22 Aug 2010

Economic Views in the Old Testament

Economics, Religious 11 Comments

Gene Callahan is making up a syllabus for his History of [Economic?] Thought class, and he asked me for the best passages representing “ancient Hebrew attitudes towards economic issues.”

At first I flatly refused to answer, saying he should email Gary North or try to hunt down Israel Kirzner (I’m guessing he’s not on Facebook). But Gene persisted, so I replied:

I’m still not really sure how to answer the OT question. Really, it’s not false modesty, I think you should ask someone else or just start googling.

The problem is that their Law was incredibly complex, and I don’t know enough of the nuances to say, “That’s how they thought about economics in general,” or if it was more like, “When you had to buy a goat to sacrifice to the Lord, you had to pay this much.”

That’s actually one of the interpretations I heard from (an admittedly right-wing) Christian pastor on Jesus and the moneychangers: The pastor said Jesus wasn’t mad about commerce per se, or even that money was happening near the Temple, but that the devout Jews were being taken advantage of. People had to travel from all over to go the Temple, and they weren’t going to take their sacrifices with them. So local merchants would sell them the required birds, calves, or whatever, and would charge huge markups because the people had to pay or violate their religion.

(Note that I’m not endorsing this interpretation, just repeating it.)

But OK, off the top of my head:

* Ten Commandments say don’t steal and don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff. Wikipedia has a nice comparison of the two different times they are listed.

* There is definitely a theme that you have to be less “cutthroat” (my term) in business dealings with people in your community, versus aliens. E.g. charging interest.

* There is also a theme that land is very special. In His original covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12 through 15), God promises descendants, land, and blessing to Abraham. In the book of Joshua the tribes of Israel start settling down in specific parts of the Promised Land (after they use non-Rothbardian means to evict the squatters). For example the start of chapter 18 says that 7 of the tribes had not yet received their inheritance.

* Come to think of it, there is a lot of emphasis on “birthright” and “inheritance.” In fact, the whole idea of the Jews being God’s chosen people fits in with this; they are getting a bunch of material blessings not because they did anything to deserve it, but because of who they are. (Just like a rich kid inheriting his daddy’s fortune.) A great example of this birthright idea–and how your own stupid actions can’t even squander it–is in the Year of Jubilee stuff. (And of course Jesus’ parable later on of the prodigal son.)

* There is also a lot of discussion that God abhors dishonest scales and measures. I.e. He doesn’t want merchants ripping people off. There are a bunch of good references (look at the right margin too) here.

Any other suggestions for Gene? One I had meant to include in my email was Malachi 3:9-10 where God says to the Israelites (who haven’t been tithing properly):

9[“]You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.[“]

My pastor several years ago remarked that this is the one passage in the Bible where God invites people to test His promises. (I can’t vouch for that; I’m just repeating what the pastor said.) In any event, I think this is a recurrent theme too, that if you are obedient to God first and foremost, then the other stuff takes care of itself. (Jesus also talks about this.)

11 Responses to “Economic Views in the Old Testament”

  1. Ash says:

    I don’t know how useful this would be, but I literally just started reading Huerta De Soto’s “Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles”, and in chapter 2 he goes through a brief history of banking in Europe that makes some references to Jewish and Christian theology. See, for example, the section ‘The Canonical Ban On Usury And The “Depositum Confessetatum”‘, on page 64.

  2. Doug says:

    Try this link for some helpful commentary:

  3. P.S.H. says:

    Here are a few particularly memorable ones. I hope they help.

    “‘If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.'” Exodus 22:25-27 (ESV).

    “‘And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.'” (Leviticus 19:10, ESV)

    “‘You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.'” (Deuteronomy 23:20, ESV)

  4. Chris Oppermann says:

    Another guy to ask might be David Friedman, since I believe he has done work on ancient and medieval Jewish law.

