The Right to Food in the Bible

righttofood_videoChurch Action on Poverty is exploring how we can secure people’s human right to food. In this guest post, Church Action on Poverty supporter Marie Pattison reflects on what the Bible has to say about food as a human right.

I recently met a friend for lunch, and over a rather tasty sandwich and a long cool glass of apple juice we caught up on our news. My friend told me he was doing some work around food as a human right – what did I think of that theologically? The Bible talks about food as a gift from God, something over which we are stewards, something we have a responsibility to share – but as a right? Largely the Bible doesn’t talk in terms of rights, but rather responsibilities. Our sandwiches were tasty, we could afford to pay for them, to pay to have someone else make them, to eat them in the pleasant surroundings. I think the  Bible makes it clear that those who can do that also have a responsibility to those who cannot – but was my sandwich something I had a right to?

Afterwards, I typed ‘food’ into the search function on my Bible app and started to scroll. Beginning at the beginning, the Books of Moses concern themselves a lot with food as a offering to God and how it can and can’t be eaten. Here is something that caught my attention. In Exodus 20:10, if a man has a slave wife and wishes to take another, “he shall not diminish her food, her clothing or her marital rights”. Here is another thing: only a priest and his household can eat sacred offerings. If that priest buys a slave, guess what? Levitical law takes the time to tell us that the slave may eat of the food “and anyone born in his house may eat of his food”. In Leviticus  20:11, if the priest’s daughter is widowed or divorced and comes back to her father’s house, she too may eat it.

Thousands of years ago, the law of God’s people held that it was important that the most marginalised had a right to the basics of their existence. Do we still hold that to be a truth?

These days we find slavery abhorrent and we don’t turn to ancient law codes to tell us how to treat slaves and eat burnt offerings, or bathe before eating burnt offerings. This law was given to God’s people for a very different society. It is concerned here with the responsibilities of male patriarchs, those who could afford to support others. In that society, a slave wife who is being put aside, and a divorced or widowed woman, are the most powerless. This person has been reduced to being unwanted property of another person. Here is why I think it’s interesting: the code of this society concerned itself with what this person would eat and wear – with her rights. Those rights are not spelled out for patriarchs. They do not question their food as a right; they have it, and when they do not, they buy it from others as in Deuteronomy 2. Their right to food is not spelled out, it doesn’t need to be. For those who need it to be – slaves and dependants – the law takes the time to say that food is so fundamental, it is a thing they have a right to.

The welfare state of this country was brought about to protect society’s most vulnerable. Today we see that safety net threatened: a basic income to cover basic needs is being framed as a favour, a luxury, something to be withheld as punishment. But thousands of years ago, the law of God’s people held that it was important that the most marginalised had a right to the basics of their existence. Do we still hold that to be a truth?

Marie PattisonMarie Pattison is a long-standing supporter of Church Action on Poverty, and Director of the Katherine House Retreat Centre in Salford.

Click here to read more and watch Church Action on Poverty’s video documentary on the Right to Food.

4 thoughts on “The Right to Food in the Bible

    • Hi Kevin. I didn’t set out to write exhaustively about how the bible treats food. I was sharing something I had noticed and found interesting, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of things.

      However, I don’t feel contradicted by the thessalonians quote. It talks of willingness to work, which suggests ability and opportunity. When ability and opportunity is lacking the responsibility for that person rests no longer on them but on the wider society. If we choose to interpret thessalonians in any other way then we are facing with the problem that it would seem to contradict the entire biblical tradition which exhorts us to care for widows and orphans – those who have had their choices taken away.

      Thanks for commenting and engaging

    • But willingness =/= ability or opportunity; for example, in the article, the rights of put-aside women are noted – these were the people who had no chances to be independent or earn their own keep *in their society*…we have a *lot* of people in our society who are in that situation now…

  1. The context in which the apostle was writing has little bearing on ethics in an industrial or even a post-industrial society. Shortage of employment is commonplace in most if not all countries today, nor for the most part do we live in an agrarian society, though of course trading is endemic (as it always has been). What we do observe however is our increased dependence on markets, per se, which are often volatile and unable to offer reasonable security of employment. So, there are many folk who are forced to rely on the state, but increasingly today, the voluntary sector – charity and friends or family – for sufficient income out of which to meet their basic needs. Cuts in welfare have forced this situation, and the very poorest are compelled to suffer most, while the richest 5% become insanely rich. Scripture must always be read in social and cultural context. The Old Testament prophets have far more relevance to our contemporary and very unequal world, may I suggest.

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