Tuesday, April 15

Perspectives on wealth from biblical texts.


The biblical texts of the Old and New Testaments span events over thousands of years, with the early periods marking a transition from a tribal nomadic existence to settlements supported by improved agricultural and farming techniques.
Subsequently the Jewish kingdom evolved as the tribes put down roots which brought wealth and influence, punctuated by wars, prosperity and periods of captivity. Forming a view on wealth is a moving feast and this paper aims to discern emerging themes in the context of the writers intended audience.

In a period when what GOD you believed in was more the question than whether you believed in God(s), any religion, including Judaism would seek to interpret events as a sign of GODS favour or otherwise so as to unite or reassure its followers. Hence simplistically the stories about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Joshua illustrate the theme of reward for obedience to GOD and to attribute punishment when they strayed. Prosperity and wealth were seen as evidence of GODS blessing for obedience.
In the later stories as the Jewish of nation advances, victorious in battles and assisted by trade links this theme continues. But in the later books under the wisdom steam covering Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Lamentations, the theme links wisdom to a fear of GOD to bring wealth and prosperity. But it is important to note in the Hebrew tradition a fear of GOD means holding GOD in awe or reverence, See reference http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Meditations/Yirat_Adonai/yirat_adonai.html

By the time of the last book in the Old Testament of Malachi, Israel has resettled in Palestine following the Babylonian captivity when a smaller temple to Solomon’s had been built to continue the Mosaic ritual sacrificial practices.
The Jewish nation was also authorized to mint their own coinage, which was  not to conflict with the Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, so that simple wordage might only be complimented with say an anchor to represent commerce. A period of 400 years elapses before the New Testament during which time power shifts from the east to West to Rome.
Therein in the New Testament we have a more immediate expectation of the messianic kingdom to come with more emphasis on the here and now, and the pragmatic view of St Paul to simply encourage generosity in giving money.  
Attitudinal approach to wealth
The practice of apportioning ten percent of one’s income, known as Tithing was evident in both Testaments, as was making sacrificial offerings. In the earlier periods this marked an expression of affinity to the land, to give thanks for the harvest so that the first fruits were given to GOD. Overall the ritualistic practices became codified into the Mosaic Laws and as in Deut. 12:6-7. And thither ye shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your TITHES, and heave offerings of your hand, and your vows, and your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and of your flocks: And there ye shall eat before the Lord your God, and ye shall rejoice in all that ye put your hand unto, YE and your Households, wherein the Lord thy God hath blessed thee" and in Malachi 3:10 bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store.
A natural expression of nature’s bounty associated with GODS blessings, was exemplified in the vision of Abraham finding favour with GOD, which was evidenced by his great riches and influence as in Genesis 13:2: he was very rich in livestock silver and gold, and in 14, as he leads his 318 of his trained servants into battle.
In this context wealth was seen as GODS blessing, which in summary form can be ascertained from these passages from Joshua. Here we see that the land or their wealth is given to them by their GOD:This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says:Long ago your ancestors, the father of Abraham and Anchor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the region beyond the Euphrates River, led him throughout the land of Canaan, and multiplied his heirs ’I’II gave him Isaac and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau.  I gave the hill country of Seri to Esauas possession, but Jacob and his sons down Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron; I plagued Egypt by what I did there and afterward I brought you out. When I brought your fathers out of Egypt and you reached the Red Then I sent Moses and Aaron; I plagued Egypt by what I did there and afterward I brought you out. When I brought your fathers out of Egypt and you reached the Red Sea, the Egyptians pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen as far as the sea. Your fathers cried out to the LORD, so He put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and brought the sea over them, engulfing them. Your own eyes saw what I did to Egypt. After that, you lived in the wilderness a long time.

“I brought you to the land of the Amorites lived beyond the Jordan’s they fought against you, but I handed them over to you. You possessed their land, and I annihilated them before you. Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, l set out to fight against Israel. He sent for Balaam son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam. Instead, he repeatedly blessed you, and I delivered you from his hand.
 ‘You then crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho.m The people of Jericho — as well as the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Jebusites — fought against you, but I handed them over to you.  I sent the hornetn, ahead of you, and it drove out the two Amoritekings’ before you. It was not by your sword or bow. I gave you a land you did not labour for, and cities not build though you live in them; you are eating from vineyards and olive groves you did not plant. ’Sea the Egyptians pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen as far as the sea. Your fathers cried out to the LORD, so He put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and brought the sea over them, engulfing them. Your own eyes saw what I did to Egypt.  After that, you lived in the wilderness a long time.

