Chapter eight of Deuteronomy warns against the danger of forgetting God and justice when you grow rich. That has some relevance to society today.
Deuteronomy chapter 8-
The Message (MSG)
8 1-5 Keep and live out the entire commandment that I’m commanding you today so that you’ll live and prosper and enter and own the land that God promised to your ancestors. Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not. He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth. Your clothes didn’t wear out and your feet didn’t blister those forty years. You learned deep in your heart that God disciplines you in the same ways a father disciplines his child.
6-9 So it’s paramount that you keep the commandments of God, your God, walk down the roads he shows you and reverently respect him. God is about to bring you into a good land, a land with brooks and rivers, springs and lakes, streams out of the hills and through the valleys. It’s a land of wheat and barley, of vines and figs and pomegranates, of olives, oil, and honey. It’s land where you’ll never go hungry—always food on the table and a roof over your head. It’s a land where you’ll get iron out of rocks and mine copper from the hills.
10 After a meal, satisfied, bless God, your God, for the good land he has given you.
11-16 Make sure you don’t forget God, your God, by not keeping his commandments, his rules and regulations that I command you today. Make sure that when you eat and are satisfied, build pleasant houses and settle in, see your herds and flocks flourish and more and more money come in, watch your standard of living going up and up—make sure you don’t become so full of yourself and your things that you forget God, your God,
the God who delivered you from Egyptian slavery;
the God who led you through that huge and fearsome wilderness,
those desolate, arid badlands crawling with fiery snakes and scorpions;
the God who gave you water gushing from hard rock;
the God who gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never heard of, in order to give you a taste of the hard life, to test you so that you would be prepared to live well in the days ahead of you.
17-18 If you start thinking to yourselves, “I did all this. And all by myself. I’m rich. It’s all mine!”—well, think again. Remember that God, your God, gave you the strength to produce all this wealth so as to confirm the covenant that he promised to your ancestors—as it is today.
19-20 If you forget, forget God, your God, and start taking up with other gods, serving and worshiping them, I’m on record right now as giving you firm warning: that will be the end of you; I mean it—destruction. You’ll go to your doom—the same as the nations God is destroying before you; doom because you wouldn’t obey the Voice of God, your God.
Any community of people who have had a narrow escape from danger or suffering will treasure the memory of those who made their rescue possible. In that way the British people kept alive the memory of Winston Churchill, seen as a “saviour” in the dark days of the early 1940s. For Israel, their liberation from slavery in Egypt was the defining event of their history. Moses, and above all God, had brought them out of bondage and given them a new life. But the writer of Deuteronomy knew well that, when they have settled in Canaan and begun to feel secure and prosperous, that memory will fade and may even die. They will be tempted to say to themselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth” (Deut. 8:17, New Revised Standard translation). They will put their trust in the forces and laws of nature (“the gods”, as they would have called them in those days) which seem to control agriculture, fertility and prosperity in their new land. The God of liberation from slavery and oppression will be forgotten and neglected.
Of course, for a long time they will continue to sing their familiar hymns, and attend the places of religious worship. They will probably even enjoy their religion more, because now they are rich and self-satisfied. The celebrations will seem to them an affirmation of how right they are, of how much God is blessing them. But the religion will be empty, because it has lost sight of the essential meaning of what God did for them, and the justice that implies. Many years after the people arrived in Canaan the prophet Isaiah is complaining: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord” I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; Incense is an abomination to me; new moon and Sabbath and calling of convocations- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and appointed festivals my soul hates; They have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:11 to 17)
A glaring example of how religion had become empty was the way they failed to deal properly with the problem of debt. In an agricultural society many circumstances force families into the need to borrow from neighbours: crop failure, disease in flocks and herds, even simple mismanagement. The luckier and more successful neighbours can, if they choose, use their neighbours’ misfortune to their own advantage, forcing the repayment of the loan, charging interest, and if the loan is not repaid in full, taking over the neighbour’s land and turning them into landless labourers (slaves, in the parlance of those days).
