(This is taken from my book Wicked Rich Wicked Poor: the Economic Crisis in the Book of Job. Due to technical limitations, the extensive documentation for this chapter could not be displayed.)
In my last book, I stated that the term “wicked” in the Bible is nearly synonymous with “rich.” Since then, I have received adverse reactions to such a statement. They remind me of two things: first, there are many wealthy people who are not only good people, but who also work a lot of good in the world; second, there are many poor people who are bad and that posture appears to directly bear on their plight.
In both cases, they are right about certain situations that they know about or have experienced. The trouble arises in packing in all kinds of contemporary connotations to the term “wicked” which is generally not in the biblical purview.
Most importantly for our discussion of Job is that the tension between the “wicked” and the “righteous” is between wealthy elites in ancient Israel. It is a debate in which each side (Job and his colleagues) clings to the righteous claim. In a broader sense, however, it is a controversy over the categories of wicked and righteous in an intense social and economic crisis where the stakes are extreme. Anyone of prominence well understood that they could end up as Job did. In modern times, the rich can employ numerous tools to “hedge” their wealth against economic ruin. For most of human history, however, the fall of a fellow aristocrat served quite well to protect or even advance one’s own investments.
Critically, this debate was an internal one. It was not, to put it in contemporary terms, between Christians and atheists, Biblicists and secularists, capitalists and communists, conservatives and liberals or papists and Protestants. It was not an “us” against some foreign entity. It was especially not a debate between the poor and the rich, the haves and the have-nots. Both sides in the righteous/wicked controversy were wealthy (at least at some point), influential Israelites trying to establish themselves in post-exilic Yehud, what the Persians called their frontier territory in southern Palestine. It was as Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees a conflict over core features of Yahwism, Israelite religion. The wicked were not bad people per se, but they were terrible Yahwists. In fact, their religious piety was simply a civil necessity for their profit-making ventures. But for many who considered themselves faithful to the Lord, the only dictionary consulted to clarify the meaning of righteous or wicked was the Torah of Moses.
The book of Job portrays the intense debate among Jewish aristocrats in a cutthroat business environment where the stakes are extreme. Job’s plunge from being the perfectly crafted model of the good life to a virtual dead man truly reflects harsh realities. Assuredly, the tension has as long a history as Israel itself, and it is fraught with the same attempts to starkly separate politics, theology, and economics as is current today.
That the market operates independently from the State is sheer nonsense. Graeber’s book lays down the challenge to that: “In the common-sense view, the State and the Market tower above all else as diametrically opposed principles. Historical reality reveals, however, that they were born together and have always been interwined.” Similarly, and to much consternation in the biblical witness, the Market and religion are closely linked. The gods that perpetually tempt Israel are always covered in gold and silver.
Emergence of Israel in the Economic Collapse of the Bronze Age (1400–1000 B.C.E.)
From its very inception, Israel has been suspicious of private wealth accumulation. To be clear, it is not opposed to blessing, the ability to survive and thrive. It desired what all people desire: a good, decent and thriving life. In its account of its origins, however, the Bible consistently and repeatedly questions the accumulation of wealth, its social good, and its effect on those who obtain it.
Several factors in ancient Israel’s development contribute to the Bible’s suspicion of wealth accumulation. We first off need to consider David Graeber’s sweeping historical assessment of wealth. Throughout nearly all of human history, cultures negatively view the wealthy, mainly because they primarily gain it through usury with its predictable cascade of negative effects. Since the very beginnings of human civilizations, however, humans have been morally confused about usury, viewing it as equally reprehensible, but seemingly unavoidable.
For at least a millennia before the establishment of a people called “Israel” in the land of Canaan, ancient Mesopotamian cultures organized production and distribution of goods around temple-palace centers. The “political economy,” as Gottwald calls it, was tributary. A group of elites, mainly temple and royal personnel in cooperation with cosmic, divine forces determined the various aspects of labor, production, and distribution of social goods. Like feudal societies in Medieval Europe, drug cartel regions in Central America, or gang cultures in modern cities, the general populace, would offer the fruits of their labors, tribute, to a controlling group in exchange for protection, some landed security, and communal identity. The community would also supply young men for military expansion or defense. The political economy functioned by controlling the storyline and sacrifice. “Wherever we find money, we also find the story,” reminds Graeber. The threat of retaliatory violence was usually enough to convince most community members of the validity of the story.
A good portion of goods could not be produced by a regional city/state and required the procurement of things from other sources. These items, mostly luxury, could be acquired by one of two ways: by conquest, in which the tributary base would be expanded, or by some kind of trade arrangement via caravan. In either case, successful merchants ascended to the ranks of the aristocracy. Often times they could became quite powerful, even overtaking temple/monarch arrangements. In later Greek and Roman societies, the merchant aristocracy had taken over control of public temples.
With a group of people willing to travel and negotiate the transfer of goods, fundamental economic notions of interest, profit, investment, and debt immerged. With these, Graeber argues, the concept of money begins, and with this paradigmatic shift comes the idea of unlimited wealth accumulation which Michael Hudson assures was “radically disturbing in archaic times.”
