1. Ancient Jews and Money

To begin this conversation and exploration of the intersection of religion and economics, we will turn our focus first to the earliest roots of Christian thought from that day: Ancient Israel, Judaic thought and the teaching of Jesus.

For this post, we will be fixating on the ancient Hebrew perspective on the ideas of economics and the faith-based principles promoted by the Jewish priesthood and the Torah.

Much of the tradition (defined specifically as pre-Christ Hebraic) culture pulls from the Torah and the Talmud, the primary texts of the Jewish faith. These texts are not necessarily explicit about the economic principles underlying the faith beyond beyond the explicit and specific practices taught by the priests, but there are a series of ideas underlying the entirety of the law that should be considered.

Judaic thought centers around their notion of the Creatorand all the doctrines implied with that. And all of those doctrines start at one point, the creation of the universe. The very first two chapters of Genesis establish two basic truths, that all of reality was made by God, and that matter and physical things were necessarily good due to the fact that they existed (Genesis 1–2). With this notion came the underlying belief for the Jews that the expression of creation and trade, when not tainted by sin, were uniquely valuable rather than the rebukes of the spiritualist Essenes, who abandoned such things in pursuit of what could be called a ‘Jewish monasticism.’

We also see evidence that personal property meant something to the Jews, or at least the concept of ownership in its own right. The ten Commandments note two laws that, quite frankly, require the concept of ownership in order to even be relevant; specifically that of theft and of covetry. After all, if you do not have ownership over an object, how can you have it stolen from you?

We also see that the value of wealth building was established in some manner for the Israelites early on in their history. As the Acton Institute’s Corrine and Robert M Sauer note:

The Torah describes in great detail the riches of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Wealth, accumulated honestly, is a signal of great effort, skill, and success in partnering with God in the creative process. The wealthy individual has been unusually successful in elevating the material world and in expressing the divine image.

So the Bible does not outrightly condemn the gathering of riches, but uses it to show the blessings of God (as shown in Job and Solomon.)

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Judaic God hates the poor, though. A quick glimpse at the original laws in the Torah reveals that the concept of charity and serving the poor is centralized in Jewish economic culture. In The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets, Scott Rae and Austin Hill explain that:

The focus in the OT law was on how to provide for those who could not provide for themselves — that was the definition of the poor. The law structured many aspects of economic life to see to it that the poor were not without opportunity to take care of themselves. For example, the law mandated a tradition known as “gleaning” where the poor could make their way through another’s agricultural field and gather some of the produce for themselves (Leviticus 19: 9–10). The law also provided for a right of redemption of property, so that the poor, who had met misfortune, could have renewed opportunity to make a living themselves (Leviticus 25: 25–28). Finally there was the tradition of the year of Jubilee, which returned land to its original owner every 50th year (Leviticus 25: 8–12, though there is no evidence that such a radical tradition was ever followed). The law also set forth the Sabbath tradition, which went back to the original creation account, which mandated a regular day of rest from work. One of the main purposes for this was to help the people trust God to provide for them through their six days/week of work (Exodus 20: 8–11, Deuteronomy 5:12–15). It seems that the law was concerned both about the overall goals of economic life — to provide for fair dealings and take care of the poor, and the means to accomplish those goals — with laws such as gleaning, redemption and Jubilee.

That said, who reinforces all of this throughout the history? Judaic culture’s economic practices were not necessarily empowered by localized government, but by the religious institutions of the day. The authors of the Torah established that the reasons for these practices were not completely secular, but an integrated part of Jewish religious life.

It was up to the local communities and temple priests to make sure that people made sure that the varied economic practices were, well, practiced.

Unfortunately, many of the ideals and concepts presented by the Torah were not always upheld as desired. Over time, the practices slowly changed and evolved according to the leadership, with many of the larger economic/charitable elements disappearing as the Israelites’ faith wavered and the leadership became more and more corrupt. The Israelites eventually moved away from the practices enacted by the Levites in order to appease the conquering powers, such as Babylon, Persia and Rome.

But it’s that change that influences the evolution of the Judeo Christian God with His people.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles clearly illustrate an arc of increased depravity, and with it, a declining application of religious ideals in Judaic life. The more that external cultures got their claws into the local community, the less the people clung to the ideas set by their ancestors, and the less the practice went public. Eventually, this divide was seen in thought, where one would give the proper sacrifices and donations to the Temple, but ignore the traditions of Jubilee,the practice of forgiving financial and economic debts on a seven year basis and freeing slaves after 49 years. All of this would leave the nation open to the eventual infiltration of the Greek model of economic development into Jewish life.

What we also see is a lack of centralization of government. The only true authority is God and those He has appointed. At first it was Moses. Then it was Joshua. Then a series of localized judges ruling over regions and clans. Eventually a singular authority was instilled over Israel with the appointment of Saul, allowing him regulatory control over trade (even if it was never implemented.) Eventually kings like Solomon would marry outside of Israel and break the religious commands. These kings would expand Israel’s trade market and list of allies drastically and rely primarily on the council of their own men. Eventually this did open Israel up to being conquered by the various empires who oversaw any and all Jewish trade up until Jesus’ time (which will be covered in the next post.)

At the ancient Jewish economy’s core, there was no regulation of trade beyond that enacted by God Himself, and even those have some fundamental basis in the principles of the Ten Commandments. Locals were encouraged to trade internally, and in limited manners, externally, but to not allow trade or international relations to change their view of self in light of the Torah (most notably in the ban on marrying non-Jewish wives.)

Overall, we see the starter bricks for how ancient Jews viewed economic affairs. The Jews were taught to value work and to use it to glorify God and serve their community. Their religious texts emphasized the implementation of tools to serve the poor and help the needy, while also minimizing the required overhead. It was not until the introduction of third party governments that we saw Israelite culture begin to complicate their economics. But in doing so, they end up moving away from scripture rather than towards it, and slowly erode the special relationship that the Israelites had with God.