November 2, 2020

Money, Property, and Power

We don’t have to “read between the lines” to know what Old Testament prophets. . .

Gerald A. Klingbeil

Like so many things in Scripture, this story begins in Eden. When God created this world and put plants and animals and human beings in His garden, profusion, beauty, and abundance best described His creation. Flowers bloomed lavishly, trees carried ample fruit, and a wild harmony of animals in all shapes and forms reflected their Creator’s sense of humor and joy. Picture the tall and stately giraffe playfully interacting with a waddling penguin or a swinging monkey.

Everything was “very good” (Gen. 1:31)—and that also meant plentiful and bounteous.

Adam and Eve were God’s stewards (verse 28) who represented the Master Designer as they named and cared for animals and plants. Plant produce provided a generous food supply for both humanity and the animal world. Death was unknown.

The entrance of sin changed everything—or, perhaps, almost everything. Doubt and distrust began to penetrate every relationship, affecting animals and humans alike. Following the expulsion of Adam and Eve from their garden home (Gen. 3:23, 24), life became much more of a battle. Produce had to be “labored for”; children caused heartache and pain—and not just when they were born. Death changed the way people looked at life forever. Wealth and riches became a way of securing one’s future—and the future of one’s offspring.

Being Richly Blessed

God’s specific call to Abraham and his large household represented a new beginning following the Flood. We often highlight Abraham’s faith and trust in the divine promises given to him—and so we should. He left everything familiar to go to a place that he didn’t know and where he would be an outsider. He was promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the evening sky or the sand on a seashore (Gen. 22:17), even though the reality was that he didn’t even have a son at the time of his call.

Yet Abraham’s household was truly substantial. When asked to contribute to the army pursuing the force of Chedorlaomer from Mesopotamia, who had raided successfully the region of Sodom and Gomorrah, including also Lot and his belongings, he is able to commit 318 trained men from his household (Gen. 14:14), who pursue the invaders, defeat them, and return everything that had been lost.

Abraham is described as “very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold” (Gen. 13:2; 24:35). Isaac was similarly blessed by God and became wealthy (Gen. 26:12, 13). Wealth was, however, always connected to God’s blessings.

Kingship became a means of distraction and disruption used by God’s archenemy.

Many centuries later Moses reminds a new generation of Israelites of the fact that God is the ultimate giver of blessings—including also material blessings. It wasn’t their hard work and military prowess that would give them victory and wealth in the Promised Land. It was their reliance on Yahweh. “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today” (Deut. 8:18).

“The Old Testament often presents wealth neutrally, as a gift from the Lord that can be used for good or ill and that can be taken away and restored again by the Lord.”1 When people trust in wealth, they lose sight of the true source of their well-being, as noted in Psalm 49, which discusses the concept of wealth and false trust.

Unfortunately, by the time of Christ, wealth was often seen as the only measure of God’s blessing. By the same logic, being poor meant that the person had moral flaws and stood outside of God’s blessing. Jesus turned this concept upside down.

Wealth and the Law

God’s particular care for the poor and the powerless is anchored in His concern for the shalom of His creation (see Lev. 25:23-55).

The laws about lending, the prohibition of charging interest, and the laws governing debt slavery recognize the fact that no one is exempt from becoming poor, considering the precariousness of human life and existence. The standard phrase “If any of your fellow Israelites becomes poor” (Lev. 25:25, 35; cf. verse 39) reminds the reader—both ancient and modern—that poverty can strike quickly, even those who work conscientiously, and often lies beyond human control. A sudden famine, a devastating stock market crash or financial downturn, a global pandemic, a horrific accident—and, unexpectedly, poverty can knock on any door.

While laziness is diametrically opposed to God’s values embedded in His creation and His law, poverty is seldom the fault of an individual. As noted by Old Testament scholar Joel Kaminsky: “The notion that the poor person may not be at fault for their situation is also supported by the fact that the poor in general are often associated with the righteous, as opposed to the wicked, who frequently are cast as wealthy oppressors of the poor in many passages from Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophetic corpus (e.g., Ps. 10:2-11; Prov. 28:6; Isa. 3:14, 15; Zeph. 3:12).”2

The tithe laws offer a unique divine perspective on the issue of poverty. Deuteronomy 14:28, 29 instructs Israel that every three years a second tithe, usually dedicated to the service of the sanctuary and the maintenance of the priests and Levites, is to be used to offer food to all those who did not own property and experienced poverty, including foreigners, orphans, and widows. Together with the gleaning laws allowing the poor to gather the grain or the grapes behind the harvesters (Lev. 19:9, 10; 23:22; Deut. 24:19-21; cf. Ruth 2:1-3), these commandments highlighted for Israel the value of compassion and care for those who could not adequately care for themselves.

Intriguingly, the rationale for these laws is Israel’s memory of slavery in Egypt: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this” (Deut. 24:22). Caring for the less privileged and poor was a key part of the ethos of God’s people, for it kept reminding them of their roots and their own experience of redemption from slavery. Ultimately, it pointed them to their Redeemer and their King.

