Any discussion of economics in the Old Testament must begin with the Pentateuch, especially the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Clearly these are not economic textbooks. The Hebrews were an agricultural people without the compartmentalization of life we have today and to speak strictly of economics would have been unintelligible to them.
Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy are articulations of how God expected his covenant people to live. Economic activity, as was we would define it, was one organic expression of what people did in community. Both books contain a chapter where the rewards and penalties are explained for obedience and disobedience. (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30) Obedience results in long-life, prosperity and peace in the land. Disobedience brings death, injustice, strife and ultimately exile from the land. It is Deuteronomy 30 that closes with God’s powerful exhortation:
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. …19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (NRSV)
So what does the Old Testament law tell us about economic justice? What does it have to teach us today about an appropriate ordering of competing rights and obligations? The most important thing I think we can observe is that Old Testament justice always has a vision of community in mind like the one articulated in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 30. Central to the right ordering of competing interests is “the vision.” And, of course, central the vision is right relationship with God. The Israelite project was not to be about slavery to an endless litany of do’s and don’ts. It was about realizing a vision. The laws given in these books were a means to end, not an end in themselves.
To say that the laws were a means to and end is not to say they were inconsequential. On the contrary, many are transcendent ethical principles, though contextually applied. We should expect that honoring those principles today should bring a measure of shalom to our lives.
What are these principles? To aid in that discussion I want to introduce three types of economic justice concerns. Over the next few posts I will investigate what scripture has to say to us about these concerns. Then I will turn to one of the most interesting aspects of Old Testament law, the Jubilee Code in Leviticus 25; one of the most frequently used and abused passages in the Old Testament.
Three Aspects of Economic Justice
- Distributive Justice – Addresses how capital and goods are distributed throughout the society.
- Commutative Justice – Addresses the truthfulness of parties to an economic exchange.
- Remedial Justice – Addresses just compensation and punitive action when there has been malicious or careless damage done to life, liberty or property.