Economic Principles: Gleanings from Genesis

Update/Edit on 3/10/10:  I have made a few changes to the text below, having done a more careful review of the relevant material.  The basic points, however, are merely further illustrated.

First in a series.

The first human occupation was gardening. Humankind came into a world that was ready to feed him from its abundance: the fruit of any tree. His assignment was: care for the garden where you have been placed.

God planted that Garden.

Thus, in that first instance, Humanity’s assignment was to be fruitful; his work was secondary. That all changed, however, with the Fall.

In the beginning, in the time of innocence, it was understood that all that was needed for human existence was provided by the Creator. Afterward, when the fellowship with God was broken because of sin, and a state of spiritual death descended upon the human race, the first consequence of this was a curse on the very ground, and the requirement of work: “Cursed is the ground because of you. Thorns and thistles it will bring forth for you, and in the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread.” Separation from God meant separation from the abundance that had been part of the natural order of things. Soon after that came division of labor, and following hard upon this was the first murder, a fratricide, the beginning of violence on the earth.

The violence increased generation after generation until the time of the Flood, and is cited in scripture as the reason that act of judgment on humanity came about. All of this was the consequence of a departure from God.

The story of the tower of Babel can be seen as a parable involving the consequences of excessive technological advancement: people becoming so good at what they do, each in their own technical field, that they become unable to communicate with one another, or, perhaps worse, increasingly uninterested in doing so; thus, the very enterprise that was to bring them together becomes the occasion for their becoming scattered over the face of the earth. One reading, at least, which makes this story into a cautionary tale about corporate arrogance, and the pursuit of achievement without regard to the spiritual center. Just a thought.

The patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were nomadic chieftains, herding sheep and cattle and goats. Key to the understanding of their survival is hospitality, both given and received. Both Abraham and Isaac dealt with Philistine chieftains who carried the title Abi-Melech (Father of Kings, or perhaps, My Father is a King) and in those dealings had to learn how to accept hospitality by conducting themselves honestly and with integrity in the presence of their hosts. Abraham showed hospitality to the angel of the Lord, and received in the process the promise of a son and heir. By contrast, the great sin of Sodom was its refusal to provide hospitality to strangers. Abraham’s relative, Lot, was shown to be righteous because he brought those strangers under the protection of his roof. The proper conduct of guests and hosts gets more divinely-inspired ink with the story of Abraham’s servant, sent to find a wife for his son Isaac, highlighted by the exchange of gifts; and again when the outline of that same story is repeated, with variation and much greater detail, with Jacob coming into the home of his uncle Laban. This is the first indication of someone agreeing to work for someone else in exchange for payment of a wage. It may be significant that it was essentially a dispute over these wages, and the terms of that agreement, which occasioned the falling-out between Jacob and Laban, two schemers who were well suited for each other.

Apart from all this giving and receiving of gifts and other displays of hospitality, and the wheeling and dealing of Laban and Jacob, there are exactly three a small handful of money transactions mentioned in the earlier chapters of Genesis. General mention is made, concerning Abraham’s wealth, of slaves who were “born in his house” and also those “bought with money.” There is Abraham’s purchase of a burial-plot from a Hittite, the first real estate deal recorded in the Bible; there is Abraham’s payment of tithes to the priest-king Melchizedek. We also see Jacob’s promise of a tithe to God.  And much later, there is first mention of the purchase of a plot of ground by Jacob from the people of Shechem —something that, unlike the burial-plot of Abraham is never again mentioned in Scripture, and seems to be abandoned after the relationship with that group goes sour — and later the sale of Joseph by his brothers to traveling merchants on their way to Egypt. All of these money transactions, I should note, are cross-cultural, involving persons from different national or ethnic backgrounds. ((The same could be said of David’s purchase, much later, of the land on which the Temple was ultimately to be built; he bought it from a Jebusite, one of the original Canaanite inhabitants of the land.))

Now we come to Egypt. Joseph, the unwanted brother, sold into slavery at the age of seventeen, soon gets in enough trouble because of his integrity that he spends much of the next thirteen years in prison. While there he nurtures his faith; and when the time is right, a thirty-year-old Joseph becomes advisor to Pharaoh king of Egypt, who has had a series of disturbing dreams. Joseph not only interprets those dreams, he informs the king that they are gifts from God to forewarn of future events, and accordingly provides advice about how to prepare for those events. Thus the first mention of taxes is a divinely-given bit of wisdom, and to his credit Pharaoh not only takes the advice Joseph offers, but recognizes this wisdom as God-given, and makes Joseph administrator of the program, because in him is the Spirit of the holy God. To be fair, this was not quite what we would call an income tax. It was a production tax; a produce tax, to be precise, and the point of it was to provide for storage of surpluses during years of surplus, so that when the time of shortage arrived, resources would be available to meet ongoing needs.

Since this is the first extended foray into the field of economics, let’s take a closer look at the plan. Surpluses were expected for seven years, and deficits for seven years thereafter. During the years of surplus, a hefty tax (20%) was imposed on production, and those proceeds were set aside. Since the production was in commodities, that is, grain, this meant large storage facilities. Now, apparently, in the first instance this tax was subject to a sunset provision at the end of the years of surplus; however, thereafter, the stored food was sold on the open market, in such a way as to make sure everyone had access to it. Presumably, not everyone ran out of money on the same day, but at the point when someone did run out of money, a new arrangement was made: those still receiving grain, without payment, first mortgaged their lands to the government in lieu of payment; and when this defaulted, they then entered into an agreement, an i.o.u., as it were, whereby they promised to resume payment of the 20% tax as soon as their production ramped up again. All of this was done on free-market principles, not enforced by military action or any such thing. It was voluntary action on the part of all concerned. That the end result was that Pharaoh ended up owning all the real estate and collecting the 20% in perpetuity, now effectively as rent, could easily be seen as divine reward for his obedience to the wise advice Joseph gave him in the beginning. If his successors abused that blessing, creating hardship for the people who had benefited from this arrangement: well, that was an issue for another day. No particular economic arrangement fits all circumstance, but there was one clear benefit to this arrangement when it was made. No one starved.

There are many parts to the Joseph cycle, which takes up a good third of the book of Genesis; but let me boil it down to the punch line, which occurs in the last chapter. “You intended evil,” (Joseph says to his brothers) “but God meant it for good, to save many people alive, as it is this day.” Joseph, former slave, unjustly treated as he was by his brothers, his former employer who unjustly threw him into prison, and the entire Egyptian society, which showed him anything but hospitality for thirteen years. looks beyond the evil intent and selfish motives of the players, and explains why God has raised him up to be the economic “czar” (sorry, couldn’t resist throwing in that word) of all Egypt: God’s purpose is to preserve life. That’s what economy is all about.

By the way, our word “economy” comes from the Greek word which is often translated “household”. The purpose of an economy is for the people who take part in it to be able to live together comfortably. Let’s not forget that.

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