is wealth God’s blessing to the righteous?

Is it true that God blesses the righteous with financial wealth? Does he want to bless you with such wealth?

I’ve been a Christian for little over a decade and I’ve heard such a perspective propagated dozens of times in a wide variety of denominational backgrounds – God wants his people to be rich, and financial and material wealth is a form of his blessing.

This view is normally derived from the Old Testament, particularly from the stories of Abraham and his family. It is true, God does indeed bless Abraham and his sons with wealth:

And the LORD has blessed my master greatly; and he is become great: and he has given him flocks, and herds, and silver, and gold, and menservants, and maidservants, and camels, and asses. (Genesis 24:35)

Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him. The man became rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy. (Genesis 26:12–13)

There is no getting around the fact that wealth is here viewed as God’s blessing by the author. However there is no definitive reason to view these reports as constituting a prescription for us.

Job is another character appealed to as an example of wealth being God’s blessing, though it is not at all clear that Job is even an historical figure – many scholars view Job as a narrative creation – and so this creates more complexity than cannot be dealt with in this context.

The problem is that there are not many more passages in support of the perspective described above. In fact, apart from texts about Abraham and Job, the view that wealth is God’s blessing to the righteous finds little support in the Old Testament. As Richard Bauckham has said, this view arises from “reading modern assumptions into texts which speak of YHWH’s blessing giving prosperity.” (emphasis added).

In modern economies we unquestioningly expect people’s standard of living to constantly increase, and for the economy to grow without limit. Such expectations were nonexistent in the ancient world. According to Bauckham, the consistent view of utopian existence in the Old Testament is of ‘everyone under his vine and his fig tree’ (1 Kings 4:25; Mic 4:4; etc) – life for a peasant family at its best: “owning their own modest smallholding, producing enough to live and with leisure enough to enjoy it, and with no threat from the rapacious rich or foreign invasion.”

In an ideal future Israelite peasants wanted nothing more in material terms.

Anyone who wanted more than this was seen as greedy, even dishonourable. Some contemporary biblical scholars, particularly Bruce Malina, have used social-scientific models to show that ancients tended to believe in something called ‘limited good’ – the idea that there were only so many resources to go around, and so by storing up large amounts (being rich) you were doing so at the expense of others.

We must take this background into account when we interpret the Old Testament promising prosperity for righteousness. Bauckham argues that such prosperity “refers to such things as the weather conditions to ensure good harvests. They simply expect that the peasant family will live quite well from their smallholding, not that they will use the surplus to accumulate wealth and land.” He goes on to say:

The Torah forbids – unrealistically, of course – even the king to accumulate wealth (Deut 17:17). In general, the Torah legislates to prevent there being rich people, the prophets denounce the political and economic developments which produced a significant class of rich landowners and wealthy bureaucrats, the psalmists complain to God against their oppression by the rich, wisdom considers the pursuit of wealth foolish (Proverbs) or the fortunes of rich and poor a major instance of the meaninglessness of life (Ecclesiastes). There are thus different approaches to wealth in the OT, but not much comfort for the rich.

Indeed, when read as a whole, in its original social contexts, the Old Testament does not offer much help to the view that wealth is God’s blessing to the righteous. Wealth is more often seen as a mark of greed or injustice, outlawed in Torah and denounced by the prophets. The traditions seem not to espouse prosperity in terms of being rich, but rather in terms of having enough.

Whether or not this is a prescription for today is something for each of us to wrestle with since our modern economies look very different. I wonder though whether the underlying values are just as applicable, nay, important today. Certainly the ancient assumption that there were only limited resources is a dose of what we need in a world of environmental calamity.

Perhaps the view that wealth is God’s blessing is another form of deradicalisation that we so often impose on the Bible. Perhaps not. We will need to wrestle with the text, history, our world and ourselves to know.

Personally I find this a huge challenge to my lifestyle, and important food for thought. How about you?

MCA

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Posted on March 2, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Economics, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. A couple of thoughts here Matt.

    I believe that Job has to be read within the framework of the captivity. Their are so many echo’s of captivity and exodus within that story, that I believe Job is in fact a metaphor for the Hebrew people and that God will bless them as a nation once again.

    A lot of greed is based on Malachi, bring your whole tithe into the storehouse and I will open the windows of heaven and bless you, The storehouse and tithe in Malachi is the tithe of provision for the poor, lame, sick, widow, orphan and refugee.