The relationship between the royal/religious elites and merchant aristocrats was one of both cooperation and competition. They needed each other if the political economy was to function, yet their respective spheres of operation and influence could come into conflict. Because the management of debt relationships became consolidated among the merchant aristocracy, the village clans often became debt-peons to them. The ruling aristocracy found it necessary at times to cancel the ever-burgeoning debt accumulation of its labor force if it was to continue to receive tribute and have young men available for military service. Hudson assures that this “clean slate” practice was not based on altruistic notions but on shear survival. And of course, the merchant aristocracy needed the threat of lethal force to back their ability to exact payment on loans or to prevent dangerous rebellions.
It was at the dawn of civilization as it still is today. Wealth is anti-gravitational; it moves upward. And the pattern is timeless: the non-elites—subsistence farmers, village dwellers, herdsman—inevitably must accept creditor/debt relationships that like a boa constrictor, slowly strangle vitality out of human existence. The burden to supply tribute regardless of the often unpredictable cycles of nature and to pay on debts with ruthless terms of interest and penalties—interest rates in the 90th percentile—would easily lead to inescapable bondage. The taking of collateral in the form of possessions and family members became the standard and equally absurd practice of demanding payback of ever increasing debt while debilitating the debtor’s ability to pay. Albertz’s description of post-exilic Judah not only depicts the situation in which Job was written, but nearly two millennia before then. Throughout the Ancient Near Eastern world, the villager lived with “the well founded fear of being inexorably dragged down in the undertow of the annihilation of their business and the destruction of their families”
The opening chapters of Genesis (Gen 1-11) reflect a universal, negative sentiment in the ancient world toward these regional city/states. The description of Bronze Age civilization is characterized in God’s declaration of judgment on the earth in the story of Noah:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. (Gen 6:5)
We need not assume that wickedness, violence, and corruption is merely speaking of physical violence. The giving up of daughters to mighty men—giants—speaks of the deep-seated anxiety of families handing over their daughters to creditors.
The options were slim if one was not willing to relinquish family/communal relations and life itself. One could either rebel or flee. Both options are repeated endlessly in history. Usually it was a combination of rebellion and flight. The accounts of Israel’s origins in Genesis and Exodus make quite clear which option Israel’s ancestors were most familiar with—flight.
By the time the incipient Israelites can be placed in the land of Canaan at the end of the Bronze Age (1208 B.C.E), city/states throughout the region from Sumaria to Egypt are in collapse, jettisoning thousands into bands of semi-nomadic wanderers. The Genesis story of the wanderings of Abraham and his family reflects an infinitely repeatable phenomenon of the time. Hudson astutely describes the time as “the 400-year Dark Age free-for-all collapse of Bronze Age societies.” The extent of transient groups grew so numerous that they threatened even imperial centers. They were called the hapiru, which meant “border-crossers,” and to which the term “Hebrew” is believed to have derived. The complaint of Pharaoh in the exodus story aptly describes the fear of being over-whelmed by these fugitive groups (Ex 1:8-10). The land of Canaan became the place of choice for settlement among such transient groups because of its less than desirable geography.
Archeology places a consolidation of semi-nomadic groups settling in the hill country north of Jerusalem called “Israelites” in the early Iron Age. Instilled in them was their communal way of living born of the necessity of self-sufficiency inherent to a semi-nomadic life. The biblical books of Joshua and Judges accurately portray a cluster of communities (tribes) attempting a settled existence in cooperation with each other. Seared in their conscience is the threat of debt-slavery by the established tributary systems of city/states and the necessity of brother/neighbor responsibility.
From its inception and up until the Israelite monarchies, ancient Israelite culture was anti-tributary and strongly communitarian. They lived in the relative protection of the hills away from city/states and relied on subsistence agriculture and cooperation. They refused to exact tribute from one another and devised an alternative system of covenant and law heavily weighted against creditor/debtor relations. The early Israelites practiced a life of simplicity and shunned the trappings of wealth. They reinstituted, not idealistically invented as some suppose, periodic intervals of debt cancellation. They maintained a deep resistance to private seizures of patrimonial land and its subsequent alienation of vulnerable community members.
The biblical witness is that a god made a people for himself out of no people. This hodge-podge assembly of transient discards from the Bronze Age collapse of the tributary system was thrown together by happenstance, but they stayed together by remembrance. Their collective conscience was forged by the recollection of helplessly handing over one’s land, livelihood, wife, children, and self to a creditor’s unbridled and idiosyncratic desires or fleeing the city/states for an unsettled existence in order to keep community in tact.
Critically, the Israelites embraced a subversive storyline to “the way things are.” Rather than a pantheon of divine beings that sponsor empires, palaces, temples, armies, and wealthy estates, there was a god of the mountainous wilderness who fiercely fights for the disenfranchised and enslaved and requires right and just relationships. Usually, history is written by those who make it; the conquerors that is. But the Israelite history is forged by those who had history happen to them, those on the losing end of history. To put in terms in congruity with the aims of this book, the revelatory power of the Bible is that it was written by the debtors of the world, not the creditors.
They ensconced their historical memories first in song, story, and ritual, then in written form of commandments embedded in historical narrative and wisdom sayings. The forms reflect diverse origins and groups, but are put into a unifying narrative by those dispossessed and discarded by a debilitating political economy. They reflect the general condition of the displaced, the hapiru, and of a particular group who miraculously escaped from slavery in Egypt.
