On Feasts, Famines and the Strange World of Biblical Economic Values

By Michael Barram
Illustration by Tammy Stellanova

As I write, we find ourselves in the midst of a global economic crisis. Part of what sets this situation apart from the normal undulations of the market is that almost all of us — rich and poor alike — will be affected in some way by this meltdown. It's worth remembering, though, that much of the world's population regularly suffers far more than will most of us during the current crisis — and that's true even when the world's economy is booming. No matter how bad the situation gets or how long its effects persist, a relatively small portion of the world will feast while billions live literally on the edge of famine and starvation. Approximately 2.8 billion people today live on $2 a day or less. How could anyone, let alone more than 40 percent of the world's human beings, survive on so little?

As difficult as it may be to understand what it would be like to live on such meager resources, it's perhaps even harder for us to imagine the world being any other way. The situation, albeit regrettable, seems fundamentally unavoidable. "It's just the way things are," we say to ourselves. It's as if things have always been this way, and since no one has come up with a viable alternative to our current economic framework we'll just have to live with the world as it is.

We often see the gap between those with plenty and those with nothing as a reflection of the natural order of the universe. Efficiency, productivity, growth, autonomy and self-interest — these words often define reality for us. We rarely recognize that these are values that ultimately determine our economic priorities and choices. As a result, we tend to view economic phenomena as residing outside the realm of values and moral debate. Yet even Adam Smith believed that the workings of the market would necessitate ongoing attention to certain moral considerations that markets themselves fail to address — such as how to alleviate the financial pain many would inevitably experience as a function of competition.

Last year, I lived with my wife and daughters in Nicaragua while on a research sabbatical. The opportunity to interact with some of those 2.8 billion people was truly an eye-opening, paradigm-shifting experience. Almost daily, I was challenged to re-evaluate my economic assumptions and priorities, and I've become convinced that as a person of faith I need to reflect more carefully on my moral values in light of today's economic realities.

During the sabbatical, and with the help of my students over the years, I've come to realize that the Bible articulates a rather strange set of values, assumptions and priorities, economically speaking. I need to ponder these perspectives both as a Christian and in view of the vital role the Bible plays in the Catholic, Lasallian and liberal arts traditions of the College.

Begin at the Beginning

Of course, interpreting biblical statements is fraught with complexities, especially given the distance between our modern world and that of the Bible — religiously, culturally, politically, economically and otherwise. Still, it is worth wrestling with values and assumptions reflected in biblical traditions. Christians may rightly reject specifics of ancient biblical economic practice, but to reject the values and priorities of God that gave rise to specific biblical provisions would amount to something else entirely. Perhaps that's at least part of what Jesus meant by warning that "you cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt. 6:24).

Genesis, which initiates the Torah or Pentateuch, provides an apt place to begin our reflections, as it starts at the beginning, with creation. The first chapter contains the unequivocal claims that creation is "good" and that human beings are created in the image of God. Thus quite apart from questions of marketability, creation has value. And since human beings reflect the very image of the Creator, they have inherent dignity and inestimable worth. No price tag may be placed on human life — at any age. Biblically speaking, human value is not functionally determined — it doesn't fluctuate according to productivity. How different this perspective is from our modern, "what have you done for me lately?" mentality.

The story of the Garden of Eden begins not with the assumption of scarcity, as in contemporary economic thought, but with complete abundance. Everything Adam and Eve could possibly need has been supplied. In addition to material abundance, humans are endowed with free will — the ability to make their own choices. As in mainstream economics, the ability to choose is understood as an inherent good.

But in contrast to some neoclassical economic thought, which attempts to bracket moral and policy questions out of consideration, Genesis 2 refuses to ignore the fact that choices have moral dimensions. Indeed, the biblical text describes how humans, tending to desire whatever they cannot have, make choices that lead to far more serious consequences than they can possibly anticipate. God is not to be blamed for the breakdown of the created order; the devastating results of human presumption and greed — idolatry, in biblical parlance — are attributed to humans alone. Most importantly, Genesis 3 symbolically asserts that we should never confuse the way things are with they way they're supposed to be. Biblically speaking, what we see in the world, economically and otherwise, represents the breakdown of what was intended rather than the natural order of things. Not insignificantly, poverty is described almost everywhere in the Bible as the result of concrete human choices and decisions, and not as a phenomenon originating in creation.

The initial chapters of Genesis further suggest that humans are intrinsically social beings: God recognizes that it is not good for Adam to be alone, so God creates Eve. The Israelites and early Christians alike see themselves as siblings, linked to one another as children of the same divine Father; and biblical legal traditions emphasize that righteousness before God presupposes appropriate relationships with, and responsibility for, others. In contrast to our pervasive individualism and facile disregard for the common good, the Bible expects mutuality and self-giving care for others. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. In Genesis 4, when God asks Cain about the brother he has just murdered, Cain responds, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain assumes that he has no inherent responsibility for his brother or neighbor. The implied response is "yes," even though the question never receives a direct answer. Indeed, the Bible as a whole can be read as a long and complicated set of positive responses to Cain's query — in sum, something along the lines of "Damn right, you're your brother's keeper."