  5. Impairment says:

    Have you already mentioned the redistribution of land every 49 years? I do not know whether the Jews really did do that, but it is written in Leviticus 25:8-25:13. By the way: If property is sold, the price should be set according to the time span since the last distribution Leviticus 25:14-25:16). Could be interpreted as the invention of the Discounted Cash Flow valuation.
    And I nearly forgot: every seventh year the land should have a rest (Leviticus 25:1-25:7) and slaves should be manumitted in the seventh year.

    • fundamentalist says:

      Good point. Or you could think of it as a lease of 49 years.

  6. bee says:

    i’d check out dr. friedmans blog. he has a series of fascinating posts on jewish law.

  7. fundamentalist says:

    To do it well you need a good commentary on the OT that includes a lot of history and culture.

    I was researching the origins of money this weekend and found some really interesting things about the Sumerian culture. Abraham left the Sumerian capital of Ur for Canaan and so must have had a lot of Sumerian habits. When Sarah died he bought a piece of land to bury her for 400 shekels of silver. That was about 2,000 BC and the Sumerians hadn’t coined money yet. It was still done by weight. A shekel equaled 180 barley grains in weight, or about 1/4 ounce. A mina was about 60 shekels. The weights were set by law. So the Bible has money and private property in the earliest days of history.

    And if you look at the civil law in the Torah, it has mostly to do with penalties for violating private property. There were laws against mixing materials, such as linen and wool, which was a method of defrauding an unwary buyer. And I think those laws, and the laws Bob mentioned about honest weights had a lot to do with money and keeping money pure and honest.

    The socialist “Christians” among us claim that the laws regarding the poor (such as Jubilee and leaving the corners of field unharvested) were civil laws. I maintain that they were religious laws because they specify no penalty. All the civil laws specify a penalty and there was a specific process. The victim would go to court (the elders who sat at the city gate) and plead his case. The court would determine the guilt or innocence of the purp and assess the Biblical penalty. But for Jubilee and the poor laws, God specified no penalty for violating them. To me, that indicates that God did not want the government to enforce the poor laws; he would enforce them himself. God considered taking care of the poor the litmus test of devotion to himself. When people became idolaters, they tended to neglect the poor as well. So God would judge them by sending an invading army to conquer them.

    The attitude of the people changed from the government established by God under the judges to that of the kingship. Under the judges, no one was above the law and the people lived in about the most free society ever created. When they decided to have a king over them, God took it as a personal insult and warned them that the kings would oppress them with heavy taxes and continual warfare, but they refused to listen. And the people put up with a great deal of abuse by princes and government officials that they would not have put up with under the judges. The passages in the OT prophets condemning the rich refer to the nobility stealing from the people, which is what nobility have always done in all of history.

    The general attitude was that wealth came as a blessing from God. The book of Job is a good reference, and is considered the oldest story in the Bible. And of course Abraham through Moses were very wealthy people for their day.

    Gene’s question was about the Hebrew attitude toward economics, but you have two attitudes in the OT, one from the people and one from God. God had pretty strict standards for property; the people didn’t. They had more of the attitude of the Egyptians and tried to defraud each other. The Bible claims that God sent the Israelis into exile partly for their refusal to keep the Jubilee and for not allowing the land to rest every seven years. Both were a major sign of lack of faith.

  8. RG says:

    Wet blanket alert.

    Let me preface by stating that decades of Catholic school, mass, and bible studies led me to believe that the old and new testaments are central planning documents with the coersion of punishment after death as their distinction from state goverment documents.

    The works themselves are incoherent and full of hypocracies. Treating them as the “word of god” is preposterous. At the very least they would have to be the interpretations of the “word of god” by the chosen leaders of the Israelites…and if you thought the telephone operator game gave some strange results.

    Therefore I believe the answer to Gene’s question is simple (with tongue firmly planted): the biblical Jews were Nazis

  9. Gene Callahan says:

    Thanks folks!

  10. Gene Callahan says:

    Oh, yeah, and RG, why don’t you “coerse” yourself to learn to write in English before you spout nonsense?