathered a lot, some only a little. 18 But when they measured it out, everyone had just enough. Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough. Each family had just what it needed.
Poor people in Israel were primarily people that didn’t own land, and that usually refers to orphans, widows, and foreigners (Gentiles). The Levites are not given a land allotment either because they are set apart for him to serve the people by teaching the law and helping the priest with the Tabernacle/Temple. God provides for the Levites by having them collect tithes from the non-Levite Israelites (Num 18:8-32). This means all non-Levite Hebrew men, even slaves, owned land unless they were mamzers (illegitimate sons or orphans). Orphans have unknown fathers so there is no one to inherit from. Furthermore, men were the primary land owners, so widows did not own land, although they could transfer land rights from their deceased husband to a new one. In Numbers 27:1-11 the daughters of Zelophehad are the only offspring he has so there is an exception for women to be land owners if they inherit from their fathers, however, once they marry the land rights transfer to their husband. This created a dilemma because the land allotments were permanent for each tribe and if these women marry men outside of their tribe that tribe will lose a portion of their allotment. So in Numbers 36:1-13, they solved the problem by having those women only marry men from their tribe to preserve tribal allotments. Ultimately, children did not inherit from their mothers, and widows can only pass land to a new husband from their deceased husbands.
Gentiles were not allowed to own land since this land was promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Deut 9:5, Ezekiel 20:42). This is partially why Gentile slaves were not released after six years Lev 25:35-46, nor did the Gentiles have their debts canceled like the Hebrews on shmita or sabbath year (Deut 15:1-3). Gentiles could never own land, only rent. In fact, in ancient Israel all land allotments were permanent and no one could actually sell their land (Lev 25:23-28) unless it was dedicated to God (Lev 27:16-21). Instead, they rented their land out until Jubilee (every 50 years). This rule was only for land, houses within walled cities can be sold permanently unless it was a house of a Levite from a Levite city. This exception exists because this is the only property they have (Lev 25:29-34). Levites have 48 dedicated cities and everything in those cities is permanently theirs (Num 35:1-8).
There were three kinds of tithes that were collected by the Levites:
1) One-tenth of their yearly crop yield and livestock gains from Israel went to the Levites (Lev 27:30-34, Num 18:20-32) and the non-priest Levites had to treat that income as if it were their own harvest and give a tenth of it to the priest (Num 18:25-29).
2) The Israelites brought a tenth of their crops and the firstborn of their livestock and ate them at the Tabernacle (Deut 12:12-19, Deut 14:22-27, Deut 15:19-23). If a person lives too far away they can sell their tithe and use that money to buy food from the Levites and eat the food they purchased at Tabernacle. This tithe is more spiritual rather than socioeconomic because it requires people to wave their offerings to God and eat in his presence in front of the Tabernacle. The Israelites must share this meal with the Levites from their local towns and regions who would go with them.
3) The third tithe for the storehouses was given every three years. This was to take care of the Levites as well as the foreigners, widows, and orphans from their hometowns (Deut 14:28-29, Deut 26:12-15). This tithe is neglected in Malachi chapter 3 and Malachi reminds the Israelites that there is a curse for neglecting orphans, widows, and foreigners (Deut 27:19).
The Bible says everyone can eat anything from their neighbor’s field at any time as long as it is only a handful of food and they are not harvesting [Deut 23:24]:
Deut 23:24 “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, but you must not carry any away in a basket. 25 And when you enter your neighbor’s field of grain, you may pluck the heads of grain with your hand, but you must not harvest it with a sickle.
Some may say that this only applied to the land owners in Israel, even if that was the case, there are other laws that cover those who are poor.
The poor are allowed to glean from other’s fields during the harvest [Lev19:9-10, Lev 23:22, Deut 24:21]:
Lev 19:9 “When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. 10 It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.
Lev 23:22 “When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.”
Deut 24:21 When you gather the grapes in your vineyard, don’t glean the vines after they are picked. Leave the remaining grapes for the foreigners, orphans, and widows.
The Moabite widow, Ruth does this when she and her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi return to Bethlehem from Moab because as widows they don’t own land so they are poor. In addition to being a widow, Ruth is also a foreigner, so she has a right to glean fields during harvest time, this is why Boaz allowed her to do it at his field (Ruth chapter 2).
