Biblical Economics

An irony of modern politics is that many conservative Americans view themselves as devout believers in the Bible yet they ascribe to right-wing, dog-eat-dog economic theories that Jesus and other Biblical figures would condemn. The contradiction has pushed Biblical economics out of mainstream debate, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

The Bible has an identifiable view of economics. Whether or not we take the point of view seriously is a matter of choice, but for those who give some sort of special authority to the Biblical writings, the viewpoint cannot be ignored. One cannot not say “I believe the Bible” and lightly dismiss the perspective developed by Israelites in an ancient setting.

The Israelite understanding of economics was developed over a period of nearly 1,000 years, from the Israelite escape from Egyptian slavery to the cruel years of slavery in Babylonia.  Putting together the story of their development of economic theory is like following the plot as a well-written novel. In its final form it was laid out by a group of Israelite priests in the Sixth Century BCE.

The Gutenberg Bible. (Photo credit: Mark Pellegrini)

Priests in ancient Israel were taken seriously. They were not hampered by theories of separation of church and state or keeping religion out of economics and politics. When priests spoke about wealth, property and God, no one would dare tell them to keep their noses out of the public square. They WERE the public square.

The summary of their economic theories is imbedded in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. The essence of Biblical ethics is at times captured in short phrases. Memorize these short phrases and a person has enough guidance for a Godly life.

Examples are “am I my brother’s keeper?,” love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” A controlling and precise statement about economics is found in Leviticus 25:23 “Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”

When we look at the development of the Israelite nation, it is very clear that they were not a capitalist, consumer-oriented society, whose first order of business was to spend and use material wealth on themselves and to pursue the getting of more so they could spend more lavishly on themselves.

Jesus pegged the Israelite tradition correctly when he said the greatest of all commandments was to love God with heart, mind and soul. All ethical behavior and the handling of all wealth were subservient to the command to love God.

The priests developed not-so-simple rules about how the control of land was to be handed down from generation to generation. The Year of Jubilee was meant to be a once-every-50-years complete redistribution of land among the Israelites. But the redistribution as written in Levitical law was never enacted. I suspect that those who controlled land were a bit reluctant to turn it over to “lazy” folk who had not taken good care of the family farm.

Yet, whether or not the system was ever implemented is not the point. A principle was set. All people were to have access to and use of the resources of the earth. This basic right was to take priority over any person or group to claim private ownership and use of those resources.

One can argue that these standards are from an ancient agrarian economic system that cannot be reasonably applied to modern economics. Essentially, that is the view of leading American politicians, whether President Barack Obama or his Republican rival Mitt Romney. They were both more in line with Ayn Rand than the Bible.

However, as a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, I am suggesting that there are principles from Leviticus 25:23 and other economic references in the Bible that can be applied to modern economic practices.

The first principle has already been mentioned but needs to be restated and is foundational to everything else. The resources for the support of life must be available to and enjoyed by all. To cut off people from basic life needs is immoral. It is an affront to the God who claims ownership of all things.

All possessions are gifts from God, and those gifts are not reserved for a select few. A living wage, clean air to breath, quality health care, and potable water all become demands from the Almighty.

The second principle is related. I make no suggestion that everyone have exactly the same resources at his/her disposal. However, just as the less fortunate in life must have basic needs met, limitations on accumulation must be put in place.

The second principle is that Biblical economics limit the permanent control and ownership of wealth by the few. In a modern economic system, Biblical economics demand that such accumulation and control of wealth be brought to an end through taxation, anti-trust laws or other legislative remedies.

Jesus was quite blunt. You cannot serve God and money. The arrogance of today’s super-rich makes the point. Super-rich people are in big trouble with God.

The third principle raises the question “who is to benefit?” In the Biblical economic system and ethic, the highest concern is focused on right where people live. Economics must serve the smaller of our social units.  A social unit may be understood as a family, a clan, a neighborhood or a community. The point of Biblical economics is that the concerns of God will never be found on Wall Street or in the corporate suites of Bank of America.

The Bible does indeed present an economic system with underlying principles. They are pounding at our door.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].  

14 comments for “Biblical Economics

  1. brent
    November 29, 2012 at 15:31

    If I remember correctly the New testament, especially Acts does illustrate that some sort of socialist economic policy was being practiced by the early church…BUT…one of the important aspects of the New Testament was that participation was voluntary. The laws of the church only applied to those that chose to live by it, which is a seismic shift from being born into your religion. Voluntary participation also made many of the old economic models hard to live by, because where your tribe was the arbitrator of resources, if you have no tribes it falls into chaos. So in short Old Testament economics implemented on a communal scale by consenting adults may work, it would require an open and free market system on which to place it. Just saying.

  2. Grizzly Bear Mom
    November 28, 2012 at 18:06

    Israeli women were required to marry within their tribe so they land didn’t pass from one tribe to another. Numbers 36:7 No inheritance in Israel is to pass from tribe to tribe, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal land inherited from his forefathers.

    Although you refer to this an economics it doesn’t seem to make sense economically to pass ownership of land from one family to another. The land would be abused by each preceeding generation so that it became more and more poor and eventually a desert. This is want socialism did. Rightly or wrongly they took land away from people who knew how to care for it and gave it to those who didn’t.
    Additionally if you are going to refer to something as “Biblical” you should provide references. I know of no biblical references that support what was written in this article.

