Wealth, power, and influence in the ancient Hebrew ideal

One of the themes widely recognized and strongly presented across the pages of the Old Testament is God’s anger at how the poor, widowed, and orphaned have been mis-treated, or not looked-after. Not only in the commands of the Mosaic Law Code (in terms of care for the above mentioned and foreigners living among the Israelite tribes; for example: Leviticus 19: 9-10, 13-15, 33-34 or Deuteronomy 15: 7-11), but also long rants in the books of the Prophets that Judah and Israel are under God’s judgment because they had failed to look out for the unempowered (for example: Isaiah 1: 16-17; 2: 14-15; Micah 2: 1-2, 8-9; Amos 5: 7, 11-12; Zechariah 7: 9-10; or Malachi 3: 5).

The flip side of this, but less often noted, are the descriptions of how a morally upright person uses their power, influence, and wealth. The book of Job contains some representative examples of this. I think, in our current cultural context, where the place of wealth and influence are subjects of heightened interest, these ancient words of Job could serve as loci of discussion and consideration.

‘For I assisted the poor in their need

And the orphans who required help.

I helped those without hope…

I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.

Everything I did was honest… I wore justice like a turban.

I served as eyes for the blind and feet for the lame.

I was a father to the poor and assisted strangers who needed help.

I broke the jaws of godless oppressors and plucked their victims from their teeth.

They drank my words like a refreshing spring…. I comforted those who mourned.

Let God weigh me on the scales of justice, for He knows my integrity.

If I have been unfair to my male or female servants when they brought their complaints to me, how could I face God?

For He created both me and my servants. He created us both in the womb.

Have I refused to help the poor or crushed the hopes of widows?

No, from childhood I have cared for orphans like a father…

whenever I saw the homeless without clothes and the needy with nothing to wear,

did they not praise me for providing wool clothing to keep them warm?’ (Job 29, 31)

It seems to me that in today’s public conversation, power, wealth, or influence, in and of themselves, are often labeled as wrong or bad. But in the Hebrew Scriptures these things are not seen as bad or evil or unjust (neither is strength, nor ancient ideals of courage). Power, wealth, influence, strength, and courage, in the OT scriptures, are seen as good, effective, redemptive tools of fairness and justice that a godly person uses to increase the well-being of the common good, and especially of the weak, suffering, and unempowered. See too the picture of the empowered, well-to-do woman in Proverbs 31, and what she does with her wealth, strength, courage and influence. I have only brushed the surface of the images the Hebrews scriptures provide us on this subject, and I suspect that, in our current time and place in Western civilization, most of these images of personal and civic ideals are no longer commonly known. That leaves us with Hollywood personalities, professional athletes, and a handful of billionaires as societal role models regarding the use of wealth. Perhaps a rediscovery of some ancient biblical images could serve as fruitful templates in our conversation about society, stratification, influence, and lack.


Avoiding Indigenous Backlash

When I was a much younger man, I taught primary and secondary school at a resident-campus-program in northern Arizona, a handful of miles off the Navajo Indian Reservation. Much of how the school went about their business could have been ripped from a Catholic Jesuit School playbook 500 years before. Children were not allowed to speak their native language (since the staff, with its high turn-over rate, never learned Navajo), history curriculum were from the viewpoint of the White settlers, not one building had elements of Navajo architecture, even the food was mostly non-Navajo, etc., etc.

Fourteen years later I was visiting there with a work team to do some repairs on the campus. I was asked to address the staff on whatever subject I desired, during the weekly devotional time. What I chose to do was deliver a missiological paper on what happens when you position yourself to be viewed as the enemy of a culture. (Which is how the school was viewed on the Reservation, and attendance had plummeted to almost non-existence.) As Christians, with a doctrine of Creation and Creator, we ought to be the protectors of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in Navajo culture, I said. (Lots of Pauline material for this). When we aren’t, we not only become viewed as an outsider attack on the peoples’ own culture, but we sow the seeds for a second or third generation re-fascination with the original, indigenous religion, and a backlash against Christianity.

Have you noticed this? Christianization, currently, often comes simultaneously with a degradation of the natural environment and a tearing of the social fabric due to the overnight incursion of international civilization and connection to world markets. (Christianity doesn’t cause this, but it’s all happening at the same time these days). When Christians do not become the protectors of everything good, noble and true in a culture, you can bet that in a couple generations there will be a movement calling people back to their ancestors’ ways. Part of this is reaction to the decimation of traditional culture brought on by hooking up to the world money machine, and part of it is noticing the ills of civilization and their affects on the population. When this happens, all sorts of traditional – and important – knowledge starts getting lost, (‘What plant did grandma use for headaches? How did they make bows? How did they track and hunt boar? How did boys know they had become young men…?’), and people start talking nostalgically about their great-grandparents’ ways. That nostalgia becomes a powerful force, and creates backlash against the modern world AND Christian faith, as an outsider invasive species. This happens a lot in pre-modern societies these days, ones that were thrown into contact with the modern world quickly.

Have you observed some of this happening? What would this mean for your work? How could you and your organization be the protector of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in the local culture and religion? How would that change some things you do and say?

Etic not just Emic

Etic and emic are words that come to us from cultural anthropology. Emic views of a situation are from within, from inside the worldview of a particular culture, an intimate view. Etic views are those from outside, attempting to understand through comparison across many cultures. A big picture view.  

Most of us automatically think in emic categories – from within the culture or subgroup we belong to. Like all humans, I of course view things emic-ly, but you can also develop the habit of taking the etic view as well. So, for instance, when my college-age son once asked me “What do you think of tongues?”[1] Although I responded with all kinds of emic insider observations, my first reaction was etic: “Well, ecstatic mystical experiences show up in all the world religions. It’s something humans do. A certain portion of people find that to be a central component of their spiritual experience, others don’t seem wired that way.”  Or another, more nerdy, example: when asked recently to list ten things about myself, my first response was as etic as I could draw: “I am a biological creature, created by God, living in the Sol System of the Milky Way galaxy.” I probably should have said something about carbon-based or oxygen.

Viewing things from an etic perspective can help bring a wider perspective and break us out of narrow paradigms which are parochial and don’t take the big picture reality into account. We often emic-ly assume something has a theological raison d’etre when worldwide studies show it to have more of a cultural one. The fact that two of my graduate degrees had healthy doses of cultural anthropology  certainly helps me be aware of etic realities.  Cross-disciplinary reading is also very valuable in this arena. If you only read within one realm (say, Christian theology, or even a substrata of that), you often get caught drawing emic conclusions which are woefully lacking in awareness of etic realities staring you in the face. Some of the completely ignorant, and laughable if it weren’t so egregious, comments made by Christians regarding Islam are a common example these days. Understanding some of the practices in the Old Testament over three thousand years ago are another. Reading across the social sciences, hard sciences, and history, help protect us from embarrassing emic limitations.

[1] “Tongues” is an emic Christian word referring to the experience of glossalia. There are a variety of opinions on the subject from within Christianity.