However we should have no illusions that for many, subject to the control of capricious or unjust masters, life was exceedingly difficult. A check against this excess of power can be found in the Prophets such as Isaiah, although the prophet doesn’t argue over the idea of God’s blessing as a sign of righteousness but rather rallies against widespread injustices.  In Isaiah 3:14, 15The LORD will enter into judgment with the elders of His people and His princes: for you have eaten up the vineyard; the plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ says the Lord GOD of hosts. “Isaiah 10:1, 2 - “Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees, who write misfortune, which they have prescribed to rob the needy of justice, and to take what is right from the poor of My people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless.
The earlier more vivid Old Testament stories are contained in the captivating stories of Moses in Exodus, Leviticus Numbers and Deuteronomy. These were written about events occurring thousands of years earlier and scholars are dubious over their authenticity, particularly in regard to any mass migration from Egypt. Moses as "The Lawgiver is central to Jewish practices since he delivered the Ten Commandments, but passages in Deuteronomy 8:17-18, warn against attributing wealth to one’s own power: Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day, in Deuteronomy 9:4 After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, "The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness." No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.

Hence the writer’s intention equates these leaders’ wealth and prosperity to emanating from God’s favour, due in turn to their righteousness, or bequeathed to them by GOD because of the extreme wickedness of the previous owners.  
King David’s empire grows under Solomon, only to be split in two under his son.
The biblical King Solomon is associated more than anyone else with wisdom and great wealth, whose crowning achievement was the building of the temple in Jerusalem, whose descriptions and size give the impression of a massive undertaking involving expert craftsmen and fine material such as sandalwood and gold. As in Kings 10:12 The king used the sandalwood to make railings for the Temple of the LORD and the royal palace, and to construct lyres and harps for the musicians. Never before or since has there been such a supply of sandalwood.
To obtain the wood and precious metals to build the temple many of the materials and expertise were imported from the Phoenicians and with whom he was to engage in significant trade. Solomon had already inherited a considerable empire from his father, King David but subsequently accumulated unimaginable wealth. When we consider the total world population then was estimated at less than 50 million these assets are enormous. Under Kings 1 his assets are listed as 12,000 horses with horsemen, 1,400 chariots, (which was partly verified from archaeological excavations) together with 700 wives and 300 concubines. The latter references however may well be exaggerations as the writer is prone to overly enthusiastic phraseology depicting the streets as paved with Gold.
However there can be no doubting the Solomon era was one of enhanced prosperity to the inhabitants during a period of political stability, as he was able to forge trade links and live peacefully with neighbouring countries.
The salutary warning however by the writer was that great wealth and power can bring corruption to even the wisest as Solomon began to worship idols and his empire was subsequently torn in two during the reign of his son Rehoboam.
Seeking Wisdom  
The Old Testament books of, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Lamentations are considered books representing the wisdom stream whose theme is to link wisdom with a fear of the Lord, which in turn would bring prosperity. However this concept of "fearing God," has a different meaning to how we would normally view the word. In Hebrew the meaning denotes immensity and awe of GOD, to be simultaneously fearful over our smallness in the vast expansion of the stars. There are numerous references to this theme as under: Job 28:28 Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding Psalm 111:10 the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise. Proverbs 1:7 Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. Proverbs 3:7 do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD. Ecclesiastes 2:26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases GOD.  
The New Testament references
At the time of the New Testament, following a period of 400 years since the last book of Malachi in the Old world power had shifted from the East to the West, to Rome, for Palestine to become a puppet state.

Although the rebuilt Temple continues to dominate as the centre for mosaic practices, the Jewish kingdom is spilt into three factions; the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes, with some scholastic influences attributing Jesus’s prior association to be amongst the Essenes.

