While the English word “begging” may mean simply to implore or plead, the discussion here deals primarily with begging in the sense of the habitual practice of publicly asking for charity.
The patriarchal arrangement, which the Bible indicates existed prior to and after the global flood of Noah’s day, doubtless served greatly to prevent situations where individuals would find themselves isolated, in dire straits, and dependent upon public charity, and thus it worked against the development of a pauper class. From ancient times hospitality to strangers or travelers seems to have been quite freely practiced; such hospitality is at least reflected in the Biblical accounts, with rare exceptions. (Gen. 19:1-3; Ex. 2:18-20; Judg. 19:15-21) The development of cities is considered to have contributed to the weakening of the patriarchal arrangement and possibly this, together with a selfish tendency to take undue advantage of the hospitality or charity of others, led to the development of begging among humankind.
Begging or mendicancy is apparently of very ancient origin in the lands of the Orient. This makes all the more notable the fact that in the Hebrew Scriptures there is no indication that begging existed to any degree or constituted a particular problem in the nation of Israel from the time of its formation until its going into exile in Babylon. When moving out of Egypt and their slavery in that land, the Israelites “went asking [a form of the Hebrew verb sha·ʼalʹ] from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold and mantles. . . . and they stripped the Egyptians.” (Ex. 12:35, 36) This, however, was in accord with God’s command and prophecy and was evidently viewed as just compensation for their long years of slave labor and the injustices endured by them at the hands of the Egyptians. (Ex. 3:21, 22; compare Deuteronomy 15:12-15.) It set no precedent for the practice of begging.
The Mosaic law contained forceful legislation on behalf of the poor, which, when observed, removed all cause for begging. (Lev. 19:9, 10; Deut. 15:7-10; 24:19-21; see GIFTS OF MERCY.) The Hebrew Scriptures strongly express trust in God’s providence for those adhering to righteousness, even as David in his old age exclaimed: “I have not seen anyone righteous left entirely, nor his offspring looking for [“begging,” AV; a form of the Hebrew ba·qashʹ] bread,” even though such righteous ones themselves are shown to be openhanded in their generosity. (Ps. 37:25, 26; contrast with the experience of apostate Jerusalem at Lamentations 1:11; 4:4.) On the other hand, Proverbs (20:4) portrays the lazy man as “begging in reaping time,” and the psalmist (109:10) describes the execution of punishment on the wicked as obliging “his sons [to] go wandering about; and they must do begging, and they must look for food from their desolate places.” In these two latter texts the word “begging” translates the Hebrew sha·ʼalʹ, which term basically means simply to ask or request (as at Exodus 3:22); however, in these two cases the implication is that the asking is done in the active, and perhaps public, manner characterizing begging.
It appears that, during the period from the time of the Jews’ return from exile (537 B.C.E.) down to the time of Jesus’ appearance on the earthly scene, the concept developed among the Jews that the act of giving “alms” or gifts of charity had merit in itself toward salvation. This is evidenced by the statement contained in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (3:30) (believed to have been written about the second century B.C.E.) that “almsgiving atones for sins.” Such view undoubtedly served to encourage begging. (Compare the much publicized giving denounced by Jesus in Matthew 6:2.)
Domination by the foreign powers brought oppression to the Jewish people and doubtless caused considerable disruption of the application of the Mosaic law concerning ancestral land rights and similar provisions. This, together with false religious philosophies, which failed to inculcate a genuine and principled love of neighbor (Matt. 23:23; Luke 10:29-31), also likely shared responsibility for the growth of begging in Palestine. Thus we find a number of references in the Christian Greek Scriptures to beggars in that land.
The blind, the lame and the diseased figure among the beggars described in the time of Jesus and the apostles. Ophthalmia (a disease of the eyes still common in the Near East) perhaps caused some of the blindness among these men. (Mark 10:46-49; Luke 16:20, 22; 18:35-43; John 9:1-8; Acts 3:2-10) Like beggars today, they often situated themselves along public thoroughfares or near places frequented by crowds, as at the temple. Despite the prominence given to almsgiving, beggars were looked down upon, so that the steward of Jesus’ parable said, “I am ashamed to beg [from Gr., e·pai·teʹo, an intensified form of the verb ai·teʹo, meaning ‘to ask’].”—Luke 16:3.
The Greek word pto·khosʹ, used by Luke (16:20, 22) in recording Jesus’ reference to Lazarus as a beggar, describes one who crouches and cringes and refers not merely to the poor but to the very poor, the destitute, the beggars. It is noteworthy that this same term is used at Matthew 5:3 with regard to those “conscious of their spiritual need [‘those who are beggars for the spirit,’ ftn. 1950 ed.]” (“poor in spirit,” AV), and concerning the use of pto·khosʹ in this text Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament comments: “. . . it is very graphic and appropriate here, as denoting the utter spiritual destitution, the consciousness of which precedes the entrance into the kingdom of God, and which cannot be relieved by one’s own efforts, but only by the free mercy of God.”
This same term is also used by Paul at Galatians 4:9 in expressing his concern over those who were “turning back again to the weak and beggarly [pto·khaʹ] elementary things” formerly practiced. Such things were “beggarly” in comparison with the spiritual riches obtainable through Christ Jesus.
Although Jesus and his apostles showed kindness to beggars, they did not encourage begging; though they gratefully accepted hospitality, they did not beg. Jesus told those who followed him merely to obtain bread that their concern should be, not for “the food that perishes, but for the food that remains for life everlasting.” (John 6:26, 27) Peter told a lame beggar at the temple: “Silver and gold I do not possess, but what I do have is what I give you,” using his spiritual gifts to heal the man. (Acts 3:6) Though at times hungry, lacking clothing and homeless, the apostles toiled, ‘working with their own hands, night and day, so as not to be a burden on others.’ (1 Cor. 4:11, 12; 1 Thess. 2:9) The standard among Christians was: “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.”—2 Thess. 3:10-12.