The Hebrews embraced the exodus story as their declaration of independence and a covenant at Mt. Sinai as their constitution. The rescue at the Reed Sea is not only mentioned more times than any other in the Bible, the exodus undergirds nearly every premise of the Scriptures including the salvation wrought in Jesus’ passion. Well before a word of Scripture was ever inscribed, Miriam’s song reverberated around the fires of covenant renewal: I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider he has thrown into the sea (Ex 15:1ff). They envisioned YHWH their warrior god who like Bronze Age kings of old “redeemed” them, i.e. cancelled the debt that had enslaved them (Ex 15:13).
They wrote down and memorized injunctions that rescued the economically vulnerable. A remarkable ostracon found at the archeological site Khirbet Qeyafa dating to the early Iron Age in southern Judah demonstrates a clear communal resolve to counter the predatory economic expansion of a burgeoning aristocracy around the monarchy. While not a copy of any particular biblical text, the inscription echoes similar sentiments to the prophets, the Psalms, and the later Torah. Now on view in the Israel Museum, it is considered the most ancient Hebrew text.
you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
[and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger (1)
Salvation history begins in the biblical record with the story of Abraham who “leaves his father’s house,” (Gen 12:1) not to go and make his own city as Cain did, but in search of another way to live: “the land I will show you.” The story of the precarious, homeless meanderings of the patriarchs is ensconced in one of the earliest creedal statements in the Bible:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor: he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number…The Lord brought us out of Egypt…and brought us into this place…and gave us this land (Deut 26:5–9).
This collective memory, what I call the profound sense, permeates every page of the Bible. It is, in fact, what makes these writings sacred or at least unique, for the force behind it stands in stark opposition to the conventional human structures of power, politics, markets, war, and religion. Its author is YHWH (2 Pet 1:21). Albertz calls it “the prophetic impulse” and assigns it three defining characteristics, one of which is especially prominent and is grounded in the exodus event. It is the biblical prophet’s “radical solution”—the Israelite god intentionally and forcefully distances himself from the unjust economic order.
As they [the prophets] recognize, Yahweh cannot simply be made the guarantor of the political and economic interests with impunity…Thus the prophets first of all submit official Yahweh religion to a comprehensive ideological criticism. They deny the powerful—the political and cultic leaders and the upper class which controls economic activity—the right to claim Yahweh for the religious legitimation of their own interests. Rather, the prophets unmistakably point out that there are criteria for any appeal made to God: Yahweh is on the side of those who are economically weak.
For Albertz, the other two characteristics—God’s universality and the prominence of ethical demands—derive from YHWH’s refusal to legitimate social structures that assault the economically weak instead of defend them.
The profound sense found its way into real life expression and eternal memory in Ancient Israel. Their earliest settlements resembled the oval encampments of semi-nomadic herdsman. Their houses were simple structures conspicuously devoid of opulence. Their dietary restrictions, like avoiding pork, may have been motivated by the rejection of “rich” foods. This equally applies to their sexual and aniconical prohibitions. The very way that the ordinary Israelite lived reflects a persistent value or ideal that is “overwhelmingly antielitist and anti-statist.”
A high degree of resistance toward predatory economic expansion is embedded in the emerging legal inscriptions found in the covenant code, considered to be the earliest written compilation of commandments (Ex 20–24).
You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as a cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people. (Ex 22:21–28.)
The Economic Crisis of the Prophetic Period (800–587 B.C.E.)
The communitarian ethos of the founding Israelites was put to the test with the reluctant acceptance of a monarchy (1 Sam 8). As the Bible portrays it, the clash arose immediately and never finds a resolve. With the arrival of the palace came the establishment of a temple, a city/state requiring resources, commercial exchanges, a shift back to a tributary system, the demand for military buildup and most of all a return of usury with its stark contrasts between wealth and poverty.
Initially Israel’s reluctant acceptance of monarchical arrangements was held in check by the imposing presence of Egypt. The relative dormancy of the Egyptian empire to the south and the northern Assyrian empire created a window of opportunity for a small kingdom to consolidate its rich resources and expand its influence in the region.
Within a few years, Omri, a military general, had consolidated the military and fertile economic resources of the northern highlands. He amassed an impressive army of skilled charioteers and seized control of critical trade routes. He instituted a practice of “buying” land for the sake of imperial expansion (1 Kings 16:24). The idea that land “given by the Lord” could be so readily turned into a commodity of exchange was for faithful Yahwists a severe covenant violation.
Finkelstein and Silberman attribute the ascendancy of the Omride Dynasty to several converging factors: the decline of a strong Egyptian presence; the rich agricultural lands of the northern highlands especially producing luxury exports of wine and olive oil; a huge influx of semi-nomadic peoples settling in the region; a revival of Bronze Age-style trade networks, and the availability of young men for military service combined with a highly skilled chariot force.
