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Biblical Sabbath Economy

When the right of speculation trumps the right of housing, we end up protecting the sharks from the sardines (cf. Arnold Kunzli, "Housing as a Human Right").
Franz Segbers insists the Biblical Sabbath economy is an economy of the oikos, not speculation and accumulation.

Impulses for an Economic Alternative

By Franz Segbers

[This article published April 6, 2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://franz-segbers.de. Franz Segbers is a professor of social ethics.]

An extremely contradictory process appears in today's development of capitalism. The division into losers and profiteers destroys the conditions of life together nearly across-the-board. Counter processes against the worldwide enforcement of neoliberal policy forms.

A deep tear pierces our land and the earth. 2007 was the richest year in the history of humanity. Forbes magazine that publishes the hit list of the rich year after year announced this. However only a minority profits from the growing wealth. Social division processes mark societies in the North. Systems of social security are dismantled or privatized across Europe. Tax relief for corporations and the well to do necessitates reorganizing the welfare state. The consequence is growing poverty and social disintegration amid simultaneous growing private wealth.

The background for the processes of impoverishment and social disintegration is the so-called crisis of work. More and more goods are produced and services offered with fewer and fewer people in ever-shorter time. But instead of using productivity gains to reduce working hours with a more just distribution of work, they are expropriated to increase the wealth of owners of capital. For more and more people, this means they become superfluous. Whoever is superfluous is a burdensome cost-factor. Whoever wants to have a chance for work is under pressure to bow to the exploitation conditions of his labor power. Almost unanimously the political class repeats the slogan: any work is better than no work. The inevitable consequence is increased precarious work and poverty despite work.

Despite all confessions for "sustainable development," there are no signs now of a turning away from the idea of unlimited growth. On the contrary, more and more natural resources like water or the genes of plants and animals are threatened with defenseless and boundless appropriation. Given the foreseeable limits of fossil sources of energy and the climate consequences ("greenhouse effect") resulting from their combustion, today's modes of production and the related lifestyles endangers the foundations of life. The poor in the countries of the South are the first victims of ecological catastrophes.

If some dreamt of a peace dividend after the end of the Cold War, we must now admit soberly and disillusioned: the countries of Nato wage war and urge processes of militarization. The militarist development and its doctrine defend economic and political interests, not national defense.

Everywhere in the world, resistance rages against the deadly consequences of neoliberal globalization. More and more people oppose exclusion and destruction of the foundations of life and seek survival possibilities and alternatives of life in individual and collective strategies. Where resistance is articulated, the contradictions of neoliberal globalization between promise and reality become visible as in a burning glass.


In this situation, should we consult the Bible today? What can the Bible say to us? The Bible arose in the little land of Palestine/Israel at the edge of the great powers. Can anything be learning for grappling with today's economic problems from the Bible's association with the economy of its time?

The socially engaged theologian Friedrich Neumann wrote disappointedly more than 100 years ago: "We wanted to simply apply Jesus as a supreme champion of modern economic endeavors. But this failed every time when we tried to derive concrete demands from the gospel. The gospel was Galilean." He concluded: "We live in the age of capitalism and have a religion born before that age."

With a few exceptions, theologians adopted Neumann's reservations and refuse up to today to argue biblically in questions of the economy. What Neumann and many theologians see as an obstacle is a chance from my perspective. The Bible is pre-capitalist and helps us think differently than in a capitalist way. It comes from a time when life was not subordinated to the economic and therefore can give us an idea of a different life. Biblical directives from an agrarian society more than 2000 years ago cannot be made into a model of modern economics. Ethically important orientations and priorities can be expected from the Bible, not answers to economic problems raised by the modern economic age. The Bible in its economic statements is in no way antiquated or irrelevant. Rather insights, wise sayings and ethical values can cast a light on very central questions.

This knowledge is not lost in the modern age. That the Bible originates from pre-capitalist time should in no way be lamented as Neumann does. Rather it is a treasure that should be lifted up. In our hands, we have an alternative that shows economic orders are in no way timeless systems. The ideas of the Bible are not simply antique and outdated.


