Note: This article spotlights the work of David Baker, who has been named an individual faculty partner in the Oikonomia Network. It is adapted from his article “Are Business People the Bad Guys? Person and Property in the Pentateuch,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 59 (2017): 133–154.
Some biblical scholars present a market economy, if not as an enemy, at least as not reflecting a biblical model (see Norman Gottwald’s Marxist interpretation of early Israelite history in The Tribes of Yahweh and the work of Roland Boer, such as The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel). In light of suggestions that business, and even private ownership, is less than ideal, of what value is economics for biblical interpretation, and how might the Bible shed light on economic realities?
The creator God is Owner of all. Humanity, according to Genesis 1:27-28, has a special relationship with God as his image, of which ownership is part. Ownership and authority over creation is delegated by God, according to the biblical narrative. Human beings are God’s secondary co-creators, through biological procreation, but also through artistic, aesthetic and economic production.
The promise of land ownership is repeatedly given to Abram (Genesis 13:15 and 17; 15:7 and 18; 17:8 and 24:7), to his son Isaac (Genesis 26:3), and his grandson Jacob (Genesis 28:4 and 13). Even for nomads, property ownership is important, especially when some sense of geographical permanence is needed. Wider ownership of things beyond land is also evident, and often portrayed as part of God’s blessing, with various material possessions mentioned 310 times in Genesis 12-50 (see Paul Vrolijk’s Jacob’s Wealth).
Ownership is recognized and regulated in Israel’s legal system, and assumed in Israel’s religious practices. Offerings were personal possessions offered or withheld as appropriate. If not, there would be little sense of sacrifice, no giving up of some other benefit which the offerer might derive from using the object for personal good, a key economic principle – the reasoned allocation of scarce resources.
What is purpose of ownership? While primarily providing for one’s self and family, it isn’t simply for personal benefit, but for the purpose of aiding further production as called for in Genesis 1:28; it allowed acquiring working capital. It is helpful to view ownership in ancient Israel being of the produce rather than of the land. This is evident in the instructions concerning real property for the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:14-16, which could be taken to resemble Marxist state redistributionism. But Leviticus 25:23 reminds us of a difference between the Owner, God, and us, the small-o ‘owner.’ In some ways, Israelites operated with rolling long-term leases.
Marx differentiated between capitalistic owners, or “bourgeoisie,” and the workers or “proletariat,” who owned nothing. Trotsky espoused ownership by the collective, whether the state or the commune, to alleviate oppressive owner/employee relationships, leaving no us vs. them mentality. The Bible takes a different slant on this, however, not advocating collective ownership and periodic wealth redistribution. Rather it protected individual (or, perhaps better, family or kinship group) access to the means of production rather than the product itself, protecting the right of everyone to be an owner, a producer, one of the bourgeoisie. Everyone thus could be an “us” rather than a “them.”
Can any system, inside or outside the Bible, enjoy a pure, free-market economy, operating without constraint? Scripture shows that the problem is not strictly economic (a problem with how markets work) but theological (how the human heart works). The pristine, “very good” creation as it left the hand of God in Genesis 1-2 encountered the reality of human disobedience in Genesis 3, and there the destructive potential of fallen self-rule is clearly evident.
Socio-economic relationships are not immune to the myriad of problems following disobedience. They were an important element included among those things that suffered breakdown. While one assumes that a life without sin inside the Garden of Eden would have not needed such a thing in the same way, a fallen life outside the garden needs the rule of law to protect the rights of God’s creatures, including private property rights. Since the problem was internal, regarding the nature of humanity, not external, regarding the nature of markets, a theological response to the theological problem was necessary. Since the human heart had been affected, there needed to be “heart surgery” to establish justice within the community, a topic found especially in the prophets (e.g. Ezekiel 11:17-20).