Ruth 2:1 Now there was a wealthy and influential man in Bethlehem named Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech. 2 One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.” Naomi replied, “All right, my daughter, go ahead.” 3 So Ruth went out to gather grain behind the harvesters. And as it happened, she found herself working in a field that belonged to Boaz, the relative of her father-in-law, Elimelech. 4 While she was there, Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters. “The Lord be with you!” he said. “The Lord bless you!” the harvesters replied. 5 Then Boaz asked his foreman, “Who is that young woman over there? Who does she belong to?” 6 And the foreman replied, “She is the young woman from Moab who came back with Naomi. 7 She asked me this morning if she could gather grain behind the harvesters. She has been hard at work ever since, except for a few minutes’ rest in the shelter.” 8 Boaz went over and said to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Stay right here with us when you gather grain; don’t go to any other fields. Stay right behind the young women working in my field. 9 See which part of the field they are harvesting, and then follow them. I have warned the young men not to treat you roughly. And when you are thirsty, help yourself to the water they have drawn from the well.” 10 Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. “What have I done to deserve such kindness?” she asked. “I am only a foreigner.” 11 “Yes, I know,” Boaz replied. “But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers. 12 May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.”
Lastly, every 7th year or sabbath year (shmita) when debts were canceled, and on the 50th year (jubilee/yovel) when the land allotments were returned, the Israelites were not allowed to harvest from their land. In these years everyone including the poor and livestock could freely eat whatever came out of the ground (Lev 25:1-13). This echoes Genesis 2:16-17, which says “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden”, with the exception of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In addition to that God promised to provide enough food for at least 3 years in the year before the Sabbath years, so they would have enough to eat:
Lev 25:18 “If you want to live securely in the land, follow my decrees and obey my regulations. 19 Then the land will yield large crops, and you will eat your fill and live securely in it. 20 But you might ask, ‘What will we eat during the seventh year, since we are not allowed to plant or harvest crops that year?’ 21 Be assured that I will send my blessing for you in the sixth year, so the land will produce a crop large enough for three years. 22 When you plant your fields in the eighth year, you will still be eating from the large crop of the sixth year. In fact, you will still be eating from that large crop when the new crop is harvested in the ninth year.
This is similar to God’s double provision of manna in Ex 16:21-26:
Ex16:21 After this the people gathered the food morning by morning, each family according to its need. And as the sun became hot, the flakes they had not picked up melted and disappeared. 22 On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much as usual—four quarts for each person instead of two. Then all the leaders of the community came and asked Moses for an explanation. 23 He told them, “This is what the Lord commanded: Tomorrow will be a day of complete rest, a holy Sabbath day set apart for the Lord. So bake or boil as much as you want today, and set aside what is left for tomorrow.” 24 So they put some aside until morning, just as Moses had commanded. And in the morning the leftover food was wholesome and good, without maggots or odor. 25 Moses said, “Eat this food today, for today is a Sabbath day dedicated to the Lord. There will be no food on the ground today. 26 You may gather the food for six days, but the seventh day is the Sabbath. There will be no food on the ground that day.”
There was a warning if Isreal failed to keep the Sabbath year rules:
Lev 26:31 I will make your cities desolate and destroy your places of pagan worship. I will take no pleasure in your offerings that should be a pleasing aroma to me. 32 Yes, I myself will devastate your land, and your enemies who come to occupy it will be appalled at what they see. 33 I will scatter you among the nations and bring out my sword against you. Your land will become desolate, and your cities will lie in ruins. 34 Then at last the land will enjoy its neglected Sabbath years as it lies desolate while you are in exile in the land of your enemies. Then the land will finally rest and enjoy the Sabbaths it missed. 35 As long as the land lies in ruins, it will enjoy the rest you never allowed it to take every seventh year while you lived in it.
This curse is executed at the Babylonian exile according to 2 Chronicles 36:17-21:
2 Chr 36:17 So the Lord brought the king of Babylon against them. The Babylonians killed Judah’s young men, even chasing after them into the Temple. They had no pity on the people, killing both young men and young women, the old and the infirm. God handed all of them over to Nebuchadnezzar. 18 The king took home to Babylon all the articles, large and small, used in the Temple of God, and the treasures from both the Lord’s Temple and from the palace of the king and his officials. 19 Then his army burned the Temple of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, burned all the palaces, and completely destroyed everything of value. 20 The few who survived were taken as exiles to Babylon, and they became servants to the king and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. 21 So the message of the Lord spoken through Jeremiah was fulfilled. The land finally enjoyed its Sabbath rest, lying desolate until the seventy years were fulfilled, just as the prophet had said.