When you consult a textbook on the meaning of economics, the answer is: economics is the rational management of scarce resources to satisfy needs. If all desired goods were at hand, economy would not be necessary. Economics means using available scarce goods and services to create a maximum in goods and services. This definition highlights the "imminent core" of economics. Economics always and everywhere involves the removal of scarcity.

This definition of economics pretends to be value-neutral but is hardly value-neutral. In its core, this economy of scarcity is a logic of growth for increasing sales on the market and accumulating capital. Everything that opposes this logic of the market and economic advantage is ignored. The work of the person and what is important for the individual life-world and thriving cooperative life in society is not included.

The modern economic age began when people were rid of a thousand-year old tradition. The criticism of always-wanting more familiar in the European history of ideas since Athens and Jerusalem, greed as a vice, is not emphasized any more. Greed is promoted as a virtue. In his famous bee fable, Bernard Mandeville tried to justify this paradigm change in the conversion of the vice avarice into a virtue with the paradox "private vice, public advantage." Mandeville reinterprets greed as desirable social conduct. What Europe's philosophical and religious traditions called "vice" and "sin," what Martin Luther condemned as the "main deadly sin," is now given a positive spin. The ethical problematic of greed is defined away and hidden behind a sensible and economically promoted growth dynamic. Self-interest is promoted as the best economic way to public welfare. This drive to more-and-more or avarice is institutionalized structurally as a pressure to growth.

For future viability, the economy must be reconnected to the social life-world and natural contemporaries. My thesis is that only an economy integrated in the life-world and helpful to life can be future-friendly. The economy must reflect the original definition of the economy and not only economic logic. Economy derives from oikos=house and implies concern for the whole house of creation that we inhabit and share with other creatures. The environment, unemployed youth, seniors, the young, distribution of work between genders and generations, an adequate income for everyone, must be primary, not profit logic.

Discussion about the economy of the whole house usually refers to Aristotle who perceptively distinguished between a household economy and an economy of capital acquisition. Beside Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible also speaks of the economy as a household. The Torah adopted the term oikos and filled the Hebrew word bajit with a clear theological intention. The Biblical economy refers to the basic social and economic structure of the house, part of the greater house, the creation. The whole creation is the house. "Man and beast, you save O Lord. [... ] The children of men feast on the abundance of thy house" (Ps 36,7.9a). All inhabitants of the earth belong to the household in the wider sense as the psalmist sings: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein" (Ps 24,1). Rabbinic exegesis explains this passage as follows: "God is the Lord of the house because the whole earth is his property and Moses is his oikonomos." The Torah is the rule in this house to protect life in God's household.

The Bible has many pictures for God including Father, Lord, rock, shepherd and king. The Biblical names for God describe God's relation to people and his creation. When the Bible speaks of God who preserves and renews life, God appears as an economist concerned for the oikos. God richly supplied the creation with goods and in the Torah gives rules of the house for the just management of these goods. In the all-embracing horizon of creation as a household, God's economy consists in realizing God's justice. God entrusts people with stewardship of what belongs to God. The human calling to be a steward is a high calling. God makes the person his steward. The steward is empowered to manage creation in God's name. The person as steward represents God the steward. The person's economic task is to manage God's household as a faithful steward caring for the life of the inhabitants of the household. God the steward makes all people into neighbors. According to the Biblical understanding, the economy is concerned for the house of creation and responsible command of a household where people live together, not the theory of an optimal profit economy.


How can everyday life together and the economy be regulated in the small economic space of the house and in the larger more comprehensive house of the whole creation? The Bible includes the prophets' criticism of injustice and a labor-, economic and social law with practical instructions on just economics in the house of creation. The heart of the Biblical economy is the Sabbath. Therefore the Biblical economy can be called a Sabbath economy. Sabbath means resting and interruption. Thus the center of the Biblical Sabbath is a paradox. A non-economic term that stresses the interruption of the economy is economically reasonable. The economy itself cannot say what is economically rational. It must be told what is economically rational. Against an economistic circular reasoning, the Sabbath refers to non-economic ethical aspects for what is economically rational.


