What is the best economic system for humanity? Is it individualistic “free enterprise”? Or a more community-oriented system that tries to limit inequality? These questions cause heated arguments in our societies all the time. But what does God think?

The modern theories of capitalism and socialism were invented a very long time after the Bible was written. Nevertheless, hundreds of books and articles attempt to prove that the Bible endorses one or the other of these economic theories. In actual fact, the Torah and subsequent books do give some recommendations for how humans should run an economy, but these do not fit neatly into our ideas of either “capitalism” or “socialism.” They make more sense in the context of the Ancient Near East, where other societies had some laws that were similar and others that differed.

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Here are some of the fundamental principles of the economic system given in the Hebrew Torah (verses separated by slashes have different numbers in Hebrew and in English):

– If you have money, you are obligated to lend it at no interest to a fellow citizen who is in need. (Exod 22:24/25; Lev 25:35-38; Deut 15:7-10, 23:19-20/20-21)

– All debts of citizens are cancelled every seven years. (Deut 15:1-3)

Every fifty years, most real estate reverts to the original (ancestral) family of owners. (Lev 25:8-34)

– The “productive” citizenry must contribute to support the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows. People who have produce must invite these potentially needy others to feast together with them. (Deut 14:22-29)

– Producers must intentionally leave some of their produce to be taken for free by the needy. (Lev 19:9-10, 23:22)

Thieves must pay back 4-5 times the value of what they stole. (Exod 21:37/22:1)

Poor and rich are equal before the law. (Lev 19:15)

All this amounts to neither capitalism nor socialism – but rather a vision of a completely different kind of world. The Torah does not argue about modern economic theory, but it does propose a radically different way to live as human beings in society!

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31 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve been asking this sincere question of any and all Torah scholars I can. Torah has many statues on tithing, leaving the corners of the fields, taking care of the widows, orphans and poor, etc…

    What enforcement mechanism was prescribed by God in his Torah? Was there a Levitical tithing police the measured your crop output and compared it to the amount tithed making sure the correct percentage or someone measured the field corners for a certain measurement?

    • This is a very interesting question, Luis, and hard to answer in a few words. The Torah is addressed to the nation of Israel — but also to individuals. Some provisions cannot really be enforced by any human authority (e.g., “You shall not hate your brother in your heart”; Lev 19:17). The same verse continues to urge dialogue among individuals as one way of avoiding transgression. If people had further complaints, they could go before local judges and elders. If someone withheld what was legally due the poor or Levites, for example, they could be brought to such a trial. Even in cases of other serious crimes like murder, the local community was to be involved (not just some separate policing force). There is another question about whether this system was ever fully implemented in practice or not.

  2. It seems the economic system of a generous being is what is being commanded. The reverse is also implicit; being able to receive with gratitude and humility, the latter being the most difficult of the two for me. Sowing and reaping is the economic system used in HIS kingdom with one judging and policing all circumstances; Hos 10:12, Mat 6:26, Isa 24:1-3, Jer 25:11 (policing), etc. This system of sowing and reaping, economically speaking, is just a shadow or example for us to conduct ourselves within as we store treasure where moth and rust do not have any effect.
    J.

  3. It would appear that God’s ideas about stewardship include a strong reminder that human beings are not owners but caretakers, and that the original caretakers ultimately are responsible for the resources and land assigned to them and their progeny. God owns it all. We merely are responsible to partner with Him in best practices and our generous giving of what we have been entrusted to care for.

  4. Thanks for the post, very enlightening. To digress a bit, is political activism (championing the policies of a political party) frowned upon by the Torah, or is it an individual’s right to choose? How about voting?

    • Thank you, Thandu! Like capitalism and socialism, modern democratic politics developed long after the Torah. In ancient times life was less segmented — religion, economics, politics, etc. all formed part of a more holistic lifestyle. The Torah emphasizes choosing and pursuing the right or just way of living in society (e.g., Deut 16:20). Even in ancient times, that may have had some elements we would call “democratic” (e.g., a couple verses earlier, 16:18). Personally, I think equivalent behavior today could include political activism (though not slavish conformity to any party or group) together with pursuing justice/goodness in other areas, too.

