The Great Tradition

The Jerusalem elites proposed a particular reading of the Scriptures, their interpretation of the Great Tradition defined the current social construction of reality.

The Jerusalem elites, both political and religious, proposed a particular reading of the Scriptures. Their interpretation of the Great Tradition defined the “world”; that is, they defined the current social construction of reality. Their interpretation of the Torah was not a simple argument between schools of thought, but rather a political struggle with economic and social consequences – it was about wealth and power. To control the interpretation of the Great Tradition brought power and influence. A particular reading of the Torah suited the ruling elites. It enabled them to control social and religious behaviour and profit from the imposition of taxes and tribute for their own benefit by placating the needs of the Roman Imperial authorities with which they collaborated.

The Great Tradition focused on control through cultic purity and practice, the rule of the Priesthood and the Temple. Its emphasis was on holiness through formal religious observance. But in the Scriptures, the Priestly and Temple focus is paralleled by other Prophetic and Deuteronomic traditions. The scribes and the priests emphasise the payments of tithes. The scriptures also speak of the Sabbath year’s cancellation of debt and the Jubilee year’s call to redistribute wealth and land. When this tradition is strong and coherent it counters the limited interpretation of the Great Tradition. The heroes in Jesus’ Galilee were not the elite Temple Priesthood but Elijah and Elisha, through whom God called the powerful of their time to account for their apostasy.

After the 10 commandments in the Book of Exodus comes a code of Laws known as the Covenant Code in Exodus 20:22-23:33. It includes provisions for the care of the poor which is unique in all the Ancient Near Eastern law codes (while showing other similarities with some types of ancient custom and literature).

Among some of the oldest strands of law found in Exodus are these texts: those which prohibit the taking of interest from a poor person (22:24), the command to give back the cloak left as a pledge on a loan every evening (22:25), and the rights of the poor to harvest the fields, vineyards and olive orchards every seventh year (23:11).

Particular concern is shown for the stranger. We see that the laws start and conclude with the stranger in Exodus 22:20; 23:12; then the widow and then the orphan in Exodus 22:21 and Exodus 23:11. Why the stranger comes to be mentioned with the widow and the orphan is not clear, perhaps there was large-scale migration from the north to the south with the destruction of Samaria.

What is interesting here is that the word used when being commanded not to oppress the stranger is the same word used of the oppression of the Israelites when they were in Egypt (Exodus 3:9 and Deuteronomy 26:7). In other words, the God giving these rules is the God of Exodus, reminding the Israelites that they were once strangers in the land of Egypt. And it reminds the new state of Israel that it came into being by God’s action – by liberating the poor and oppressed from their oppressors.

A key part of God’s plan is that they should create an alternative society, which is just, generous and blessed. God had taken Egypt’s poor and transplanted them in another country to start something radical and new. This new society was to exclude oppression and poverty, and yet these laws clearly presuppose the continuing existence of poverty within Israel itself. What is to be done?

In the book of Deuteronomy, there is a further set of laws in chapters 12-26. Here the stranger, the orphan and the widow are joined by slaves and Levites. The legislator is trying to create new structures to help all those who cannot live off their own land. There will always be strangers, orphans and widows but Deuteronomy is trying to create a world where they don’t have to be poor. And so in this vision of things a widow and a slave have the same right to a secure life as a Levite, a Temple official, an honoured person in Israel.