Dignity and Justice

Genesis also suggests that rhythms of work and rest are integral to divine and human life alike; labor cannot be separated from a worker's dignity. The Exodus story testifies to God's awesome liberation of dehumanized laborers, and various anti-poverty covenantal codes (found in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) underscore the priority God places on efforts to preserve human dignity.

In stark contrast to our own economic rhetoric and practice, justice in the Torah is reckoned from the very bottom of the society. The pivotal question is always, how are the poorest of the poor faring economically — widows, orphans and resident aliens? Israelite legal traditions seek to ensure equality of opportunity so that the poor do not remain trapped in their poverty. Absolute equality is not the goal, but every person is to have access to sufficient resources to live with dignity and to participate constructively in the wider society. Quite often, the legal provisions themselves — and the motivations for compliance — are rooted both in the character and activity of God and the Israelites' experiences of injustice (e.g., "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt").

Landowners are legally prohibited from harvesting all their crops so that the poor can glean what remains for their own consumption. The dignity of the poor is maintained; those gleaning are not accepting a handout, but working to harvest food that legally belongs to them.

The covenantal codes show great concern for the potential that the rich and powerful will deny justice to the poor and marginalized. Laborers are to be paid before sunset so they can purchase daily food and necessities for their families. Cheating in market transactions, particularly in terms of weights and measures, is strictly prohibited. False testimony, partiality and bribery in the context of judicial proceedings are repeatedly condemned.

Loans — often necessary to stave off hunger or debt slavery — are to be offered interest-free so as not to capitalize on another's misfortune. Collateral itself is concretely regulated by the legal codes: For example, a garment taken as pledge on a loan cannot be kept overnight, since someone offering a piece of clothing as collateral may be too poor to have another blanket with which to keep warm. All debts are to be cancelled every seven years and, most shockingly, every fiftieth year — known as the Jubilee — all rural landholdings are to revert back to their original owners. Even though scholars acknowledge that there is no evidence such a redistribution ever took place, it is worth noting that the Israelite writers included the provision in the text as a testimony to the kind of economic values that they believed characterized their God.

These economic values are widely reiterated by the classical prophets, such as Amos, Micah and Isaiah. Indeed, the prophets often allude to such covenant traditions as the basis for their angry indictments on the economic injustice of Israelite society. According to Amos, for example, worshiping God is ultimately meaningless if piety does not translate into societal justice.

Jesus' Values and Priorities

And lest Christians assume that such Hebrew texts have no enduring relevance, let's remember that these are the biblical values and traditions that Jesus read and interpreted. He warned, "Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17).

Let us consider but a few of the statements attributed to Jesus in this regard: "Blessed are you who are poor . . . woe to you who are rich" (Luke 6:20, 24). "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25). "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you" (Matt. 5:42). "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Mark 10:21). "Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return" (Luke 6:35). "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt 7:12).

Such statements seem to fly in the face of our most deeply held values. Apparently, Jesus doesn't understand the importance of self-interest, efficiency and productivity like we do.

Come to think of it, maybe that's precisely the point.

Jesus advocates a different set of values and priorities. His assertions are understandable only in light of the coming reign of God he proclaims. Jesus' moral vision is revolutionary — and for us, quite disconcerting. The values and priorities of God's kingdom are, from our perspective, upside down. But from Jesus' perspective, our framework is the one that is inverted.

He comes to reveal God's vision of reality, and thus the reversal of everything to which we've grown accustomed. In God's soon-to-be-revealed economy, the poor are blessed despite all contemporary indications to the contrary. One of Jesus' favorite images for the reign of God is especially telling in the context of a world plagued by a vast and scandalous gap between the satiated and the hungry: a feast with plenty to eat, and to which everyone is invited.

From the perspective of contemporary economic thought and practice, God obviously has a lot to learn. Justice, sacrifice, mercy, grace and love — the Bible's economic lexicon sounds pious, but it's difficult to see how such notions bear much pragmatic force in the context of our contemporary economic realities. Biblical economic values are strange, impractical and inefficient. Economically speaking, God is something of a dreamer, and not much of an economist.

But with human life and dignity at stake, both in the United States and around the world, perhaps we should acknowledge that our contemporary values — and the economic priorities they have engendered — are not working for far too many people. What if we were to try making "loving our neighbors as ourselves" our fundamental value as a society? I'm not sure what it would look like, but it would be great to find out. And we could all participate in that effort, whether we buy fully into biblical values or not. Values lead to priorities, and priorities lead to choices — and they're ours to make. We may not change the whole world overnight, but together we can begin to embody the change we hope to see.

Call me a dreamer. I like to think I'm in good company.

Michael Barram is an associate professor in the Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He is writing a book, tentatively titled My Brother's Keeper: The Strange World of Biblical Economic Values, based on his sabbatical research and his teaching at SMC.