Omri’s son, Ahab, brought the Israelite dynasty to a height of power and influence in the region and with it, the predictable—unbridled and ruthless wealth expansion. In the brief report of Ahab’s reign in the biblical record, all the major themes of the biblical prophets’ protest are highlighted, all which come under the general charge of “doing evil in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 16:20): the impoverishment of the small farmers (1 Kings 17); abandonment of covenant stipulations by incorporating deities of “gold and silver”; enticement from foreign invaders to endless rounds of military engagement (1 Kings 20); market arrangements with other tributary centers (1 Kings 20:34-42); seizure of “ancestral inheritance” for the sake of luxury or convenience (1 Kings 21:1-4); corruption, conspiracy, and bribery rampant among those who should rule wisely (1 Kings 21:5-14). To all this, we can also add the torturous lament of the prophet who complains of the vanity and danger of his protest (1 Kings 19).
Critique of Wealth of the 8th Century
Jeremiah is considered the father of the wicked/righteous dichotomy, but we can be assured that the ethos was well inscribed on many in Israel and Judah before him. The development of the Bible’s critique of wealth on its communitarian foundations during the imperial expansion of the 8th century can be traced from two trajectories: the early codification of “wisdom” in Proverbs and the collection of sayings from the resistance movement of prophets such as Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah. It is in these sources that references to the “wicked,” “godless,” and “corrupt,” develop away from a particular “bad apple” who is brought to justice and toward the disturbing behavioral patterns among Israelite aristocracy.
The book of Proverbs is often referred to even today as presenting one of the more positive views of wealth in the Bible. This kind of ancient “wisdom” genre was an established Bronze Age form of enculturation for elites. In David M. Carr’s challenging reconstruction of the formation of the Hebrew Bible, he advocates understanding most portions of Proverbs as reflecting the earliest written forms of the Bible and as having a significant influence on the early writing prophets of the 8th century to be discussed below. Proverbs may, in fact, reflect Israel’s earliest attempts to reconcile the tension between its communitarian origins and the emerging city/state tribunal system and between the ideal Bronze Age style king as liberator with the more often reality of the king as oppressor and collaborator with the merchant aristocracy.
I will discuss “wisdom” literature more in a separate section, but for our purposes here, I want to highlight two features, which if Carr is accepted, demonstrate continuity with the communitarian ethos of the pre-monarchic Israelites.
First, Proverbs reiterates the Bronze Age vision of a righteous ruling class who are responsible for the economically weak (Prov 8:15-16). The opening seven verses to the book set the stage. The ruling class’ wisdom and knowledge is of a particular Israelite brand and toward a particular goal; it is for righteousness, justice, and equity (Prov 1:3, 2:9). Critically, Proverbs situates the source of such knowledge solely on YHWH: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). This one phrase encapsulates and circumscribes a core theological perspective in the Hebrew Bible. A radical posture or disposition must undergird all utilitarian knowledge.
The ruling aristocracy must never presume to act solely on its own prerogative, but must submit to the primary and unique referent of Israel—a covenant between an enslaved people liberated by a god outside the imperial center of power and wealth. The “wise” in Israel must never abandon “the partner of her youth” or forget “her sacred covenant” (Prov 2:17). Yes, Proverbs advocates a diligent and concerted effort towards wealth accumulation; it just simply redefines wealth. A knowledge of the fear of the Lord that produces righteousness, justice, and equity is better than gold and silver and more precious than jewels (Prov 3:13–18). It is the highest of values! This kind of wealth is a “tree of life” generating peace, security, and happiness. Most importantly, wisdom guided by “fear of the Lord” is shared. It includes one’s neighbor and takes responsibility for his well-being (Prov 3:27–29).
And most of all, we should be reminded that it is precisely in the market place, not the palace court, where this kind of wisdom makes her constant appeal:
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. (Prov 1:20–21).
“The fear of the Lord” is a creedal style proclamation and the precursor to Israelite education. Following this statement in the first chapter of Proverbs, the teaching abruptly and vehemently opposes a particularly hostile and heartless party among the aristocracy (Prov 1:11ff). They conspire violence against the innocent for the singular goal of seizing their possessions. They are driven by greed (Prov 1:19) for one driving reason—they hated knowledge of the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:29). It is this group characterized or not, that wisdom, personified as a faithful wife, repeatedly warns the wise to avoid. She is a “strange woman” who is beguiled by luxury.
We cannot fail to notice the corporate, and by implication systemic, nature of these “sinners.” From Proverbs to the prophets and the Psalms, a powerful and coordinated “gang” constantly torment and aggressively attack the supplicant. To repeat, it is always they and not he that is the source of much anguish.
This group is called many things in the Bible—wicked, evil, corrupt, godless, ruthless, conspirator, the enemy and always, always rich. Most of all, however, they are characterized as violent. In his investigation into the overwhelming amount of references to violence of some predatory group in the Bible, Raymond Schwager concludes: “Violence is the most central theme of the Bible.”
These “sinners” (simply those who have wandered off) are often depicted as physically killing people for their possessions (Prov 1:11). Contemporary readers of passages like Proverbs 1:11–19 or Psalms 1 may picture some kind of American-style gangster or South American drug cartel. But this violent imagery is equally figurative as literal if not more so. The main violence in Proverbs 1 is robbing a person’s (and family’s) livelihood. This is often depicted as a kind of cannibalism, of being completely consumed by a predator (Prov 1:12). The depiction in Micah 3:1-3 is gruesomely vivid in this regard and directly attributed to a predatory aristocracy.