The Sabbath, that interruption of the economy and work every seventh day, is the answer to the question: Should all life stand under the maxims of the economy? The oldest version of the Sabbath command says explicitly that work ends. In plowing time and in harvest, you shall rest (Ex 34,21). An economy of scarcity dismisses this definition as economically foolish. The Sabbath is mentioned for the first time in the Bible in the narrative. The harvest of the "bread of heaven" over six days suffices for the seventh day (Ex 16,4-30). The temptation that starts from this bread of heaven consists in its abundance, not in its scarcity or absence. Opposing the human nature of coveting and amassing is vital. Amos criticizes the traders who questioned him: "When will the Sabbath be over, that we may sell grain?"

From the beginning, the Sabbath was not cultic but socially grounded. Therefore the Sabbath can be regarded as a culmination of social achievement. The Sabbath protects the servant from the claims of the work master. The Sabbath is a symbol for an economy that knows the category of enou9gh. The Sabbath breaks through a relation of work and rest defined as performance and recovery. "Sabbath means something other than only regenerating efficiency. The Sabbath is a place where prosperity is lived and not interrupted materially. Work in itself is not prohibited but rather work oriented in the economy.

What is special in the institution of the Sabbath is not only that work or trade and commerce, profiteering, regularly comes to a standstill. The Sabbath stands for a third time beyond work and rest. Work in itself is not forbidden but that work in which dependent workers are forced. The meaning of the Sabbath consists in being freed from goal-oriented instrumental time and becoming free for other activities beyond instrumental goals. The servants and maids who are always under pressure and must provide for their livelihood toil on instruction of their masters. They should have space for other life possibilities.

Erich Fromm understood the Sabbath in the rabbinic interpretation tradition as the day when the person lives "as though he had nothing and followed no goal aside from being, that is exercising essential abilities or powers - praying, studying, eating, drinking, singing and loving." The Sabbath that regularly interrupts workdays as a symbol for a freedom that knows work and production on the six workdays suffice for a creation of abundance and therefore gives freedom for interruption.

The seventh day is free for other activities beyond the economically useful, namely for cultural and communicative activities. Productive work committed to an economic goal should come to a standstill. The Sabbath recurring weekly is the weekly protest against an economizing of all areas of life. The opposite of efficiency should be attained: letting go and not realizing all possible production- and working time, resting of the person and nature and not realizing possibilities for more profit and wealth.


The Bible knows social inequalities arise inevitably. It shares this insight with modern capitalism. But unlike modern capitalism, the Bible does not conclude inequality is a permanent condition. Rather the Torah teaches that the fundamental model structures of a society organized for riches and power should be dismantled in an orderly way. The Jubilee year is an institution that suspends cyclical accumulation= and impoverishment processes. Every 50 years everyone can return to his property (Lev 25). Indebtedness is cancelled and a general new beginning is made possible. The vicious circle of poverty is interrupted. Whoever is impoverished need not always remain impoverished. Whoever is enriched must reimburse. These are the liberating maxims.


Aristotle cited the statesman Solon (640-560 B.C.) who said: "No limits are set to human riches." Like Aristotle, the Biblical tradition rejects the boundlessness of the capital acquisition society with its "endless coveting." Kohelet said similarly: "Whoever loves money never has enough money" (Koh 5,9). Because God like a good economist cares for the rich supply of earthly goods, economic life involves abundance in creation, not a scarcity of goods. In Psalm 104, we read: "You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen his heart" (Ps 104,14f). An economy that starts from the abundance of goods is obliged to the social and ecological context of creation and thematicizes questions of just life together while an economy of scarcity focuses structurally on growth, wages and conflict over scarce goods.

The economy of the Torah's economic virtue is an attitude of trust in the goodness of the Creator and in the abundance of creation. In contrast, the economic virtue in the capital acquisition economy is structurally greed, which is rejected by many ancient authors as bad habits, and vice are disapproved in the Bible (Hab 2,6ff; Prov 11,28; 33,11; 28,25; Ps 119,36). Since everyone as a steward must deal with the entrusted creation, solidarity in human relations is the consequence, not selfish economic relations. On the other hand in an economy of scarcity, an attitude prevails that growth and profit will remove scarcity. Scarcities affect interpersonal relations. People compete with one another for the scarce goods. Power relations among people and between people and contemporaries are the result.