  5. The Testament say much more than that. A superficial survey just of the Psalms alone reveals that God has a very clear bias towards the poor and the destitute. This is confirm by many other verses in the rest of the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament. See for example the economic system of the early Christians in the Book of Acts. All of that leads me to conclude that the Bible favours an economic system based on the principles of socialism.

    • Thank you, Nosey! This article mentions only a few of the principles in the Hebrew Torah, but do stay tuned for potential further discussion on similar themes in other writings. I don’t know if “bias” is exactly the right word, but in the Biblical portrayal God is clearly very concerned that the poor should be treated justly.

  6. In Genesis 47, a socialist or even communist society is described. It is called slavery in the Bible. I do like your emphasis on a different kind of economic system. What we have today is not capitalism as Adam Smith would define it, but corporatism, which is a bridge to socialism.

  7. God wants his children to become pure in heart, consecrated, emulate His love. God’s leads by gentle persuasion, not force. The ultimate example of God’s law was Enoch’s society. Man’s economic systems do not accomplish God’s purposes, but lead to pride and rebellion from God. Socialism is a Satan counterfeit that purports love, but does not purify man; and brutally enforced leads to poverty and enslavement, millions murdered to enforce this counterfeit. Socialism is a “tower of Babel” rebellion from God. “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it” {Psalm 127:1}.

    • Thank you for commenting, Paul. I think “the devil is in the details”! Some people live in a “socialist” way with true love and blessing for others, and some people live in a “capitalist” mode with selfishness and greed. People can choose good or evil under either system. What I’ve tried to suggest in the article is that the economic system in Torah, while it may overlap in some ways with modern socialism or capitalism, is not exactly one or the other. Rather, it seems to be based on a radical lifestyle of proclaiming and expressing love and concern for individuals and the whole society.

  8. God is not biased towards the poor and destitute, everyone is equal before him, rich and poor. God is concerned for the poor, the stranger, the widow, the disadvantaged, the sick and infirm and others and if we are to be his true followers so should we be. The rich are especially called to take care of the poor Jer 22:13-16 shows what God requires of us.

  9. IMO: Free market capitalism with a huge safety net seems to be the plan. Nothing like today’s corporatism. Also included: the stewardship and care-taking of the environment. All men may be created equal, but due to free will, all are not equal. Therefore free choice determines each person’s lot in life and their inheritance

    • Thank you for these thoughts! I can certainly sympathize with some of these sentiments. But don’t you think that more than free choice determines a person’s lot in life (even in the kind of society you describe, let alone in less free ones)? We make some choices, certainly, but can’t choose most things about ourselves or our circumstances.

  10. Thanks Dr Gruber for your answer to my questions. I read Deut 16:18-20. I also read 2 Timothy 2:4. How would you unpack this metaphor? Seems like Paul discourages Timothy from getting entangled in civilian matters.

    • Thanks, Thandu. The original question of course related to the Hebrew Torah. However, if we examine the first-century text you mentioned with its context, I think we see that it doesn’t actually address the question of political activism. Paul/Saul urges Timothy to “suffer together” (2:3). In typical manner, he then gives an analogy — actually three analogies in a row — to help flesh out this point. The analogies concern a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer (2:4-6). In my understanding, this text isn’t saying to imitate the specific actions of any of these three types, but rather their determination and perseverance through difficulty to reach a goal.

  11. Dr Gruber, kindly direct me to any website, article, videos that will explain the correct meaning of “we are not under Torah, but under Grace”. To be under Torah, does it mean a Christ following Jew who is obliged to keep the entire Torah? And under Grace, does it mean Jews and non-Jews Christ believers being led by the Spirit to live righteously with non-Jews Christ believers, not really obligated to keep the entire Torah, but still keeping it? Lastly, any article or link that will explain Col 2:14-18 will be appreciated.

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Anna Gromova
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