Schwager argues two reasons why the designations for this group and the descriptions of their behaviors are general, allowing us to misread the referent. First, they are archetypal references. They speak of an engrained pattern of social behavior that spans particular times and places, what David Graeber argues have been going on for the last 5,000 years. Second, their violence, most often depicted as gruesome murder, characterizes a wide range of injustices to which the victim feels devoured.
Prophetic Protest of the Eighth Century
It was the opulent expansion of the Omride Dynasty that fueled the prophetic resistance. From the perspective of the biblical narrative, the tension becomes a crisis during the reign of Ahab the Israelite king (874–853 B.C.E). The smug seizure of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21) to meet the increasing desire for luxury items sets off a revolt led by a new kind of prophet.
Prophets in the Ancient Near East were conventional temple/shrine personnel who generally advised monarchs, military strategists, merchants and farmers. They were fortune-tellers. Elijah appeared on the scene as a social critic infused with visions of the fiery pillar at the battle of the Reed Sea. With all the seemingly important things to record in a history of Israelite kings, the book of Kings dedicates a third of scribal space to a prophetic confrontation with the aristocracy. From this point on and until the final destruction of Jerusalem, Israel and Judah were continually confronted by prophets who objected to the deleterious effects of wealth expansion on its communal ethos. Rightly does Ahab speak of this new kind of prophet as a “troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17).
The death of Ahab signaled a downward spiral for the opulent regional kingdom of Israel. It would be only a mere twenty-five years until Israel’s capital city of Samaria was in ruins and the populous impoverished or dispersed. From the historical perspective, the Assyrian empire was ascending and would quickly fill the void of a vacated imperial presence in the region. The Assyrians were a frightening, ferocious presence known for their winner-take-all mentality.
From the modern historian’s perspective, Assyria was the cause of Israel’s demise, but from the perspective of the prophets of the resistance, it was Israel’s decisive abandonment of the covenant with YHWH that brought disaster. We should pause to marvel how this radical perspective ever survived the time, let alone became the dominant perspective of the Scriptures.
Hosea significantly stands out among the prophets of resistance in several ways: he is probably an Israelite. He is an insider, not like the other biblical prophets who are Judean and observing from the south. Hosea is likely among the aristocracy, albeit a minority voice. Hosea also sets a precedent for nearly all biblical prophets to follow with his dominant use of the metaphor of a wayward wife (Hos 1-3) and a rebellious son to signify the relationship between God and his people and his appeal to an exodus from Egypt, not conquest, as the foundation of Israelite society. Even more so, Hosea incorporates the metaphor; he lives out what he is signifying. He becomes a living metaphor.
With the modern sensitivity toward women’s sexuality and their long history of suppression under male dominance, the picture of Hosea “taking” a “whore” as his wife creates nearly insurmountable interpretive difficulties for us. Among the mass of conflicting readings of the text, however, few have focused on the economic variables that play into the depiction. This is where I return to Graeber’s discussion of ancient economic systems. Prostitution, Graeber argues, is the flip side of slavery. Both of which occur as the result of violence.
In zero-some economies, the only way (or at least the quickest way) to gain more resources was to seize it from others. Conquest is the obvious way people became slaves. They are ripped out of their social context. Along with domestic animals, precious metals, and some personal goods, people are the only enduring spoils of war. The critical feature in this violent transaction is that the captured person is virtually dead. His or her life is only spared based on the utilitarian value—he is now a useful object. Where there is conquest, argues Graeber, taxes and markets follow. The very first commodities “for sale” were humans; the second was credit. Slavery and prostitution are the ultimate expression of market economies.
The other consequence of conquest is that people are completely disconnected from the land. They are no longer the immediate beneficiaries of their own production. They are completely subservient to a mediator for their prosperity. For thousands of local agrarian clans, the violent switch from “social currency,” which is circulated to maintain relationships, is turned into money where everything has a price.
In Graeber’s analysis, the critical factor was debt. “Again, for the poor, this meant that family members became commodities that could be rented or sold.” This violent overtaking of social currencies by war institutionalized debt dependency and the commoditization of the poor, “which fell disproportionately on daughters.”
Economic destitution is the definitive starting point for Hosea’s wayward wife (Hos 1:3). Hosea is a man of means who is essentially buying her (back), perhaps as a “kinsman redeemer.” The depiction of “a wife of whoredom” who is now the prophet’s wife focuses on the extent to which she has been conditioned by her old life. She is lured and tempted to go back to her old life, and she has tremendous difficulty reintegrating back into a social group.
There is no mistake about that “other” life. It was one of luxury and opulence, sponsored by the deities of gold and silver (Hos 2:5, 12). It was a life where the land yielded its produce to others in exchange for luxuries while the inhabitants languish under ecological and economic destruction (Hos 1:2, 2:18, 4:3). The quadriad mantra of Yahwism—justice, righteousness, love and mercy—was absent (Hos 2:19). Violent seizure of property was at a ravenous pace (Hos 4:2, 7-19), and systemic economic inequality was arrogantly defended:
A trader, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress.
Ephraim has said, “ah, I am rich, I have gained wealth for myself;
in all my gain no offense has been found in me that would be sin.” (Hos 12:7)
Like a “wayward” woman who has grown accustomed to her life as a commodity, so the Israelites have acculturated themselves to wealth expansion to such an extent that:
Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the Lord. (Hos 5:4).
