MOSES for the 21st CENTURY

"Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law." (Psalm 119:18)


(Investigator 190, 2020 January)


Government debt and welfare dependency, if unrestrained, have the potential to ruin the economy and lower living standards, but the Bible in the Law of Moses has ideas to ease the problem.


The Australian government debt is the amount owed by the Australian Federal Government.

In 2007 the Rudd Government legislated a debt ceiling, i.e. the total the government could borrow, of $75bn. The debt ceiling was increased several times but finally repealed because debt kept ballooning past the "ceiling":

30 June
Gross Debt
($ Billion)
Debt Ceiling
($ Billion)

In 2019 Australia had an improved fiscal outlook. The Treasury secretary advised using the opportunity to pay down debt to prepare Australia for challenges — "an uncertain global environment of trade, economic and geopolitical risks, such as the rise of trade protectionist sentiment, high levels of debt in Europe, and Brexit risks." (Roddan 2019)

Unmentioned were an aging population, climate change, sea-level rise, and ecological catastrophes. If nations can't live within their income now, what will happen if these kick in?

A potential remedy to government debt is welfare reform, because Australia's welfare bill amounts to about 10% of the gross domestic product, and 50% of people get more from government than they pay in tax.


Australia's main welfare recipient groups are the unemployed, single parents, and disability support recipients. In 1965 only 3% of Australians depended on welfare payments as their main income — but in 2004 16%.

Until the 1990s Australia's unemployed got benefits without obligations.

Among Aboriginals in "remote communities", where the 1972-elected Labor government introduced extensive welfare "to ensure no Australian lived in poverty", a common consequence was drunkenness, gambling and child abuse. (Ecenbarger 1996) Koch (2007) reported: "The homes are mindlessly wrecked, windows smashed, walls kicked in, mostly through vandalism as a result of drunken brawls."

Nevertheless reform delayed. Saunders (2004) noted: "One reason why progress on welfare reform has been relatively slow in Australia is that most social affairs academics, professionals, journalists and activists have at best been lukewarm about the whole idea and, at worst, have sought to undermine it…"

In 2004 the Government again expanded welfare by introducing a lump payment of $3000 for new mothers. (Maley & Saunders 2004) A teenage mother could get welfare until the child finished its education! A similar policy in New Zealand let teenage single parents stay on welfare 20 years!

Australia and New Zealand could have learned from America where the "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" program, legislated in the 1930s, gave widows indefinite entitlement to welfare payments, and later became the main income for unemployed single mothers. Political scientist and libertarian Charles Murray argued that huge increases in single parenthood after 1960 came about because the welfare system let fathers escape responsibility and rewarded girls who had illegitimate babies.

Spiralling Government debt and social problems from paying ever more people to do virtually nothing raised the spectre of eventual fiscal catastrophe.

The Law Code of Moses in the Old Testament was formulated to be the fairest Law Code in the ancient world. (Deuteronomy 4:5-8) Does the Bible therefore have a solution?


The Mosaic Law is not binding in a literal sense today (Psalm 147:19-20; Ephesians 2:15), nevertheless is still useful: "Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately…" (I Timothy 1:8)

Politicians sometimes go overseas to study laws of other countries for ideas that could benefit their own country. That is one approach we can take with Moses — study the Law for ideas to improve life and government today.

Consider "gleaning" which refers to going over the fields to gather leftovers after the main harvest is finished.

According to the Law of Moses landowners in ancient Israel were not to glean but leave the leftovers for the poor to glean:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10)

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 alien, the orphan, and the widow so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:19-22)

Gleaning is still beneficial today. A review of the French documentary film The Gleaners and I (2000) says, "Gleaners were French peasant foragers and scavengers, who picked up what remains after harvesting… A 1554 law still applies in parts of France where gleaning is allowed from sunrise to sunset after harvest." (The Advertiser, August 31, 2002, p. 80)

Gleaning, however, would today be inadequate on a national scale as the sole support for the poor, because today's nations are not rural societies composed of self-sufficient villages surrounded by fields as ancient Israel was.

The principle, however, is that the poor, the elderly, the mildly impaired and widows did work that might otherwise not be done because it was uneconomical at full pay. In other words they worked for lower rewards than ordinary wage earners and the means to do so was made available by law.

The ideas behind gleaning were:

1 Compassion for the poor;
2 People should work for a living and have opportunity to do so;
3 Laziness and imposing on others should not be encouraged.

Gleaners would have felt motivated to find work that paid full wages. Their gleaning experience would have trained them to work efficiently and make them more employable.

The New Testament interpretation of gleaning is: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat." (II Thessalonians 3:7-12) The idea here was to stop able-bodied people from indefinite reliance on Christian hospitality.

