Thoughts Concerning a ‘Biblical Definition of Capitalism,’ and the Millions of Deceived Christians Who Mistake Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as a Long-Lost Pauline Epistle, and Who are Convinced that Karl Marx and Judas Iscariot Do the Watusi Nightly in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, yet Who Think that the Holy Spirit was Just Playing the Crossed Tart when Ananias and Sapphira were Slain for Refusing to Participate in the Early Christian Communal (Communist) Model as Depicted in Acts…
[take a breath]
…And Who Consistently Elect Tea Party Politicians with the Mandate to Create an Evangelical Plutocracy Based on Old Testament Law yet Who Would Reject a Once-Every-Fifty-Years Debt-Forgiveness Jubilee to Empower the Proletariat (and with Apologies to Saltshaker Conservative Christian Organizations Whose Ads Google’s Algorithms will Mistakenly Plug into this Article, Penned by a Socialist-Friendly, Thumbs-Up-to-Bernie-Sanders Author)
Last year, I devoted a number of articles to demonstrating that the Bible is not the Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible many conservative Christians so desperately need it to be in order to justify their myopic, hetero-homologous lifestyles.
I chose marriage and sexuality as general topics, as both were political hot button topics throughout 2013. (See “What Every American Should Know about the Biblical ‘Definitions’ of Marriage” and the five-part “X-Rated Bible” series.)
The Bible is an extremely complex, human (yet tickled by the Divine) work with a history that honest-to-Jehovah takes years of scholarly effort to understand in full.
That said, manipulators of holy writ (of any religion) can prove any moral or ethical position under the sun. If one produces enough out-of-context Bible verses from a magic hat, one can justify anything from open carry laws to the goodliness of wife-rape. Heck, just look at what the Creation Museum has built from abject hermeneutical balderdash.
There are also many folks who consider the Bible a mere collection of fairy tales. Sadly, they are just as deceived as fundamentalists who want the U.S. to fall under Evangelical sharia law. Recall that 19th-century European archaeologists headed to the Levant to disprove the existence of places like Babylon and Nineveh—only to be shocked to discover that the Bible wasn’t making up the vast majority of Near Eastern history, after all.
Whether you’re on the Fairy Tale or Sharia Law end of the biblical belief spectrum, it’s worth learning what the Bible has to say about important subjects, as, for better or worse, the Bible is the single largest textual driver of political discussion in our country.
Want to refute a fundamentalist? Show them how they misinterpret or misunderstand Scripture.
Want to live a progressive Christian lifestyle? Understand your Bible better.
The purpose of this article, the first in a new series, is to investigate the overarching biblical message on a given single subject. That’s called a biblical survey.
The subject now under the biblical survey microscope is ECONOMICS.
The CEOs of Chik-Fil-A, Walmart and Hobby Lobby, as well as that (Ayn) randy Paul Ryan, would have you believe that capitalism is God’s chosen economic system. If this is the case, God in his omniscience somehow forgot to introduce it in Scripture. Capitalism didn’t exist in biblical times.
So then, is there a divinely “chosen” biblical economic system? Let’s find out!
The Challenge of a Biblical Survey of Economics: This Liquidity Injection is Going to Hurt
Let us begin with the premise that the majority of the 200 million-plus Americans who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and who take his teachings seriously—conservatives, progressives, myself included—have their heads so far up Mammon’s ass that it is unlikely most of us will be able to approach the subject of biblical economics without reacting like Moon Unit Zappa in full-gag-throated Valley Girl denial.
Americans don’t mind having their sexual ethical panties fondled. In fact, we kind of get off on discussing sex openly in media and public dialogue. Gay marriage and gay sex! Miley’s twerks! Kim Kardashian’s rack! People’s Sexiest Man! Oral Sex in the Oval Office! Blurred Lines! Yahoo!
(Americans, it turns out, are not very sexually mature.)
But when biblical thinkers start copping feels of our military industrial complex wallets, we get nervous. No cleavage, no codpiece: no fun.
Also: what if our collective conscience gets pinged to the point that we can’t get a Dow Jones hard-on for weeks?
What if Jesus really meant: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).