All this is summed up for Hosea:
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
and no knowledge of God in the land. (Hos 4:1).
Two things can break through our resistant reading of the text. Yvonne Sherword rightly argues that male readers too often identify with Hosea, who represents the interests of YHWH, rather than with the “wayward woman.” Even more importantly, Israel (and we) failed to critically connect this metaphor to its primary referent—a political economy that violently turns people into slaves and slaves into currency. And most critically, this system was completely foreign to Israel’s origins and constitution. Once Israel crossed over to this kind of system, she would find it nearly impossible to reverse it. She would become accustomed to it even while she was increasingly enslaved to it! This is why the prophets would pronounce that only a radical upheaval could jolt God’s “wife” into returning to her origins.
Wealth enslaves those who seek it and makes it nearly impossible to embrace or return to a common good ethic.
The resistance movement had its counterpart in the southern kingdom of Judah. The opulence of the Omride dynasty had spread there as well. Prophets such as Amos, Micah, and Isaiah not only shared the critique of Hosea toward the northern kingdom, but also warned of the same situation in Judah. They too attacked aggressive land grabs and its devastating economic and ecological effects on the inhabitants. They too bemoaned the abandonment of the communitarian ideals for the lure of wealth acquisition. They too attacked the “wicked” who constantly conspired and schemed in order to expand their estates and who used violence and setup violent social structures to enforce it. The biblical prophets were driven by the profound sense that something radical had happened on the shores of the Reed Sea and Mt Sinai that did not permit Israelites to do business as their neighbors did.
The profound sense is most radically expressed in the biblical witness in the Israelites’ unique view of the land as gift. There is too much to say about this here. Walter Breuggeman’s treatise on the biblical view of land is one of the hidden jewels of Old Testament theology. He states:
The land to Israel is a gift. It is a gift from Yahweh and binds Israel in new ways to the giver…Israel was clear that it did not take the land either by power or stratagem, but because Yahweh had spoken a word and had acted to keep his word….Israel reflects on how it is to regard the land. A land is different when it is given in speaking and received in listening. It is not just an object to be taken and occupied. It is rather a party to a relation.
The tension between land as promise given by proclamation and land as problem taken in presumption spins its way into the entire biblical witness. Certainly, the inevitable presumption of kings plays a significant part in the tension, but it is here where we must modify Brueggemann’s position. It is the consolidation of a predatory economic aristocracy, which benefited from royal administration that ripped an unhealed wound between the land as blessing for all and land as property with profits for some. The same tendency that ushered the “Dark Age free-for-all” collapse of the Bronze Age was steadily making its comeback.
Settled lands occupied by clusters of family/clan agrarians where being consumed by powerful aristocratic families clustered in walled cities and taking advantage of weak monarchies. Israel was less a league of communities and more a land divided into rich and poor, landowners and “renters,” and above all creditors and debtors. By the seventh century, the land of Israel mirrored the downward mobility of most people in the region. Nebuchadnezzar—interestingly enough the one who destroyed Jerusalem, but who Jeremiah proclaimed as God’s partner in punishing his own people—proclaimed himself a liberator and redeemer from the runaway economic practices rife in the region where people:
…devoured one another like dogs, the strong robbed the weak, judges accepted bribes and did not defend the poor, those in authority treated cripples and widows badly, money lenders lent money at high rates of interest, and many broke into other people’s house and seized fields that belong to others.
Collapse of the Northern Kingdom and the Emergence of a Reformation
It is this situation that gave rise to the prophets of Israel. It was their bold resistance to the encroaching predatory practices and their insistence on the alternative kingship of YHWH that inspired a radical reform attempt of the monarchy after the collapse of the northern kingdom. The attempt to reverse the encroaching social freefall of a Bronze Age repeat was implemented by the reform minded reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah. The reform agenda is codified in the book of Deuteronomy and its ideology permeates nearly every book of the Hebrew Bible.
The campaign of the Assyrian commander, Tilgath-pileser III, quickly and mercilessly put an end to the regional powers of Israel and Damascus. His successor, Shalmaneser V, leveled Samaria and exiled its inhabitance (722 B.C.E). Many attempted to escape death or exile by fleeing to the southern kingdom of Judah or to the hill country of southern Israel around Bethel. Among these were many faithful Yahwists heeding the prophet’s dire warnings. They likely constituted a loose coalition of minority and even underground aristocrats, temple personnel, and village elders. This core coalition drove to clarify what went wrong and strove to prevent a Samarian repeat in Judah.
Unfortunately, many among the aristocracy of Israel who had grown accustom to Bronze Age-style wealth accumulation also sought safe harbor in walled cities of Judah. With the encroachment of Assyria rapidly descending on Judah, an Elijah-style prophetic showdown was brewing. A strong league among the aristocracy wanted to double-down on the Samarian policy so roundly condemned by Yahwistic prophets—seek out alliances with neighboring nations, including Egypt, to resist the imperial advance of Assyria. The issue for them was not whether or not to accept the tributary system, but to decide which one to be in league with—Egypt or Assyria. Of course and as always, a powerful undercurrent to this tactical strategy was to hold on to wealth in a time of turmoil.
