The Bible is economic


When the newly freed band of slaves arrived at Mt. Sinai, they encountered their Divine Liberator. Unlike the gods of Egypt, God chose to enter into a special relationship with this discordant band of runaways if they would obey the ten commands laid out by Moses. The core of this fundamental Decalogue demanded a total surrender to the Redeeming Deity and a commitment of love and respect for each other. This relationship was clearly summed up in the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor. Moses ratified the covenant when he sprinkled the blood of a young bull, first on the altar signifying God, and then on the people who responded: “All that the Lord has said we will heed and do” (Ex. 24: 6-8). It is clear from the Book of Deuteronomy, that the covenant was conditioned on the response of the people: blessings for obedience; curses for disobedience (Dt. 11:26-28).

As the people began to reflect on this newly formed relationship, they began to understand that the Divine Liberator was presenting a totally new socio-economic vision of reality. Unlike the gods of Egypt that simply blest the hierarchical political model, their God demanded an egalitarian prototype based on distributive justice where everyone could benefit from the resources available. The Divine Liberator became an Economist, defending the rights of the widows, orphans, aliens and the poor – all those without rights in the patriarchal society of the Middle East.

The first law of the Divine Economist was the Sabbath rest. “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord, your Godthe Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but on the seventh day he rested” (Ex. 20:8-11).

The idea that every seventh day must be set aside as sacred rest is distinctively and uniquely Jewish. The motive expressed in Exodus is imitation of God’s respite after six days of creating. The reasoning in Deuteronomy (5:12-15) was a reminder that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt and had to work seven days a week. The Sabbath rest forced the rich and the poor to live as equals for at least one day a week. It was a temporary reprieve from the daily experience of inequality.

The principle of Sabbath rest was then extended to a year. “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat” (Ex 23:10-11 and Lv. 24:2b-7). These laws remind us that even the land belongs to God and deserves a rest to regenerate itself. A corollary to these laws was the provision for the poor who also have a right to the land and its produce. “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 left for the alien, the orphan and the widow” (Dt. 24:19-21). “You shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather fallen grapes You shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (Lv. 19:9-10).

The second economic law was the forbidding of loans with interest to fellow Israelites. “If any of your fellow countrymen fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you. do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit” (Lv. 25:35-37, see also Ex. 22:25 and Dt. 23:19).

The third policy was the remission of debts. In the Book of Deuteronomy, the seven-year rest was also transformed into a time to remit all debts (Dt. 15:1-2, 7-11). The remission of debt also applied to slavery, the most extreme form of indebtedness. Exodus (21:7-11) and Deuteronomy (15:12-15, 18) made provision for the freeing of those who sold themselves into slavery to pay off their debts.

The final law was the Jubilee Year. It occurred every 50 years and required that all land be returned to the original owners. “This fiftieth year you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when every one of you shall return to his own property, every one to his own family estate” (Lv. 25:10).

“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity for the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants” (Lv. 25:23). The purpose of the law was to prevent the small family farms from being taken over by greedy landowners. The fundamental principle underlying these laws is that our God is passionate about justice.

The prophetic tradition explicitly states that authentic worship of God demands fairness. Any ritual that ignores the widow, the orphan and alien is empty and an abomination to the God of Justice. (Read Am. 4:1-5,5:21-24; Is. 1:10-17; Mi. 6:6-8; Jer. 7:5-7). The theme of economic justice is also expressed in numerous psalms, various proverbs and the book of Job (29:12-17).

These laws were established for an agrarian economy and reflect a rejection of the patriarchal system the Israelites experienced in Egypt. They were designed to maintain an egalitarian structure that prevented a few wealthy people from exercising all of the power and controlling the resources. It is apparent from the prophetic literature that most of these laws were ignored once Israel, to be like the other nations, chose a king.

The principles underlying these legal codes continue to challenge everything we hold sacred in a capitalist system. They undermine our need for constant acquisition. They unmask the falsehood of fair competition. They expose the myth that poverty is due primarily to personal laziness rather than systemic injustice. They debunk the “trickle down” theory of economics because greed will always supersede the common good. They are a searing reminder that the creator is the owner of all that we have. They expose our relationship with God by revealing our true attitudes to those most in need. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me, in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt. 25:35-36).

In today’s political milieu, God would be labeled a socialist or Marxist for defying the divine dictates of unbridled capitalism. It always amazes me that throughout history, we have shifted the focus from God’s desire for distributive justice to divine wrath over sexual peccadillos when the preponderance of concern throughout the Bible is economic not pelvic.

Peter Carli

Spread Eagle, Wis.