14 “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.
16 “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.
17 “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.” – Deuteronomy 24:14-22 ESV
Over in the book of Amos, the prophet records some powerful and passionate words of indictment against the people of Israel, and they are from the lips of God Himself.
“I hate all your show and pretense—
the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.”– Amos 5:21-24 NLT
This message from the Almighty came hundreds of years after Moses and the Israelites had stood on the border of Canaan preparing to possess the land. Generations of their descendants would come after them, but they would fail to live according to all the rules and regulations Moses had so painstakingly taught to their forefathers.
God had desired for His people to obey His laws so that their lives might be marked by justice and righteous living. And that is what this section of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel is all about. He is calling them to practice justice and to display righteousness in their daily interactions with one another. As we have seen, community was and is important to God. He desires the His people conduct themselves in a way that reflects not only a love for Him but a love for one another. In fact, as the apostle John reminds us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 ESV).
Even the great king, David expressed his understanding of God’s desire for unity among His people.
How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony! – Psalm 133:1 NLT
In this section of Deuteronomy 24, Moses is going to discuss the poor and needy, the innocent, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. In each case, he is addressing those within the community of Israel who represent the helpless or vulnerable among them. No Israelite was to take advantage of the less fortunate. And to help them refrain from doing so, Moses reminded them of their own history of suffering as slaves in Egypt.
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do all this.” – Deuteronomy 24:18 NLT
They were to never forget that their ancestors had been forced to make bricks without straw. They had been mercilessly and harshly treated by the Egyptians for more than four centuries. So, as they prepared to enter their own land, provided for them by God, they were to conduct themselves according to God’s laws, not according to worldly standards or some sin-saturated impulse based on selfish ambition.
If they had a hired servant, they were to pay them their wages – in full and on time. And Moses emphasizes the worker who is poor and dependent upon his daily wages for survival. The disadvantaged are always easy to oppress. They have not recourse and no one to stand in their corner to support them. But Moses wanted the people of Israel to know that God was an advocate for the needy. He would see that they received justice, one way or another. Which is why Moses warned the Israelites to treat their poorer servants fairly, “Otherwise he will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:15 NLT).
And while on the topic of sin and guilt, Moses turns his attention to the proper administering of justice for sin. A father was not to be held responsible for the sins committed by one of his adult children. And no child was to be punished for the sins of his father. This would be a form of revenge, rather than justice. The guiltless and innocent would be suffering unjustly and unnecessarily. Each individual was to be held accountable for their own sins. And you can see why this law would be necessary. If a case came up where the perpetrator of a crime could not be found and punished, it would be tempting for the victim to demand that a someone pay the criminal’s sin debt. But this would not result in a just and righteous outcome. Instead, it would cause the innocent to suffer unjustly.
And justice was to be a high priority among the people of Israel because it was important to God. Which is why Moses told them, “You must not pervert justice due a resident foreigner or an orphan…” (Deuteronomy 24:17 NLT). And to make sure they understood what he meant by justice, Moses gave the example of someone taking a widow’s garment as collateral on a loan. You don’t punish the innocent and you don’t take advantage of the helpless. These kinds of things were not to be done among God’s people. It was unacceptable behavior.
The Israelites were always going to have the poor and needy among them, and this group would be made up of fellow Israelites as well as immigrants from other nations. And in a nation with no welfare system, it was necessary that the people understand their role in the care for the less fortunate among them. And one of the ways in which God provided for the needs of the poor was through the annual harvest. As God blessed His people with abundant crops, they were to share their bounty with the less fortunate among them. So, each harvest, when the Israelites reaped their fields, any sheaves of grain that were inadvertently left behind were to remain there as gifts to the poor. And when they went to gather olives or grapes, they were commanded to leave some of the produce behind as a gift for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. God had promised to bless them with plenty of crops as long as they remained faithful to Him. And when He blessed them, He expected them to share that blessing with the less fortunate among them. And, once again, Moses used their former status as slaves in Egypt as a source of motivation.
According to the prophet, Amos, God wanted “to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.” He greatly desired that His people display His righteousness through their interactions with one another. They were His chosen possession and He had set them apart from all the other nations on earth so that they might model what true righteousness and justice looks like. The greatest sacrifice the people of Israel could make would be to give up their rights for one another. They could prove their love for God by selflessly loving the less fortunate among them. They could display their honor and reverence for God by willingly and eagerly dispensing justice to all those around them. The prophet, Micah reiterates the words recorded by Amos, reminding God’s people of their responsibility to act as agents of justice in this world.
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:6-8 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.