What if the Incarnate Member of the Holy Trinity was serious about that whole eye-of-the-needle-impossibility-of-a-rich-man-entering-the-Kingdom-of-Heaven thing?
Oh, c’mon, Jesus was joking! He depended on housing indicators like any other wheelin’ and dealin’ free market carpenter. Right?
The stark reality is that the American Economic Way and the Christian imperative to share until it hurts are philosophically antithetical. We don’t have to crack open a Bible to know that there is neither an Eleventh Commandment nor a Messianic Beatitude that reads: Consume! Consume! Consume!
While it’s painless to share a Facebook meme about same sex marriage, it’s another thing entirely to enter into a dialogue that may question the validity of an entire economic system—a system that happens to pay one’s bills, provides one’s health care, accrues one’s paid annual leave, saves for one’s retirement fund. And, yeah, the same system that turns a bullish blind eye to human trafficking, that pays for drones to kill your global neighbors, and that makes it nearly impossible for coffee growers in South America to feed their families, etc., et al.
My point? Any Christian with a conscience knows these articles are going to hurt.
Turning a Profit in Fig Leaves: The First Knowledge-Based Economy
The first instance of biblical supply and demand occurs when Adam and Eve recognize their nakedness following the consumption of a few delicious apples.
(Shameless corporate plug entered into the Google algorithm.)
As Adam perhaps said: “Dang, lady of my rib! Are those genitals?!”
Thus was borne the knowledge-based economy.
Genesis 3 states that “they sewed fig leaves together” to cover themselves. Of course, biblical literalists might have a difficult time explaining just how the First Human Couple acquired needle and thread. I don’t think there were Jo-Ann Fabrics in Eden at the time.
One presumes, however, that neither Adam nor Eve turned much of a profit against one another in the initial textile industry. Even beyond Eden, leaves were plentiful.
Bit of an aside: herein the biblical text also demonstrates the first welfare program, as “the LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and Eve.”
More importantly, from the Fall on, knowledge became the single most elusive economic resource. God placed angels with flaming swords around the perimeter of the Garden “to guard the way to the tree of life.” And I’ll bet anything those tight-lipped cherubim know everything from Colonel Sander’s secret recipe to the chemical combination of WD-40.
Take My Wife, Please! Then Go Buy My Son One
I consider myself an orthodox (little “o”) Christian, yet I believe Adam and Eve are not historical figures. Also, I find Noah and his ark to be an ancient myth, doubtless a Pentateuchal response to the diluvian Utnapishtim tale. Same with Babel, another myth, the world’s first effort at satellite communications.
I believe that with the tale of Abram/Abraham, however, the Bible finally plants its feet upon historical soil. I could be wrong, but here we begin to hear verifiable words like “pharaoh” and “Hittites.” Also, characters’ lives are no longer measured in multiple centuries. And we know that Abram’s hometown of Ur (in modern Iraq near modern Basrah) is a real ancient site.
With respect to economics, coins are mentioned for the first time in the Bible during the story of Abraham. In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant is sent on a business trip to the land of Abraham’s birth to find a wife for his master’s son. The servant travels to faraway Nahor and meets Abraham’s prospective daughter-in-law, Rebecca, at a well and proceeds to shove a nose ring “weighing a beka” into her nose and “puts two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels” upon her wrist.
“Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and to her mother” (Genesis 24:53).
This is not really acceptable courtship even by ChristianMingle standards. But it does provide some insight into ancient biblical economies.
It sure seems like Abraham purchased his daughter-in-law. Or at least cut a deal for her.
Earlier in Genesis, Abraham’s wealth is measured in “sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels” (Genesis 12:16).
There’s really no way getting around the fact that people were deemed property in ancient biblical times. But don’t blame Abraham. He was a mere product of his time. (Yeah, so was Jefferson Davis.)
Civilization at the time of Abraham (Ancient Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia) was a patchwork of monarchical kingdoms and city states, with economies that were grain- and labor-based at the urban level and husbandry-based amongst nomadic peoples. Writing was still fairly novel and evolved not from ancient coffee house poetry readings but from the need to manage royal commodities (accounting). Also, people valued ungulates as much as gold; just try buying your favorite electronic toy at Best Buy with two goats.