If the Israelites trusted God, then they would have obeyed his instructions and let the land rest as well as stored up grain for the poor. They didn’t and ended up breaking God’s laws like the sabbath years, and the mistreatment of slaves (Jeremiah 34:8-21), and they even continued breaking laws post-exile like the rule about the three-year tithe for the poor, this violation is expressed in Malachi ch 3.
The Wisdom of God: Proverbs 22:9 says those who are generous are blessed because they feed the poor. Proverbs 19:17 says those who lend to the poor, lend to God, and God will pay them back. In Philippians chapter 4, Paul asked the Philippians to give to the church of Thessaloniki, and based on the principles of Proverbs 19:17 and 22:9, he promised that God would supply all of their needs because of their giving in Philippians 4:19. In 2 Cor 9:6-12 Paul writes that God will provide for and bless his people in response to giving to those in need. In verse 7 it says not to give grudgingly or out of necessity, but cheerfully which references Deut 15:7-11. In Luke 14:12-14 Jesus says to the host of a dinner he attended, that when they invite other rich people their reward will only be that those people will be invited back. However, he said if they invite people who can’t pay them back, like poor and sick people, then God will reward them at the resurrection.
The apostles believed this still applied in the new covenant and that is why they have food distribution for orphans and widows in Acts 6:1-7. In Acts 4:32-35 the people were moved to give their land and possessions to the poor so that everyone was taken care of. James 1:27 says, “27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” Notice it mentions orphans and widows but not foreigners? That is because, in the new covenant, God’s kingdom is global so there are no foreigners since Jesus said to teach all nations (Matt 28:18-20). Widows and orphans are typically destitute and don’t have a breadwinner to provide for them or an owner to inherit from, however the church steps in to fulfill that need.
Finally, one important aspect of all of this is that these situations are for destitute people not for people who can work but are too lazy, or have money.
In 1 Corinthians 11:20-22, Paul tells the corinthians to stop practicing gluttony:
1 Cor 11:20 When you meet together, you are not really interested in the Lord’s Supper. 21 For some of you hurry to eat your own meal without sharing with others. As a result, some go hungry while others get drunk. 22 What? Don’t you have your own homes for eating and drinking? Or do you really want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor? What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!
In addition, 1 Timothy ch 5 even had regulations to prevent the widow distribution from being abused by wealthy widows who inherited riches from their husbands. In this chapter, Paul made it clear that the church has to give the most to those with the most need, so widows who had wealth were exempt along with those who had adult children because they were to be taken care of by their families. Young widows were physically capable of getting jobs and were more likely to remarry but until then got some aid. This means most resources went to older widows who had no family, and even they were expected to give back to the community by mentoring the young women, so no mooches were allowed. This way the resources are managed correctly to ensure the neediest get enough.
1 Tim 5:3 Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her. 4 But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God. 5 Now a true widow, a woman who is truly alone in this world, has placed her hope in God. She prays night and day, asking God for his help. 6 But the widow who lives only for pleasure is spiritually dead even while she lives. 7 Give these instructions to the church so that no one will be open to criticism. 8 But those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith. Such people are worse than unbelievers. 9 A widow who is put on the list for support must be a woman who is at least sixty years old and was faithful to her husband. 10 She must be well respected by everyone because of the good she has done. Has she brought up her children well? Has she been kind to strangers and served other believers humbly? Has she helped those who are in trouble? Has she always been ready to do good? 11 The younger widows should not be on the list, because their physical desires will overpower their devotion to Christ and they will want to remarry. 12 Then they would be guilty of breaking their previous pledge. 13 And if they are on the list, they will learn to be lazy and will spend their time gossiping from house to house, meddling in other people’s business and talking about things they shouldn’t. 14 So I advise these younger widows to marry again, have children, and take care of their own homes. Then the enemy will not be able to say anything against them.
Lastly, believers should not be mooching off of others’ generosity but should be diligent in giving back:
2 Thes 3:6 And now, dear brothers and sisters, we give you this command in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Stay away from all believers who live idle lives and don’t follow the tradition they received from us. 7 For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. 8 We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We certainly had the right to ask you to feed us, but we wanted to give you an example to follow. 10 Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.”
God’s word teaches to loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:34-40) and to be good stewards of all he has given us so that we can help those in need. However, there is a right way to do so which doesn’t involve stealing from others, nor would he allow squandering resources on people who don’t need them.