Deuteronomy has a clear law to prevent that happening: Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbour, not exacting it from a neighbour who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. (Deut. 15:1 and 2). The same law set free those who, because of their indebtedness, had been forced to become bonded labourers: If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you for six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. (Deut. 15:12) The purpose of this law is very clear: So there will be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. (Deut. 15:4 and 5)
We are bound to have questions about this law- in particular its restriction to members of the Hebrew nation: “From a foreigner you may exact it [the repayment of a loan]….. When the Lord your God has blessed you, as he promised you, you shall lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.” (Deut. 15:3a, 6) In addition to the fact that “the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy” was seized from other nations, many of us will see it as dangerously nationalistic (though to others it may seem a natural application of “charity begins at home”). Other questions, however, betray our own modern cultural assumptions: we say that regular debt forgiveness will be a disincentive for debtors to pay their dues (what bankers today call “moral hazard”). But that could not be the case for independent farmers who had been reduced to slavery (bonded labour) by their indebtedness- the desire to regain their dignity and lost status in the community must have been powerful indeed.
The fact that even this law of debt forgiveness could not wholly prevent the long-term loss of land by some families is remedied by another law, found in the book of Leviticus, the law of Jubilee: You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month- on the day of atonement- you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your property…… The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. (Levit. 25:8 to 10, 23 and 24)
If even regular debt forgiveness every seventh year could not restore former independent farmers to the land they had lost through debt, the fiftieth year Jubilee was intended to ensure that they or their descendents would regain their property. Both these laws were designed to prevent a concentration of income-producing property (what Marx would call the “means of production”) in the hands of a smaller and smaller minority of the people, something which could be observed happening in all the nations surrounding Israel. Such a concentration of property in few hands, the Hebrew prophetic tradition asserted, was a sure and certain way to damage community, to cause injustice, and to distort the economy into a destructive rather than a creative system.
The fact that these laws were probably never fully implemented, but, as Deuteronomy warned, were ignored and flouted by Israel almost as soon as the people settled in their newly “Promised Land”, is no reason to regard them as irrelevant. Probably the precise form in which we read them in Leviticus and Deuteronomy were later attempts to re-assert and re-formulate an earlier sense of justice which came under threat as soon as the natural “laws” of economic life in a farming community began to produce wide gaps between those who succeeded and those who failed, differences which the laws themselves were intended to overcome. And once the community opted to be ruled by kings instead of by God’s law, that ancient notion of justice stood no chance.
In the Gospels and the story of the early Church we can see yet another determined attempt to reassert God’s justice in the face of a corrupt, oppressive and ultimately violent economic system, that of the Roman Empire. But within three hundred years the Emperors were seeking to co-opt the Church in a campaign to rebuild their authority. The compromises that entailed were built into European society for over a thousand years. But throughout the centuries of Medieval “Christianity” theology was thought to have an important role in posing moral and ethical challenges to economic life, even if those challenges were refused (and in any case were not precisely what the Biblical ideas of justice would have put). So for a long time “usury” was seen as sinful, and there were long debates over what might constitute a “just price”.
It is only in the modern period that economic life has been thought to operate under its own laws, the iron laws of supply and demand, and for moral (far less theological) questions to have as little influence over it as king Canute could have over the rise and fall of the tides. For a long time, however, religion persisted in modern society, in much the same way that it did in ancient Israel after Israel had broken free from the demands of God’s justice in its economic life (and was condemned by Isaiah for it).
But religion that deals only with a part of life, and not with that part which is uppermost in the minds of most people, inevitably fades and decays. In Britain today, if the Census figures are to be believed, it has meaning for fewer and fewer people- for some who benefit greatly from the way our present economy operates, and who feel that somehow faith is important in maintaining those structures (unlike many others who now can see no link between Christianity and a thriving economy), and for a few others who see religion as a way of gaining a foothold in that economy, and escaping the poverty of people whose lack of morality makes them bad employees. In the wider world, religion can still be powerful, especially for those who have been taught that God miraculously lavishes great wealth and prosperity on those who worship him.
Today the concepts of justice which underlay the laws of debt forgiveness and land redemption in the Hebrew Scriptures have been all but forgotten. Remission of debt is still possible, but only through the processes of bankruptcy. And any idea that wealth-producing property must be shared and widely distributed in society, and that it is dangerous to allow such property to fall into the hands and control of a tiny minority is laughed out of all practical discussion (nationalisation and Soviet-style state control always trotted out as the bogey that makes such proposals unthinkable).
But perhaps it is time for principles to be re-examined. It is not that the details of Sabbath Year and Jubilee can be rigidly applied to a modern society. But the demand for justice, and the understanding of what justice means that gave rise to those provisions in the economy of their own day are still vital today. It is time the Church rediscovered them. Their rediscovery will not “save” religion in our society (things have gone too far for that by now), but can still offer a vision of a good society which is badly needed, for “Where there is no vision the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, King James Version), or, as the New Revised Standard Version translates it: “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint.”