One way to approach biblical texts is to read them as if they prescribe economic medicine for modern social maladies. For example, Paul Mills argues that an appropriate and devout appreciation of the Jubilee of Leviticus 25 will result in the construction of an economic system where no interest is charged on debts. This has a venerable pedigree: for much of the Christian church’s life, it held a similar view. A similar approach takes the Jubilee as symbolic of an ideal of social order with economic consequences, as in Michael Rhodes’ work (for example, Practicing the King’s Economy, p. 174).
In this article, I propose an alternative way to appreciate the economic aspects of the biblical texts by locating the texts within what we know of the ancient Near Eastern world in general, and in Israel and Judah in particular. When we do this we will find that the economic aspects we encounter in the biblical texts are in one sense very normal — that is, rather than being radically different from the cultural and social settings in which they originated, they actually sound rather mundane. At the same time, though, a careful reading shows that in some instances the normal has been modified, and the modifications are rather interesting.
Let me give a concrete example. The ideas of redemption and Jubilee are often cast as at least somewhat distinctive. In fact, the components found in the various biblical texts all have precedent elsewhere in the ancient Near East: repatriation of land, forgiveness of debts, freedom from slavery, and controls on interest and debt. Even the Levirate marriage of Ruth to Boaz is associated with the redemption of land in a Phoenician text.
There are, though, some distinctive aspects in the biblical texts. One is simply that we find all of them within the single collection of texts which we now read as scripture. Even this is complicated: some scholars hold the view that they present a coherent economic system, but most scholars understand the texts to reflect variations of practices and ideals. In other words, there is no single, coherent economic prescription of a ‘Jubilee’ economic ethic, but a number of texts which refer to a collection of both traditional social practices and novel ideals. In the case of redemption of land and persons, the most striking feature seen in biblical law is that redemption is not a matter of a king’s whim, nor is it a matter of contract, but is idealised as periodic and systematic. The presentations in Jeremiah of both land redemption (Jer 32) and redemption of persons (Jer 34) differ in important details from those found in the law codes, but what is common between them is an egalitarian tendency and a valuing of human persons, in contrast to what was common in the ancient Near East: autocratic power, oriented towards the preservation of existing social and economic status.
In ancient Assyrian practice, for example, the remission edicts which gave a national forgiveness of debts and release from slavery came from the king’s personal decision. There was no guarantee for an indebted or enslaved person of experiencing remission of debts or redemption from slavery. It entirely depended on the will of a monarch. What is more, we have some insight into the motivations of the kings who instituted these remissions. The kings were theologically motivated, and sought to uphold ‘justice and righteousness,’ in obedience to a divine mandate and task given to kings. We must not be misled by the apparent familiarity of these words, though, because in Assyrian society, ‘justice and righteousness’ referred to the upholding of a right social order. While in some ways the outcomes of a remission edict might cohere with a modern, Western view of right social order — e.g. freeing enslaved persons — it certainly did not mean a radical or permanent equality, and nor was it motivated by a desire to remove a system of slavery and unequal social status. Instead, it meant maintaining those in power, and not allowing social unrest to build to the point where society was disrupted by the upheaval of a revolt. Remission edicts were release valves in an unstable, oppressive social order, intended to maintain that social order for the benefit of the elites.
The radical point in Deuteronomy 15, then, is not that debts were occasionally forgiven, nor that slaves were occasionally freed. These were well-known in the ancient Near East. What was unusual was the formation of an ideal, where debts would be forgiven periodically, and motivated by a humanitarian theology rather than a kind of structural conservativism. Deuteronomy 15’s prescriptions were about systematising a known practice, and giving that practice a distinctively Jewish theological framing.
The repatriation of ancestral land, as seen in Leviticus 25, is also known from elsewhere in the ancient Near East. In some places and times, ancestral land was inalienable (although in practice the desire to buy and sell land sometimes led to the development of legal fictions, such as ‘adoptions’ whose primary purpose was to effect a transfer of land ownership). In many places, though, ultimate ownership of all land was understood to rest with the king. This could then be the basis for the king granting ownership of land to people, in a kind of ownership that was always subsidiary to the king’s ultimate ownership. A novelty in Leviticus 25 was its ascription of overall ownership to Israel’s God, with a king not mentioned at all. In the ideational world of Leviticus 25 (that is, a world of the formation of concepts and ideas), there is God who owns everything, and household heads who have a kind of ownership which is inalienable over the long term, but which is relegated to the status of mere stewardship rather than ultimate ownership. There is an unmediated relationship of status, in terms of land rights, between God and the people — at least, those people fortunate enough to be heads of the patriarchal households of the time.
In both examples, I think we are justified in detecting a similar impulse towards some of the typical power structures of the ancient Near East, and a theological interest in humanitarian outcomes rather than a mere preservation of the existing ordering of society. These texts seem to reflect a common distrust of kings, even to the extent of eliminating them from the kinds of exercises of power which we might look back on with affirmation — after all, while we might prefer a reordering of society to eliminate the social institution of slavery altogether, we might well also be able to affirm the idea that releasing people from actual slavery is still praiseworthy.
Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 seem to be offering a different concept of power, in which the desirable outcome (people not being slaves) is severed from its typical ancient Near Eastern source (the power of kings). These ideas are given distinctive theological motivations, tied to the benefits to those with less social power, rather than the benefits to elites. To my mind, the idea of systematisation of good outcomes, and the distancing of these outcomes from the whims of elites, is more notable than the specific economic rules.
But we can push into this further. Rather than restricting ourselves to the specific ways in which the legal texts of Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25 idealise a modification of ancient Near Eastern social and economic practices, we could also identify a kind of theological or ethical method. These texts have not posited a radical or idealised economic system. Neither Deuteronomy 15 nor Leviticus 25 can be compared to Das Kapital, to take a modern example. They are modest modifications of normality, not radical transformations into a new ideal.
So my suggestion is that if we are to attempt to undertake a reading of the biblical texts as modern people hoping to develop economic ethics, we will benefit most from an appreciation of the method of the biblical texts, rather than seeking prescriptions for specific economic and social practices.
Dr Lyndon Drake has recently completed a DPhil at Oxford on theology and economic capital in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. He also has degrees in science and commerce (Auckland), a PhD in computer science (York), and two prior degrees in theology (Oxford), along with a number of peer-reviewed academic publications in science and theology. From the Ngāi Tahu Māori tribal group, he currently serves as Archdeacon of Tāmaki Makaurau in the Māori Anglican bishopric of Te Tai Tokerau. Lyndon has written Capital Markets for the Common Good: A Christian Perspective (Oxford: 2017, Oxford Centre for Enterprise, Markets, and Ethics). He is married to Miriam with three children. Until 2010, Lyndon was a Vice President at Barclays Capital in London.