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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 58, 2010

DAVID L. BAKER, Tight Fists or Open Hands? Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Pp. 435. Paperback. $US36.00.

David L. Baker’s stated purpose for writing this book is to present a thorough study of wealth and poverty in Old Testament law. He points to the growing gap between rich and poor today and the need for a Christian response to this problem to be based on an understanding of biblical law on wealth and poverty. This book aims to fill gaps in Old Testament scholarship and also to “lay a foundation for more popular works that consider the relevance of these laws to everyday life in the twenty-first century” (xiv).

The book provides a translation and exegetical study of all the biblical laws relating to wealth and poverty. It groups these according to topic, allowing for comparison of the Decalogue, Book of the Covenant, Holiness Code and Deuteronomic Laws, alongside the wider context of ancient Near Eastern law. After an Introduction that briefly lists the ANE and biblical law codes under consideration, Baker groups his discussion into three areas, which are in turn divided into subsections, as follows. Section One, “Property and Land”: Property Rights, Property Responsibilities and Ancestral Land. Section Two, “Marginal People”: Slaves, Semi-slaves, Other Vulnerable Groups. Section Three, “Justice and Generosity”: Just Lawsuits, Shared Harvests, Generous Loans and Fair Trade. Under each of these subsections are numerous headings that demonstrate his attention to detail. For example, “Slaves” covers Chattel Slaves, Slave Abuse and Fugitive Slaves. “Fair Trade” includes Holidays, Wages, and Weights and Measures. The Conclusion draws together similarities and differences between the biblical codes and the ancient Near Eastern context, before considering theological and ethical implications. Indexes include subjects, foreign words, Scripture, ancient Near Eastern laws and authors. The bibliography is very extensive. Each section is eminently usable, beginning with a brief overview of the wider social context in the ANE, ancient Israelite practice within the wider context, and a consideration of the theological and sociological issues that form the basis of the actual laws. Each legal topic is then examined firstly in the ANE law codes, then in the relevant biblical codes. Copious footnotes give details on translation, as well as pointing to the primary and secondary sources. Conclusions to each section draw general principles while recognising differences between biblical law and ANE law, as well as within the biblical traditions. Baker also draws comparisons between the laws in question and wider biblical material. For example, in “Fair Trade,” he notes prophetic polemic against the widespread practice of ignoring the laws (at least in the eighth century, according to Hosea, Amos and Micah). He also picks up the affirmation of the principle of fair trade within wisdom literature (Prov 11:1; 20:10, 23) and the expansion of the law in Ezekiel (45:10).

The overall purpose of the book is admirably achieved. It is very useful to have an easily accessible comparison of particular laws, and Baker provides enough discussion of language and theology to give a quick grasp of the issues relating to each law. If one requires an in-depth and highly detailed consideration, this is not the place to find it, nor does Baker claim to provide it. His copious footnotes point clearly to where such discussion might be found. He also states that the principles expressed can only be briefly discussed in terms of practical relevance to the socio-economic problems of today. This book is intended to inform and to encourage more detailed studies in the area of ethical significance.

Certainly, Baker is not interested in doing full justice to the legal systems of the ancient Near East. Hence, his conclusions regarding the similarities between biblical law and ancient Near Eastern law are very sparse, while the differences may be overstated and possibly do not do these other legal codes justice. However, his main purpose is to highlight the richness of the biblical laws theologically. Finally, the book’s purpose is not simply to inform, but to encourage just action. The book’s title, Tight Fists or Open Hands? (Deut 15:7b–8a), calls for a response in working to make the vision of the OT laws “a reality in the twenty-first century” (315). Whether or not one thinks his view of biblical law is overly rosy, it is an admirable aim, and a very useful book.

Review by
Merryl L. Blair
Churches of Christ Theological College
816 Riversdale Road
Mulgrave VIC 3170