    • Mackenzie
      November 29, 2012 at 13:49

      You’re looking at a time when losing your land and becoming a debt slave were common. Every 50 years, the slaves were to be freed and given their land back.

      “This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families. ”
      —Leviticus 25:10

      There’s your Biblical reference. Too bad you couldn’t just Google the words bible and jubilee like I just did.

  3. Grizzly Bear Mom
    November 28, 2012 at 17:45

    I understood the bible to say that the land returns to its original 12 tribes of Jacob owners at the 50 year mark/year of jubilee; not that everyone gets a turn. What benefit would it be to any temporary landowner to plant a tree or build a home? In fact temporary landowners would be tempted to rape the land by over planting, over grazing, etc thus handing a ruined piece of earth to their “successor.” OF course you would have to also believe that after 2,000 years Jews had any legal claim on the land. Those will say that any Arab land is a Palestinian homeland are obligated to return their own 1/2 acre split level homes to the Native Americans, and go back to Europe/Asia/Etc. I believe that the Palestinians who lived on their own “split level homes” at say “123 Olive Brand Way in Jerusalem” have legal claim to the land. This would even be more so if they had actual paper deeds or mortgages on the land. Unfortunatley many non Western landowners don’t have legal proof that they own societies, can’t secure mortgages and thus live in poverty.

    • Sonny Barnes
      December 10, 2012 at 20:03

      The reason for the Jubilee was to return land to the one who had to sell it from whatever the cause. If you lost “sold” your land in the 30th year you sold (leased) it for twenty and then it was returned to you. This was to “prevent” redistribution of wealth and it be kept in the family. It also prevented the accumulation of land (wealth) into the hands of a few as we have today in the central bank families of the world today. Obeying these biblical principals would have prevented the establishment of central banks and the corporations that grew up around them. Usury at it’s worst. God has permitted this to happen for us to see living part from His principles will place the wealth in the hands of a few in short time. We have now seen what happens when we don’t pay attention. It is now as described in Daniel all coming to being dismantled. We with anticipation look for the Kingdom age to appear with honest and right rule. By the way the spiritual Jubilee is when God returns to us all what we lost in the fall. EVery natural story has a parallel spiritual revelation, all good.

  4. Noah McNeill
    November 28, 2012 at 13:48

    Having a political view that a conservative government creates the best economy CAN COINCIDE with a political philosophy of generosity. Conservative Christians everywhere donate thousands of dollars a year to great private charities. These people simply believe that the government is a corrupt and inefficient distributor of their money for social programs. The writer of this article misses the fact that The Bible is a personal guidebook, not an economic philosophy. Read some Lockean theory people… And if you’re reasoning for calling someone a conservative is because they wouldn’t vote for Obama, perhaps it is because they don’t want someone in office who voted three times to legalize partial birth abortion… The Ten Commandments prohibit murder, not capitalism. Put your bigoted viewpoints in perspective.

  5. Mike
    November 27, 2012 at 22:31


  6. Hillary
    November 27, 2012 at 14:47

    Just take a look at how the US Christian people are paying the Bank Debt —

    Over $51,000 per citizen ?

    Probably over 50% of Tax revenue income gone in just paying off those Usurers.

    Another example of how Jesus & his non existent heavenly family are helpless.

  7. FoonTheElder
    November 27, 2012 at 13:14

    Religions are little more than political parties. They take what pieces they want and ignore what doesn’t fit into their current dogma.

    Like political parties it all comes down to money and membership.

    • L
      November 28, 2012 at 16:54

      Catholic Priests and Nuns have no money. So how does that apply?

      • Jeanne
        November 28, 2012 at 18:49

        Catholic priests do have money. Nuns take a vow of poverty and have no personal wealth or possessions. Priests do not take that vow and have personal possessions, wealth, and even get a salary.

        • PgathomE
          November 29, 2012 at 16:50

          I am not a religious person but when the Catholitc chucph decided to attack the nuns what went through my mind was that every, I mean every, nun I meant I liked and thought they were honorable and compassionate. If here was a group that appeared to me above reproach it was the nuns. The church should be ashamed.

      • Sonny Barnes
        December 10, 2012 at 19:44

        The Catholic church is one of the richest empires on the planet. As in communism, the ones at the top live not as the ones they themselves have taught others how to live in poverty. Yes, they are provided for while they collect for the top. Not to single out catholics, pretty much all religions are like business’. We are instructed to come out of her, the woman, the false church. When no person nor any religion is between you and God you have ” began” to truly grow. Or we of Paul, of Peter, of Matthew, or of Mary? No we are of God through Christ. Let us remove all flesh between ourselves and our journey, then we walk unobstructed. Personally I see al people as children of God and whether they be of church affiliation I see a child of God, period. It is not what a person calls or sees themselves, it is how God sees you. He is just waiting for us to quit all the name calling and childish superiority.

  8. Vivek Jain
    November 27, 2012 at 12:01

    This was a great piece by Sharon Beder:
    “Consumerism: an Historical Perspective”

    see also:
    “The Corporate Assault on Democracy”

Comments are closed.