Two opposite economic virtues characterize human social relations corresponding to the two opposite economies: the economy of enrichment with the virtue greed and competitive interpersonal relations and secondly the economy of trust in the good creation with solidarity relations. The enrichment is redistributed through the Sabbath rule and does not serve the produced surplus. A free seventh day, a Sabbath year for the land and for those who till the land is a method for redistributing social production. A good life in freedom from economic pressures is the social utopia of the economy of the Bible, not accumulation and enrichment.

Whether the economy of antiquity was structured in a free enterprise way is very controversial. Beyond this conflict, a substantial point of comparison of the ancient economy and the economy of the modern age is underlined by the important Swiss economist Hans Christoph Binswanger: "The driving force of the money- and market-economy marked by acquisitive economics is the pursuit of profit." Even if a fully developed market system first developed in the industrial revolution of the 18th/19th century, the mechanisms and mainsprings of the market economy with its supportive motive of the pursuit of profit were already set out in antiquity and in the meantime grew into a powerful example out of germinating beginnings. Therefore Binswanger says: "If we want to better understand our current economy, we must return to its ancient roots and the astute analyses and proposals of the earlier time to gain guidelines for our own conduct."

The Torah had to confront market mechanisms. The Torah regulated the market with instruments that restrained the heart of the market mechanism, namely the profit motive. The Sabbath with its interruption of working hours, the Sabbath year with its regular fallow land and the Jubilee year correct the accumulation process and suspend indebtedness processes. The profit motive or Biblically expressed greed may not be lived out. That is the theme intended with these regulations. In the Old Testament stock of ideas, profit, riches and property as results of striving for possessions are in no way rejected. However greed has a generally negative sound. The Bible agrees with all antiquity that striving for profit should not be rewarded. The pursuit of gain is kept within bounds by an inner and an outer limit. The inner limit comes through ethical training and the outer limit through the legal Sabbath regulations.

The Biblical understanding of economy is not simply antique and therefore outdated. From its origin, the economy of the Bible was in no way a medium for unlimited growth. Rather rational association with goods with the goal of repairing deficiency is central. An economy organized this way fits in the larger household of life. Such an economy acts out "I am my brother's keeper."

The Biblical economic idea of caring focuses on fellow persons while the market economy expects its efficiency from the pursuit of self-interest. Neither the Torah nor Aristotle abandons fulfilling the economic task of concern for the household only to the processes of the market. They urge a controlling and regulating intervention in market processes so the economy can do justice to the needs of everyone in the household. This means raising the question about the task and goal of the economy.


According to the Nobel Prize winner and economist Paul Samuelson, every economy regardless of its stage of development or its system faces three basic economic questions: "What should be produced and in what quantity? How should it be produced? For whom should it be produced?" These three basic questions have an economic nature and an ethical dimension. How does the Torah answer these basic economic questions?


"You water in furrows abundantly, softening it with showers," (Ps 65,10). Therefore the economy is not associated with shortages but with trust in the riches of creation. The creation produces everything necessary for good life. Sufficiency, not efficiency, is the principle of conduct. The law of scarcity starts from the assumption that the existing goods of creation are not enough. Therefore the scarcity theorem requires unlimited growth and doesn't know any enough. An economy out of trust in the goods of creation knows moderation.

Since enough exists, the person is liberated from orienting his life interest only in economic needs. He or she is free for the things essential in life. The Biblical economy of enough is an economy of abundant life. It starts from the fact that the category "enough" cannot be defined economically but is a cultural reality. The creation is the measure and the creation is overabundant. Therefore there is enough in resources.


The labor- and social law of the Torah includes ideas of just working conditions. This law seeks to prevent a relapse into Egyptian conditions of slave labor. Therefore Israel remembers experiences of oppression and justifies the protective social regulations with the formula "You shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt" (Dtn 24,28 and elsewhere). Take sides for the weak out of remembrance of Egyptian conditions and institute a legal order that protects the poor and weak and sets limits to exploitation of human labor power. The human claims to a good life have priority over the claims of the economy.


The guideline of the political economy of the Torah is that standard for a just cooperative life expressed in the admonition "But there will be no poor among you" (Deut 15,4). Justice should be executed for the poor. The heart of Biblical ethics is the option for the poor turning against exclusion of people from society and urging social integration. The economic logic of sharing and solidarity are in force in the household. Since God richly outfitted his creation, distribution justice is the guiding economic norm, not increasing efficiency or productivity at any price. Therefore God is described in the psalm: "God executes justice for the oppressed - and gives food to the hungry" (Ps 146,7). God the economist wants people to manage in creation according to his model.


