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Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All

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Richard A. Horsley, Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), Pp. xxi + 193. Paper, $24.95.

Review by Kirk Bane

In this insightful new study, Dr. Horsley contends that God intensely cares about economic justice. As followers of the Heavenly Father, we, too, should be deeply concerned about this vital issue. Horsley divides his book into two sections: “Economic Justice and the Common Good” and “The Renewal of Covenantal Community.” A “distinctively covenantal concern for economic rights and mutually supportive and cooperative community,” he asserts, “runs strongly throughout the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Letters of Paul.”

In Pharaoh’s Egypt, Hebrew slaves suffered both political subjugation and economic subservience. After liberating His people from imperial bondage, Yahweh blessed them with a new form of government. In the Mosaic Covenant, God “provided the guiding principles for the political-economic as well as religious life of ancient Israel.” Horsley maintains that God’s interest in His people’s economic welfare “lies at the heart of the Covenant.” According to Yahweh’s plan, every family in Israel would have a sufficient living free of poverty’s grip. Moreover, Yahweh commanded His people to assist “the poorest of the poor”: the alien, orphan, and widow. God provided land for each Israelite family, and this gift was inalienable; that is, it “could not be permanently sold or taken away.” Land ownership—though the land belonged ultimately to Yahweh—helped guarantee the economic viability of every family. The Mosaic Covenant contained other mechanisms designed to safeguard the economic well-being of God’s people. These included laws regarding gleaning, sabbatical fallow years, lending and interest, and the cancellation of debts and release of debt-slaves every seventh year. Yahweh dictated that if His people would faithfully follow these provisions, “There will thus be no one in need among you.”

Despite the warnings of Samuel—who knew that with earthly rulers came political oppression and economic exploitation—a monarchy arose in Israel. Avaricious sovereigns and their rapacious officials disregarded the Mosaic Covenant. Royals levied taxes on the people, confiscated their land (joining “house to house” and adding “field to field”), and instituted a policy of forced labor. According to 1 and 2 Kings, most monarchs “did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh.” For example, Solomon, consumed with grand construction projects, enslaved his fellow Israelites, while Ahab and Jezebel framed and executed Naboth then seized his ancestral holdings. Prophets, conscience-filled men “inspired by the spirit of Yahweh,” boldly advocated economic justice and railed against the kings and aristocrats of Israel and Judah for mistreating the people. They “charged the rulers and officers with brutal oppression of the poor, in violation of the covenantal principles given to protect them,” Horsley avers. He draws a distinction between Yahweh’s intrepid spokesmen. “Reformist” prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, and Micah, “believed that it was possible to stay with the centralized political-economic system.” Its abuses, however, must be checked “so as to achieve greater justice.” On the other hand, Jeremiah, a more “radical” prophet, “concluded that God had condemned the centralized system as hopelessly contrary to the principles of the Covenant.”

Replete with God’s energy and inspired by the prophetic example, Jesus of Nazareth courageously confronted the oppressors of his day. Clearly “concerned with economic issues,” Professor Horsley declares, Jesus focused “on the institutions, power relations, and exploitative practices that [left] the people poor, in debt, and hungry.” Beleaguered Galilean peasants suffered under multiple masters. Rome exacted tribute, Herod Antipas demanded taxes, and Jerusalem’s high priests expected tithes and offerings. Such a burdensome system led to impoverishment, despondency, instability, and the disintegration of communities. To counter this terrible situation, Jesus traveled from village to village renewing the Mosaic Covenant, emphasizing its principles of justice, economic cooperation, and mutual support. Loving God and loving your neighbor, Horsley points out, provide “a succinct summary” of the Covenant. Jesus encouraged the destitute and disheartened (“Blessed are the poor”/ “Blessed are those who hunger”/ “Blessed are those who mourn”) and castigated the affluent and arrogant (“Woe to those who are rich”/ “Woe to those who are full”/ “Woe to those who laugh.”) An economic confrontation in Jerusalem brought about the Galilean’s death. Taking his cue from Jeremiah, Jesus carried out “a forcible demonstration against the Temple,” and fearlessly denounced the chief priests for exploiting the people. The Temple had become “a brigands’ stronghold,” he charged. Mark’s Gospel “mentions three times that Jesus announced the destruction of the Temple or that he was accused of threatening to destroy it and suggests that this threat was the principal reason for his condemnation and execution (13:1-2; 14:58; 15:29).”

Paul tirelessly spread the faith throughout Rome’s empire, establishing assemblies of Christ in such cities as Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth. The majority of converts—slaves, unskilled laborers, and struggling artisans—lived at subsistence level. They worshiped an alternative sovereign (Christ Jesus not Caesar), lived justly, and willingly shared their meager possessions. Horsley focuses on Paul’s remarkably innovative collection for the needy in Jerusalem. The “international economic reciprocity” of early Christians (Greek proselytes, though hard-pressed themselves, graciously sharing their means with fellow believers in Palestine) was “unique in the Roman Empire or in any ancient empire.” Furthermore, Dr. Horsley argues, in “striking contrast with the vertical and centripetal movement of resources in [Rome’s] tributary imperial economy, Paul organized a horizontal movement of resources from one subject people to another.”

In his thought-provoking conclusion, Horsley discusses “the implications of the biblical Covenant for economics today,” a dangerous age of ravenous transnational corporations. He insists that this “unregulated global system of megacorporations is not inevitable and permanent. It can be resisted, its abuses opposed. We have the biblical examples.” By passionately pursuing economic justice, we follow in the footsteps of the prophets, the Galilean, and the Apostle Paul.

A prolific scholar, Horsley’s publications include Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, and In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance. He recently retired as Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion at the University of Massachusetts.

Covenant Economics is lucidly written, perceptive, and engaging. Students of the Bible, particularly those interested in economic justice, will appreciate Dr. Horsley’s estimable work.

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