On the contrary, the minority resistance movement of the Yahwists was gaining momentum in Judah fueled by the disaster of Israel to the north. The true inspiration of the biblical prophets, however, thoroughly grounded the crisis of faith as an internal and not an external threat. Assyria is not the problem, the biblical prophets insisted; Israel is. They have abandoned God’s economy, “the covenant of her youth,” for a foreign one.
The radical reformation of Israel first emerged in the preaching of Hosea, but gained critical momentum with the prophet Isaiah around the fall of Samaria. Isaiah came to prominence with his bold confrontation with the Judean King, Ahaz. In the frightening specter of the Assyrian invasion of the region, Isaiah advised the king against the plan of Israel to rebel against the Assyrian empire (Isa 7). Isaiah lays down a powerful precedent and antecedent to the creedal statement, “fear the Lord,” mentioned above. Rather than conspire with economic and military alliances with dubious neighbors, Isaiah challenges Ahaz to trust YHWH instead (Isa 7:9). Isaiah’s challenge to Ahaz proved to be both a powerful cornerstone to the emerging biblical faith of the coalition, but also a disastrous ideology when applied in the wrong way.
The biblical prophets assuredly understood that the wealth expansion of the northern Israelites had thoroughly infected southern Judah as well and that YHWH would not tolerate it. Assyria, Isaiah pronounces, is God’s instrument of punishment upon God’s people, north and south (Isa 10:5–11). Indeed, Assyria was poised for Jerusalem’s destruction when they suddenly (miraculously) withdrew (2 Kings 19:32–37). This event gave powerful credence to Isaiah’s prophecies that YHWH would severely discipline his people for their waywardness, but would also preserve a “remnant” who would be responsive to “his word” (Isa 10:20-27). With the withdrawal of Assyria, Isaiah fueled the ancient ideal of a monarchy that would implement “justice and righteousness” for all and curb abusive economic systems based on violence. Thus the famous words of Isaiah:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and his named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isa 9:6–7)
This aggressive reformulation of ancient tribal tradition attempted to unite all—rich and poor, aristocrat and farmer, priest and king—under the banner of a unique people named Israel and call them into a direct and heart felt relationship with their God based on “hearing his word” and “trusting in him.” They sought to correct the economic, religious, and monarchical abuses and revitalize a sense of solidarity:
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut 6:4-5)
It is critical to remind that the ancients did not separate religion from politics or economics nor make hardened distinctions between private and public responsibility. They saw a radical codependence on these aspects. If one falls, then the whole house falls. The prophetic call toward exclusive YHWH worship was not motivated by philosophical categories of monotheism, but to a large degree with the deleterious effects of the tributary system on the common folk. Singular devotion to YHWH meant singular commitment to His economy and radical trust in Him to act alternatively to tributary systems that were based on violence, disparity, and enslavement.
The reform movement sought to curve religious ritual and structures that endorsed displays of opulence at the exclusion of the poor by consolidating worship and insisting on singular devotion. They vigorously attacked “Canaanite” religion that sought to ground unjust economic systems in a cosmic and unchanging reality.
They prescribed limited powers to human kings—especially the ability to amass powerful armies able to “enforce” unjust economic arrangements—even while they heavily reinforced the ancient role of kings to YHWH as the “saviour,” redeemer,” and “liberator” who would cancel debt pronouncing days, weeks, years, and eras for “clean slate” new beginnings. As ancient kings cancelled debt in order to have a substantial base of free peasants to enlist in their army, so the Deuteronomic agenda attempted to forgo the cancellation of debts by aggressively prohibiting usury in the first place. The reformers critically addressed through stern and passionate appeal the problem of wealth accumulation—riches creates amnesia and blindness.
Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, in failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today…Do not say to yourself, “My own power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut 8:11, 17)
You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deut 16:19-20)
For a brief span of time under the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah, the prospect of a just and righteous kingdom seemed possible. We should pause here to reflect on one amazing aspect—there were enough people in Israel who actually believed in a more just and equitable way to live and put forth a huge effort to implement it despite and within a world that insisted otherwise. It was the young Jeremiah who early on endorsed the prospect.
But the reform dramatically collapsed at the sudden death of king Josiah. A significant portion of the aristocracy in Jerusalem, already uneasy at the prospect of decreased wealth, seized their chance to take control. Albertz argues that the real collapse of the reform was due to the resistance of a large portion of the upper-class, which was simmering underneath the surface. The death of Josiah merely signaled the aristocracy to secure their own advantage. From that point, reform talk was just that—talk. Underneath the veneer of piety were merciless, violent exploitation for profit and the conspiring scramble for alliances with foreign powers so roundly condemned by the prophets. The Deuteronomic reform went underground. It is at this point where Jeremiah hears his call to proclaim God’s abandonment of the reform. It did not go deep enough. It did not reach the heart, especially of the wealthy merchant aristocracy. Words were now falling on deaf ears. Yahwistic piety turned into an ugly opposite (Jer 11–12).
Jeremiah and His Wicked Opposition
The book of Jeremiah mostly reflects the collapse of the Deuteronomic reform. To reiterate, the weakened monarchy empowered aggressive economic exploitation by the aristocracy. Most egregious for Jeremiah was the ease in which this group bolstered the language of reform into an ideological frenzy and used it as a veil and a means to strengthen their economic aggression (Jer 7; 12). Ironically, the predatory behavior among many of the Jerusalem aristocracy was promoted as authentic Yahwism! This absurdity pushed the young prophet to the use of extreme contrasts to make his point.
