Economics in the Bible

This post is part of the series “Spirit of the Poor” which is being hosted this month by Luke Harms. Please look at his post and that of others who join us, and contribute your writing as well.

There is very little talk of rich or poor in the first five books of the Bible. The word “poor” does not even appear in Genesis . The word “riches” only appears five times in the Pentateuch, the period of tribal life.

Monetary systems and property economics , with such things as leans on property, mortgages, and eventually debt slavery, came into being in the 8th century BC.

The prophets of this period are not political or economist theorists, but they do describe the evil consequences of the economic system (property economics) and are quick to denounce it.

“Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds… they covet fields, and seize them, houses, and take them away, they oppress households and house, people, and their inheritance… The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses, from their young children you take away my glory for ever.” (Micah 2:14)

“Ah! You who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land. (Isaiah. 5:8)

There is a striking correlation between the passages in Micah and Isaiah and the tenth commandment; “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house (field is added in the Deuteronomy version), you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbors.” This commandment is not about lust or jealousy. It is about economic greed.

But the fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath holy, holds the key to a theological understanding of economic justice.

The Ten Commandments appear in two places in the Bible; Exodus 20, and Deuteronomy 5. Immediately following both readings is a spelling out of the commandments in detailed laws. Exodus,20 – 23 is known as the Book of the Covenant, dates from the mid eighth century, perhaps after the fall of the North. In the Book of the Covenant we find a series of seven day and seven year ordinances which appear to be in response to problems arising from the new property economics.

  • The release of debt slaves after six years. (21:2-11)
  • On the seventh year, the fields shall lie fallow so that the poor and the animals can eat of it. (23:10)
  • On the seventh day of the week the farmer is to rest and also give the day off to his cattle, slaves, and “resident aliens” so that they “may be refreshed:”
  • One is to not charge interest. (22:25-27)

Throughout this section of Exodus there is frequent reference to God having freed the people from slavery in Egypt. The clear message is that anything which leads to enslavement of the people is unholy and a rejection of Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 5, is also followed by a similar set of rules.

  • Charging interest is banned (Deut: 23:19)
  • Restriction on pledges or pawns. (24:7 – 10)
  • Debt slaves are to be freed in the seventh year, but are also given starting capital to begin their free life. (21:2ff)
  • There is a yearly tax (tithe) which is used for festivals which all can attend, and every third year this tithe was given to those with no land; widows, foreigners, Levites, and orphans. (14:28-29) This is the first social tax in world history.
  • Debt forgiveness. (15:1ff)

The absoluteness of property ownership is rejected in order to prevent poverty. “But there shall be no poor among you, for the Lord will bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess. (15:4)

The third passage in the Pentateuch which deals with the same set of ordinances is found in Leviticus 25, the Holiness Code. It is in this chapter that the Jubilee year (seven times the seventh year) is proclaimed. Here debt slavery is altogether forbidden – those in debt are to be treated as hired hands until the jubilee year (39-43). Underlying the whole chapter is the premise that the earth belongs to God. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, and with me you are but aliens and tenants.”

Perhaps the story which best captures the meaning of Sabbath Economics is the story of God providing manna during the exodus from Egypt. In that story, the people are to collect what they need for each day except on the sixth day when they are to collect enough for two days so that they can observe the Sabbath. Those who take more manna than they need, find that it rots overnight. There are two clear lessons from this story.

  1. Abundance: God provides for us. There is enough for all. There is even more than enough so that in six days of work we will have enough for seven days.
  2. Everybody should take only what is needed, and not hoard.

The commandment to observe the Sabbath is not only to rest, but to give rest to others. And it is a commandment against continuous acquisition. The seven year Sabbath reforms were put in place because the society was not following the Sabbath tradition of restraint on acquisition, and the sharing of resources. They were aimed at restorative justice; freeing the debt slaves, and returning family land. There is an explicit understanding that absolute property ownership leads to inequity and injustice, and that social needs take precedence over individual property rights. There is the further theological understanding that all the earth belongs to God and we are only tenants on the land.

Those teachings of Jesus which appear in both Mark and Luke are full of specific references to the Old Testament passages cited above, which I refer to as outlining Sabbath economics. For instance, Jesus’ call to forgive seventy times seven, emphasizes the need for village communities to continue this whole set of Mosaic laws and traditions, based on the Sabbath, which allowed village life to exist in the face of economic oppression. These include such things as debt forgiveness, sharing of resources, prohibitions of interest, and maintaining family ties.  Jesus condemns the rich because of the methods by which one becomes rich.

It is with this perspective that we can understand why Jesus told the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the poor.

Our own economic system falls far short of that envisioned in the Bible. We, like the rich ruler, are the beneficiaries of this system and would do well to take Jesus’ response to him as a directive for us.

I have written other posts that deal with how we go about trying to apply this conviction in our lives.  My goals for 2014 is one, and a review of my committment to simplify my life 5 years ago is another.