Because of the messianic expectation of a new kingdom there is less emphasis on storing up reserves for the future, since the expectation of the end of time (prophecy) was on the here and now. Even so many of the practices continued during Christ’s ministry, as the Mosaic Law tradition continued as Jesus instructed the disciples to offer animal sacrifices Luke 5:14; to pay for upkeep of the Temple Matthew 17:24–27; to recognize Scribes and Pharisees Matthew 23:2–3, but was concerned over corrupt practices as in Matthew 21:12-13 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.]
Hence just as is in the OLD the prophets were to act as a check against injustices arising from the excesses evident in injustices from power and wealth, Jesus similarly takes his lead from the words of the prophet Isaiah Is:61.1-2 in proclaiming his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
In the “Sermon on the Mount Jesus exhorts his audience to give to the poor, and so to build up "a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys" Lk 12.33; For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" Lk 12.33:34. We have an interesting story of the tax collector Zacchaeus promising to give half his possessions to the poor, and to refund overpayments four times over if he defrauded anyone Lk 19.8.
Hence the ongoing themes are as in Matthew 6:24 "No one can serve two masters, nor is generosity necessarily dictated by wealth Mark 12:41-44. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on.

St Paul.
Paul as a missionary, took a slightly different perspective not to distinguish between rich or poor, but encourages generosity in giving. 2 Cor. 6:10.  When he was poor he could still make many rich and having nothing he still possessed everything.
Pauls ongoing theme was the mysterious “in Christ ” unity where mankind is equalised so that he takes a pragmatic approach that should needs arise, we will respond positively in gladness. 2 Cor. 8:13-14. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality” .
Pauls approach was to unity for the fledgling communities to care for their widows, but not all, (1 Tim. 5:3) “Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.” In Timothy 6:17-9 Paul has some advice to the rich  : "Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life"
The underlying tension attributed to the Old Testament which saw GODs favour evident in wealth to differ from the NEW references , where Jesus, amongst other things, emphasised the importance of helping the poor is more a matter of changed emphasis than one of contradictions.

The Old Testament was also always concerned with the poor, as enunciated by the prophets, but for an evolving belief in one GOD to take hold the writers no doubt needed to reassure the followers of evidence of GODS favour for righteousness and adherence to the law for the Jewish religion to flourish.

Today we have rich images from both sources that provide valuable insights into the idea that in the end any material wealth is a transitory state.

Beyond reasonable needs for existence this underpins a wider responsibility to share in our inheritance in the position we find ourselves, to be generous in time or money or both as best we are able.  


susan said...

In the US in the 90s a popular saying was: 'Whoever dies with the most toys wins'. I'm reminded of Jesus saying in Mark: 'It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.' Rather than being a sign of God’s blessing, material wealth is treated as a sign that someone isn’t heeding God’s will.

So far as I know this is the only example of anyone refusing to follow Jesus. The young man went away grieved, apparently upset that he couldn’t become a follower on easier terms that would allow him to keep all of his great wealth and possessions. This doesn’t seem to be a problem which afflicts Christians today. In contemporary society, there is no apparent difficulty in 'following' Jesus while still retaining all sorts of worldly goods.

Thank you for this most interesting post, Lindsay.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan,
Good points. I think biblical references to wealth are prone to misinterpretations and an example is the passage you quote “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Matthew 19:24.

An erroneous version that has been around for centuries is “the eye of the needle” refers to the narrow gate, e.g. the needles or pillars which prevented a camel passing through unless one first dismounted and removed side baggage.

This was based on the assumption that in Jerusalem after dark travellers had to use the narrow gate as the larger main gates were all shut, so that a camel could only pass through by crawling through unencumbered on its knees.
Hence it was used to denote a very wealthy person, just had to be careful with such a position, to water down the emphatic warning from Jesus.

Another suggestion is that the Greek word kilos ('camel') is a misprint and should be camels, meaning 'cable, rope'. It is easier to thread a needle with a rope rather than using a strand of cotton than for the rich man to enter the kingdom.

But the reality is it was the Hebrew tradition to use unlikely or impossible comparisons to simply make a point perfectly clear: as in saying there’s a tree sticking out of one's eye whilst you’re keen to remove the speck in another's eye.

Hence implying it is perfectly ok to live a lavish lifestyle centred on building up expensive toys, has no empathy whatsoever with the message Jesus was imparting.

But you still hear some fundamentalist style sermons, linking materialism in terms of great wealth as a direct sign of GODs blessings.

In the end some will interpret to justify a position that pleases followers rather than discover the essence and context of the passage.
best wishes

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