Property was a big deal. Natural resources like water, livestock, grain, precious metals, as well as human beings, were exchanged and sometimes fought over with pointy swords. Economy and trade had progressed in complexity to a point that rulers like Hammurabi and his counterparts found it necessary to regulate many types of economic exchanges, including human trafficking.
The Code of Hammurabi, relatively simultaneous to Abraham, allowed for debtors to sell their wives and children into temporary slavery to pay off debts. The CoH also states that a nun who tries to open a tavern shall be burnt alive. (No wonder women in wimples didn’t often grace the cover of Fortune in those days!)
Another way in which economic reality was quite different to we contemporaries (except Pat Robertson) was that the gods themselves were market regulators. As Daniel Snell states in his book Life in the Ancient Near East: “The supposed impiety of Naram-Sin was felt to have led to high prices, and consequently piety in general was felt to lead to low prices … one could say righteous policies led to low prices.”
I find it fascinating that the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 15)—one of the most key of all biblical passages—is modeled on the granting dependence of the state. M. Weinfeld describes this parallel in his article “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East” (Journal of the American Oriental Society, v. 90, No. 2, Apr-Jun 1970):
“The gift of land to Abraham and the gift of kingship to David are then formulated in the way Hittite grants used to be formulated and especially those bestowed upon privileged vassals. Contrary to the prevalent law in the Hittite kingdom in Ugarit and in Alalah, according to which property of the condemned is to be confiscated, in the cited documents the property of the condemned cannot be taken away.”
Weinfeld writes further: “Priestly revenue in the Ancient Near East were also subject to grants and royal bestowals.” Weinfeld also explains that the strange occurrence of God passing between Abraham’s sacrifice with a “smoking fire pot with a blaring torch” was a rather familiar Near Eastern contractual symbol.
The key takeaway here: State dependence was not an abnormality to ancient ears. In fact, God (or the author of Genesis, if you prefer) used the ancient equivalent of the federal grant as the very model for making Abraham “the father of many nations.” (I wonder what Republican lawmakers would say about that.)
But the most important point to make is that the author(s) of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) provide little socioeconomic critique of the yonder days of Father Abraham. Life in the Second Millennium B.C.E. was very much a patriarchal Downton Abbey of successful merchants and their servants, of emerging kingdoms, monarchs and subject classes. And the biblical author, or authors, seem to offer little objection.
Conclusion: Preparation for the Radical Economic Theory of Mosaic Law
As we wind up Part I, it is worth noting that biblical history from a Christian perspective boils down to three simple periods: Pre-Law, Law and Post-Law.
Pre-Law: The period from mythic Eden to Moses, the time before God revealed the Ten Commandments and established a society based on divine law. (This was the period discussed in this essay.)
Law: The period from Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with the Decalogue to the life of Jesus, during which Jewish society was governed by priestly law.
Post-Law: Christians believe that Jesus’ incarnation eliminated the need for the people of God to live under Mosaic law; Jesus summed up the “New Law” as abiding under the simple tenets of “Love God” and “Love thy Neighbor.”
With respect to a “biblical definition of capitalism,” the important takeaways from the Pre-Law Biblical Period are:
- Capitalism as an economic system was a non-existent idea. If God prefers capitalism as an economic model, Scripture is silent on the subject.
- Ancient people had a thing for goats. As well as sheep and cattle. Also water and gold. Property. And profit. (See especially the tale of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25.)
- Ancient people weren’t abashed to throw a yoke around a fellow human being and call him or her “mine.” Sadly, biblical authors are rather silent on the subject of human trafficking.
- When God interacts directly with human beings, he does so, interestingly, within the context of known economic systems; e.g., suzerain grants.
While the Bible seems to paint Yahweh in the Pre-Law Period as a fairly status quo deity who turns a divine eye to human trafficking, things are about to change with the advent of Mosaic Law.
For now, all we can do is leave you hanging like theatergoers at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Maybe the corporate Sith lords are going to prevail, after all.
Yet have faith. Very soon we will learn of God’s frowny-face opinion of a society built upon debt and profiteering. And the Year of Jubilee might just hold the key to the Death Star’s destruction.
Until Part Deux, here’s a little tidbit from Jesus: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy … But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
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