Jesus was a Jew and lived the Sabbath and the hope that people liberated from the burden of debts could till the ground in tranquility and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Jesus cherished these hopes of his contemporaries when he described his mission in the synagogue of Jerusalem. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Lk 4,18f). Debt cancellation is a Jubilee year, freedom for those fallen in debt bondage. "He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away" (Lk 1,53).

The Sabbath year tradition left behind traces in the gospels. The conflicts around the Sabbath are worked out by the gospels. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." The same word (aphiemi) is used here for "forgive sins" and "release from debts." Unlike our society that refuses to see the economic dimension of moral offenses, the gospels do not spiritualize sins. Sins and debts are connected. Both times we become responsible or culpable to one another,

How often should one forgive? Seven times seventy times Jesus answers in allusion to the seven times seven years of the Jubilee year that began with the Day of Reconciliation. Jesus' orientation according to the spirit of reconciliation of the Jubilee year is also clear in his efforts to build community between groups that were disunited for economic reasons. Jesus' love and affection reached out to tax collectors who lived from exploiting people and collecting tolls for the Romans. Luke begins and ends with stories like this. Jesus' call leads Levi to abandon his tax business (Lk 5,27-32). Zacchaus wanted to compensate for his economic harm. Exploitation should be removed.

So much for these references to the Sabbath. The early church lived the Sabbath economy. The most striking example is the Pentecost account of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The apostles proclaimed the resurrection and Christians sold their property. No one called anything his own. Dtn 15,4 proclaims a social program: "But there will be no poor among you." In Acts we read, "There was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4,34)... Justice or restitution of social justice is the central economic standard.


The Sabbath economy of the Bible is diametrically opposed to two basic presuppositions of the modern capital-oriented economy: the scarcity postulate and the theory of unlimited needs. Both basic presuppositions assume a growth mechanism that is not ideologically viable and leads nationally and globally to an unbearable social division. Biblical instructions from an agricultural society more than 2000 years ago cannot be made into standards of modern economics. Important basic ethical decisions and priorities that can be converted creatively and innovatively in new social and economic constellations come from the Bible, not answers to economic problems facing the modern economic age.

In its more than 1000-year genesis, the Bible also knew an inner-Biblical process of dynamicizing its own tradition guided by one theme: creating justice for the weak. The inner-testamental reception history is a creative dynamicizing relation of the Bible with its own tradition. New Testament scriptures underscore Jesus' conflicts around the Sabbath. Crucial norms and values pervade the Biblical tradition. The one obligation of the Torah "creating justice for the weak" must be modernized in ever-new social and economic situations. What is said to the old is still true and confirmed but not as a final word. God's will must be reinterpreted in changing situations. In the Bible, there is a process of interpretation so the economy serves life, humankind and justice.


Arnold Kunzli, "Housing as a Human Right" (2003)

Eberhard Jungel, "Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard"
(on the reversal of values and setting people over profit)

Jorg Goldberg, "The Cure is the Sickness"
(on IMF, World Bank and WTO policies of deregulation, privatization and opening/liberalizing markets)

homepage: homepage: http://www.mbtranslations.com
address: address: http://www.jcrelations.net

One must remember. 09.Sep.2008 12:14

exile portlander_in_exile@yahoo.com

The accumulation of debt, and rampant consumption are inherently anti-spiritual. That is a common thread in many faiths.

Buddha teaches that non-attachement to impermanent things is crucial to the path to enlightenment.

Jesus teaches that God always provides what is needed, if not always what is wanted.

We do live in a world of plenty. We are led to believe that there is scarcity, as a way to motivate consumption. We are told that wants are needs, and without those wants, we suffer. The reality is, that eventually, your possessions, combined with your debts become the new slaver's chains. There comes a time, when it's important to re-visit exactly what "Needs" are, and scale our existence to suit. That very belief is what the powerful fear. Because, once you don't "need", you will live without fear. Without the aspect of fear, as a motivating factor in consumption, the non-sustainable pace of economic expansion is halted