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About Newell Hendricks

I have lived a good life. Maybe a counterculture life, maybe a normal life. I have written operas, built houses, been involved with cross-cultural education between Latin America and the U.S, and hardly ever had a job I have helped raise two wonderful children with my amazing wife. It's been a good ride. And I go to church. I've just finished a book of stories from my life, I am still connected to an organization in Nicaragua that promotes sister relationships between communities, faith communities, or schoold, and to the extent that my cancer doesn't pull me down, am attempting to share some of what I have learned, or at least tried out. Welcome, and let's share.
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10 Responses to Economics in the Bible

  1. Pingback: White Christian Economics 101 | Spirit of the Poor | Live the 13th

  2. All of the topics you write about here: debt slavery, not charging interest, the dangers of hoarding and acquiring assets, land ownership, the Sabbath and the year of Jubilee… for so many years I’ve wrestled with seeing God’s economic system in the Old Testament and living within an affluent community as a “white Christian” in the first world.

    I feel like what you are describing is hitting the very core of who I am. I started to respond via the comment box here, a few minutes ago, and after the 5th paragraph I realized I was going to clog your page, and so I hopped over to my own blog and it turned into a blog post called “White Christian Economics 101” – because my heart is so full right now. You are speaking Truth – you are striking the very core of what I feel is a satanic system, in plain view, but invisible because it’s cloaked in the deception of “doing good” but not “being good”. Newell, you are right in the CORE of God’s heart… this is the root system of righteousness: justice and truth. This. is. it!

    If it’s okay, I’ll post my 2nd article – and whoever wants to can choose to delete the first at #spiritofthepoor – I think this is part of the value of what you and Esther are offering, because the dialogue between contributors is transformational! What you have written here today…. it hits me square in my own roots, right at the core. THANK YOU!

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    • Susan, You really live out your quest for God. It comes across so strongly in your responses to others. Thank you. I have read your other post and will comment there as well.
      Seeing out from under the economic system, even thought there are everyday injustices all around us, is incredibly hard to do. It is hard to talk with others about, and hard to know where we are in the midst of it. But you are so open and seeking and affirming of anyone who is attempting to ge out from under the weight of this cultural evil. I think you so much for that support. More on your blog.
      Newell

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  3. Jamie Bagley says:

    The concept of Sabbath being focused on giving rest, and against continuous acquisition. Most certainly yes. I don’t know how we failed to acknowledge that layer and just made it about what we could do for ourselves. I think for too long we’ve read our Bibles through the lens of personal growth and prosperity instead of a community-minded perspective. And it makes a huge difference. I would love to see Jubilee come back into practice. Wouldn’t that be something!

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  4. Pingback: The Hope Diaries

  5. Fantastic overview of some of the Hebrew Testament economic justice “meat and potatoes!” Though I strayed away from reading the Hebrew Testament for a while during my time in a fundamentalist campus ministry (which often emphasized a prosperity gospel and a very wrathful Hebrew Testament God), I fell back in love with the Hebrew Testament when I began to learn more about this God who sought and commanded justice and equality for all – especially those on the margins.

    I love your term: “Sabbath Economics.” I am guessing you’ve read some Ched Myers…? Have you read either of his “Ambassadors of Reconciliation” books (with Elaine Enns)? If not, I think you would enjoy them.

    Thanks, again, for another great post on this spirit of the poor series. You continue to inspire me.

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    • I have read some Ched Meyers, and been at conferences with him. I friend from my church was part of the Sabbath Economics Collaborative and they had their annual meeting in Boston one year. One of the events was open to the public and a group from my church came and then we started our own Sabbath Economics group. One of the books we read was:
      Property for people, not for Profit, Ulrich Duchrow & Franz J. Hinkelammert; Zed Books, London & New York, in association with Catholic Institute for International Relations, London, 2004.
      It was from that Book that I was able to do a timeline of the Exodus 20-23 passages, the Deuteronomy laws, and the Holiness Code of Leviticus, and place them in the context of the history of Israel and the general history of proberty economics and history of the concept of a monetary system. It’s a tough read because it’s a translation from German, but the content is excellent.
      Thanks for participating so much in the discussions, and keeping them going.
      Newell

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  6. Juliet says:

    This is a wonderful post. it is so inspiring to hear again the call to justice that resonates throughout the Hebrew bible. It seems to me that Christendom was guilty of allowing all this powerful teaching on community, on economic justice and social justice to be downplayed in favour of an individualistic personal morality that focussed on maintaining the status quo.
    I’ve missed the chance to contribute to this synchroblog but having read so many of these posts I think there is little to add. Except that I am taking you up on the five year plan and learning from many who have posted here that we need to begin where we are but we do need to begin!
    I will also try to get my hands on the books Emily mentioned by Ched Myers.

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  7. Pingback: Spirit of the Poor, Summary of February posts and comments | Newell Hendricks

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