    Micah prophesied that they would go into captivity, because of their corrupt social justice practices and failure to care for each other within the context of community. Malachi begins with a number of rebukes to the priesthood and then to the nation, for the priesthood were to ensure that religious worship outworked with social justice. sorry for the ramble Here is the crux, the blessing in Malachi isn’t about an individual blessing. It’s all about a community blessing. If community / society care for the poor, the lame, sick, widows, orphans, refugee, God is going to bless that community / society.

    Jesus said that the poor will always be amongst us, the issue is, how do we as a society, care for the poor amongst us.

    • Just to point out, Craig, that when Jesus says the poor will always be among us, he’s quoting Deuteronomy 15:11; which in it’s original context is a condemnation for not following Jubilee laws. The Lord decrees in Deut 15:4 that there “will be no poor in the land if you follow my statutes;” the juxtaposition of 15:11 then suggests that the Lord is fully aware that the Israelites will not follow this law. Which AFAIK is understood historically to be the case. I generally dislike the use of this verse because more often than not it’s mis-interpreted to reinforce the status quo when it comes to our treatment of the poor — that is, our own sinfulness against them.

      That said, I totally agree with your interpretation of Malachi.

      • Hi Peter.

        Yes, Jesus was quoting the Jubilee Laws. I think this strengthens my point against the sweeping generalisation of private wealth / blessings for individuals today. Within the framework of their being no poor within the Hebrew nation, it was because within the nation, all were to be cared for – just as what happened in the desert when they gathered the Manna. Those who gathered little, had enough, and those who gathered much, also had enough.

      • 100%. Pete and I have discussed and agreed upon this point about Mark 14:7/Deut 15:11 previously, and it has featured in a couple of previous posts:

        https://liferemixed.net/2011/08/18/for-you-will-always-have-the-poor-with-you/
        https://liferemixed.net/2012/02/13/a-response-to-mark-galli/

        Craig, I agree with you about Job, but the point was somewhat outside what I thought relevant for the post (I actually deleted a sentence which said something similar to your own statement). Thanks for including it in the comments however since this is a good place for expansion. I would also add that Job is likely a theological polemic against the Deuteronomic blessings.

        What I have tried to do in the post itself is show that our modern concept(s) of material prosperity are anachronistic when applied to the Bible, particularly the OT, and that we simply abuse the text when we do this. Ancient people by-and-large had a more humble approach to an idyllic future – they knew such a future could not be characterised by everyone having everything they ever desired. Our views about growth, however, have blinded us to the impossibility (and immorality) of such a hope.

        Your stuff about Malachi is beautifully complementary to this argument, and I thank you for including it here – again it is a case of not being able to say everything in an 800 word post.

        Matt

        • I missed those two posts, thanks for linking to them. Contentedness is a huge theme within the Old and New Testaments.

          Btw, Dave Cook, do you have a blog? Your gravatar doesn’t link to it?

  2. Hi Matt,

    Great piece. Thoroughly agree. I think there’s just one important thought missing here that even further emphasises your point …

    In a piece I once wrote in response to Brian Houston’s frightening book “You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life”, I highlighted that the ancient Hebrews understood their call to follow Yahweh communally, and most of the promises made by God in the Torah and beyond are usually understood as communal promises.

    Many of the verses that modern prosperity doctrine reads through the lens of individualistic, materialistic modern culture as “God wants you (singular) to be rich (i.e. prosper)” should actually be read as promises that the people of God will ‘prosper’ together if they obey God’s laws.

    So what does communal prospering mean?

    As you have so often rightly highlighted, essentially, it means obeying the Jubilee laws to ensure that there are no poor, no excessively rich, and all are working well together to ensure that all are taken care of and have all that they need. To live well without concern, not extravagantly.

    To read these promises as God wants individuals to be rich in a developed world, neo-liberal capitalist economy is, to my mind, a complete aberration.

    If the church wants to make an impact on the world, it would do well to try to claw the cataracts of enlightenment individualism from the lens that it reads the Scriptures through.

    Cheers

    Dave

  3. Hi Craig,

    Unfortunately, nothing recent or worth trawling through. I wrote a travel blog that covered a whole range of topics throughout 2007 while my wife and I traveled through the developing world (just do a Google search on ‘I love Footscray’).

    After that I tried to continue blogging, but soon found life interrupting. And then Facebook/Twitter exploded and I found it easier to share the thoughts of others that were articulated so much better than I could …

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