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?
Posted on March 2, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Economics, Old Testament and tagged Abraham, Blessing, Economics, Job, Prosperity, Rich, Richard Bauckham, Righteous, Wealth. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.