News reports occasionally echoed the Bible:

BRISBANE: If people won't work, let them starve, says Queensland State Parliamentarian Mr Bob Katter, jun.
Starvation might mature people who would not take work when it was available, Mr Katter, the National party member for the north-west Queensland seat of Flinders said yesterday.
"What I’m talking about is a bit of stick," he said. "If they’re not prepared to work, let them starve," he said.
(The News [South Australia], September 1, 1976)

The Catholic Bishop of Gippsland in Victoria has urged that the words of the Bible be applied to applicants for the dole.
Bishop Arthur Fox said yesterday in a pastoral message that the passage he had in mind was in a letter from Saint Paul to the Thessalonians…
"It is true there are many out of work through no fault of their own," Bishop Fox said. "But there are others who do not want to work and refuse to do so, preferring to live on the dole." …
"Today governments give them social benefits — actually paying them for doing nothing…"
Bishop Fox said the Bible showed that from the dawn of creation "God ordained man should work." …
(The Weekend Australian, November 22-23, 1980, p.5)

A modern equivalent to gleaning would be to make able-bodied welfare recipients work for their welfare and/or do job-training.

In 1987 government began to see the light:

CANBERRA: About 60,000 unemployed people will be co-opted immediately into compulsory work-for-the-dole schemes if the Liberal Party wins the July 11 Federal election… The compulsory work-for-the-dole scheme … was flagged by the Opposition Leader, Mr Howard, in his campaign launch last week… (The News, July 1, 1987)

However, change came slowly because, as quoted above, many influential people, not knowing the Bible, opposed this government initiative.


Australia's Howard Government introduced "mutual obligation" by which people receiving unemployment benefits were required to do training, study, or work for the dole.

"Work for the Dole" started in 1997 with 10,000 places. It was so successful that the Government began to expand it to older age groups. Mr Abbott, the Employment Services Minister, said: "We are moving towards a situation where it will be impossible to be idle at the taxpayer's expense for ever…" (Sunday Mail, May 23, 1999, p. 37)

The official aims were similar to what gleaning in ancient times accomplished such as:
•    Developing skills that employers want;
•    Increased confidence;
•    Making new contacts;
•    Getting involved in their local community.

A noteworthy difference is that gleaners gained rewards according to the effort they put in, whereas "mutual obligation" initially required little effort and covered only a minority of working-age adults on welfare. However, positive outcomes were soon noticed:
•    Habituation to idleness declined;
•    People acquired new skills;
•    Full-time work became more attractive than welfare.

The next targets were single parents and disability pensioners with mild impairments: "Single parents will likely be forced to find jobs or join training schemes when their children start school in the biggest shake-up of the $68 billion welfare system for three decades…" (Wright & Papadakis 2005)

After that came age pensioners with the qualifying age being raised.


In the USA President Clinton signed into law the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families bill (1996) which ended indefinite entitlement to welfare payments. People now had five years entitlement for the rest of their lives. States and charities provided programs to help people transition to jobs.

Critics predicted the proliferation of child beggars and prostitutes. Instead welfare dependents dropped from 5,000,000 to 3,000,000 in eight years, employment of unmarried mothers increased 65%, fewer children lived in poverty, and births to teenage girls declined 30%. Pearson (2006) writes: "In 1992, only 31 per cent of young single mothers who were high school dropouts were in work, but by 2000 50 per cent had jobs." 

New Zealand's Finance Minster, writing of "New Zealand's social investment policy", says: "We expect parents actively to support their children at school. We expect prisoners to get off drugs and gain work skills. And we expect young sole parents who are on benefits to get qualifications." (English 2015) Under this policy, children living in benefit dependent households declined 43,000 in three years.


Modern legislation that reduces people's dependency and gets them employed achieves similar aims as the gleaning rules of Moses, and has improved millions of lives while slowing down spiralling government debt. 

I recognized the parallel with Moses long before the Liberals in 1987 announced "work for the dole" as a policy. That's why I kept the old newspaper clippings cited above — to quote them and demonstrate the Bible's insight after government policy changed!


Ecenbarger, W. Reader's Digest, December 1996, pp 19-24

English, B. Servicing misery with welfare payments not the way to help recipients or the economy, The Weekend Australian, June 27-28, 2015, p. 20

Koch, T. The Weekend Australian, December 29-30, 2007, p. 21.

Maher, S. Welfare linked to job programs, The Weekend Australian, October 23-24, 2004, p. 7.

Maley, B. & Saunders, P. Motherhood as a meal ticket, The Australian, July 1, 2004, p. 13

Pearson, C. Welfare to work… The Weekend Australian, September 9-10, 2006, p. 26

Roddan, M. Cutting debt a must in face of global threats, The Weekend Australian, April 6-7, 2019, p. 8

Saunders, P. 2004 Australia's Welfare Habit and How to Kick It, Duffy & Snellgrove

Wright, L. & Papadakis, M. Parents welfare target, Sunday Mail, February 27, 2005, p. 11