It was the reformers who incorporated and expanded the symbolism of social conflict around a confrontation with Baal. Jeremiah pushes the imagery in Elijah-like fashion to showdown pitch. The fundamental issue remained the same: who was the true owner of the land? If it was YHWH, then the land—the chief agent for all human production and exploitation—was a party, a witness and partner, to a covenantal relationship between YHWH and his people. All were responsible managers of the Lord’s enterprise.
Jeremiah, as well as Ezekiel, protested loudly and dangerously. For them, the behavior of those profiting from the collapse of the reform were worshippers of Baal, not YHWH and they are wicked, not at all righteous. They were profoundly perverting the very essence of what it meant to be faithful to God. As Isaiah before him, Jeremiah explicitly and directly connects the apostasy of the aristocracy with their practice of seizing the property of others and enslaving their own people:
For scoundrels are found among my people;
they take over the goods of others.
Like fowlers they set a trap,
they catch human beings.
Like a cage full of birds
their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich,
they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
they do not judge in justice
the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper,
and they defy the rights of the needy.
Shall I not punish them for these things?
says the Lord,
and shall I not bring retribution
on a nation such as this? (Jer 5:26-29)
Even more boldly, Jeremiah strips away all predatory pretense that cleverly hid behind religious piety or royal sovereignty. In this respect, Jeremiah registers his most egregious complaints to God: the rich not only prosper in their wickedness, YHWH himself appears to back them! All the while, these very people threaten Jeremiah’s life precisely because Jeremiah refuses to endorse any notion of eminent prosperity simply because the rich acknowledge YHWH.
You will be in the right, O Lord,
when I lay charges against you;
but let me put my case to you.
Why does the way of the guilty proper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and thy take root;
they grow and bring forth fruit;
you are near in their mouths
yet far from their hearts (Jer 12:1-2).
The prophetic confrontation that begins with Elijah comes to its crisis point with Jeremiah. The biblical prophets protested the near ubiquitous practice of the wealthy to sever unjust economic practices from religious piety. On the contrary, foreign alliances and gods tempted the rich precisely because those deities collaborated with wealth consolidation of the few at the expense of the many. Rude and offensive was the protest of the prophets because for them, unjust economic practices were completely incompatible with YHWH. The failure of most of the aristocracy to “get it” torments the prophets to despair. The louder the prophetic protest, the more resistant the ruling class became. For Jeremiah, the boiling point had come. The Lord would assume exclusive royal sovereignty and pronounce a clean slate and a new covenant.
Relying heavily on Isaiah’s imagery of the vineyard, Jeremiah relentlessly proclaims YHWH’s prerogative as exclusive land Lord (not Baal or any other god). The terms of the land grant are way past due. God’s people did not pay down on the terms of the deed and now must be sold into slavery.
When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord,
there are no grapes on the vine,
nor figs on the fig tree;
even the leaves are withered
and what I gave them has passed away from them.(Jer 8:13)
Jeremiah is clear on the reason:
No one repents of wickedness,
saying, “What have I done!”
…since they have rejected the word of the Lord,
what wisdom is in them?
Therefore I will give their wives to others
and their fields to conquerors,
because from the least to the greatest
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
from prophet to priest
everyone deals falsely. (Jer 8:6, 9-11)
The prophets did not borrow terms like sin, transgression, iniquity, guilt, abomination and wickedness from the established tributary system to describe a spiritual relationship. They understood the political economy similarly to their neighbors. Indeed, it was the only system one could conceive. They simply understood the players and the outcomes to be different. Instead of human kings ruling territory and controlling means of production, it was YHWH. Instead of land being an inheritance, it was a group of people. Instead of tribute of gold, silver, and produce, YHWH required righteousness, truth, mercy, and love.
Against all the prophets of prosperity that countered Jeremiah’s proclamation, Jeremiah’s prophecies proved decisive. The intoxication of wealth could not be overcome without radical action. It was time for God to teardown and uproot in order to rebuild and replant (Jer 1:10–19).
Albertz identifies the split within the Judean aristocracy between a minority who advocated for social solidarity around a singular devotion to YHWH and his covenant and the majority who advocated “business as usual.” Jeremiah radically solidifies the torturous history of Israel and Judah over its economic and social identity. Albertz explains:
The split which became manifest among the court officials probably ran right through the aristocracy of the city and also the landowners of Judah…We must start by noting that jeremiah for the first time applies the title r’saim, ‘evil, godless’ to the greedy and selfish rich (5:26; 12:1). While rasa originally meant those formally pronounced guilty by the court, here the plural is for the first time generalized to become the polemical condemnation of a group; Jeremiah thinks that the members of the upper class who are behaving in such an anti-social way are condemning themselves, even if they are apparently justified in court (5:28). They are putting themselves outside society; indeed, if we add the religious connotation of r’saim, even outside the relationship with God.
Albertz insists that this split within the aristocracy before the exile becomes a crucial factor in the centuries after the exile for those attempting to reconstitute Israel under Persian rule to which the book of Job reflects.