“Give Us A King”

Many things changed when Israel finally got a king. The narrative in 1 Samuel 8-10 offers a brief window into two differing perspectives on communal life, social structures, and God’s role in all this. The Hebrew Bible is full of references to God’s kingship—over all the earth, but, especially, also over His people (Ps. 5:2; 29:10; 47:2-8; 95:3; etc.). The biblical ideal for Israel was a theocracy—God would be the ultimate ruler of His people and would communicate with them through prophets and judges.

But Israel wanted to be like the nations surrounding them: “Now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam. 8:5). Israel connected safety, security, and economic well-being with a visible king. Even though God, through Samuel, warned them about the social dimensions and economic implications of the kingship model (verses 11-18), Israel was deaf to His pleadings. Their choice really was an expression of their rejection of the Lord (verse 7).

When God encounters abuse, He cannot stand by quietly or walk away.

Kingship in the ancient Near East generally meant absolute power and control. Israel’s kings would take, take, then take even more. Israel was willing to make themselves slaves of their royal masters. In a sense, Israel’s election of kingship meant a move back toward Egypt.

The Downward Spiral

It didn’t take long for Samuel’s predictions to become reality. Saul’s kingship ended in disaster. He clung to his throne in spite of God’s rejection (1 Sam. 13:13, 14; 15:10-29), causing Israel’s first civil war of the monarchic period. The reigns of David and Solomon offered a brief (and partial) vie
w of how the “king under God” model could work—until it didn’t work anymore, and selfishness, self-importance, and self-preservation became all-prevailing characteristics of Israel’s and Judah’s kings.

Kingship became a means of distraction and disruption used by God’s archenemy. The summary statement describing the reign of most kings sounded something like this: “X [insert name of king] did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (e.g., 1 Kings 11:6; 15:26, 34; etc.). Israel’s and Judah’s attempts to play major roles on the international scene were economically costly and spiritually devastating.

Kings in the Old Testament period were seldom positive role models for their people, but rather led people further away from God and His ideal. The reality of kingship also led to the development of classes of haves and have-nots. Israel’s social fabric began to become frayed and brittle. Abuse by the powerful and resultant poverty of those without voice and influence increased exponentially. Taxation became a tool to raise money for military adventures, the payment of tribute, or personal aggrandizement.

He Can’t Keep Quiet

When God encounters abuse, He cannot stand by quietly or walk away. “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt,” God said to Moses in Midian. “I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7).

Yahweh always takes the side of the abused and commands Israel to do the same. Israel’s prophets were His loudspeakers—and they didn’t mince words: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow,” we hear Isaiah calling (Isa. 1:17). Amos highlights Israel’s abuse of the righteous and the poor (Amos 2:6) and laments how the rich oppress the poor and crush the needy (Amos 4:1).

This pattern continued seemingly unchanged after the exile, as can be seen in Zechariah 7:9, 10: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” Care for those who are poor and needy was not a prophetic afterthought. It represents one of the main themes in the prophetic texts of the Old Testament and was based on the law, God’s torah. It addressed the discrepancy between God’s ideal and Israel’s reality that was far removed from that ideal.

What Does It Mean?

“Biblical discourse on economic issues forces us to engage God, and that engagement pushes us into a discourse that is not fully encompassed by other forms of moral discourse in our culture,”3 writes Lutheran theologian Richard Nysse. As we think about God’s view of economics we are called to go back to the beginning. Creation offers us a window into God’s value system. He isn’t stingy; He made everything bountiful; He models disinterested generosity and created Adam and Eve as equals—yet different. Ultimately, as the Creator and Giver of all good things, He appointed humanity to be His stewards. They were to care for His creation, including also their fellow human beings.

Closely related to our role as stewards on God’s behalf lies the reality that everything that we own, produce, or create ultimately is God’s. “Sovereignty belonged to God alone,” notes Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser, “mortals and governing officials were merely given dominion over the earth for which they answered to God as steward.”4 This perspective is challenging people living in the twenty-first century. We applaud “self-made” millionaires; we praise hard work leading to positive results. Yet we continue to be creatures who are subject and accountable to our Creator.

Both rich and poor can reflect aspects of God’s character and provide opportunities for growth in relationship with God. Being rich or poor represents a momentary snapshot of a material reality, but it doesn’t say anything about our innate value. Our views of and relationship with money will always be a challenge in current economic structures. God’s Word invites us to recognize that wealth is not something an individual creates, but rather the result of an opportunity given by God. With that opportunity always comes personal responsibility. Our highest financial goal should not be early retirement or a seven-figure dollar number resting in our savings account. Rather it should be to serve as faithful stewards who always have enough to share with those who need a helping hand.

  1. “Wealth and Poverty,” in Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity, ed. Edwin M. Yamauchi and Marvin R. Wilson (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2017), p. 1693.
  2. Joel S. Kaminsky, “‘The Might of My Own Hand Has Gotten Me This Wealth’: Reflections on Wealth and Poverty in the Hebrew Bible and Today,” Interpretation 73, no. 1 (2019): p. 12.
  3. Richard Nysse, “Moral Discourse on Economic Justice: Considerations From the Old Testament,” Word and World 12, no. 4 (1992): p. 344.
  4. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Ownership and Property in the Old Testament Economy,” Journal of Markets and Morality 15, no. 1 (2012): p. 235.

Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as an associate editor of Adventist Review.