Economics God’s Way (3)
“‘If a man dedicates to the LORD part of a field of his possession, then your valuation shall be according to the seed for it. A homer of barley seed shall be valued at fifty shekels of silver.’” Leviticus 27.16
Price-fixing and price-gouging
It is not my purpose fully to elaborate the teaching of Scripture concerning economic activity in the divine economy. I am not an economist, but a theologian. Rather, my purpose is to examine various contemporary policies and practices against the guidelines of justice and neighbor-love sketched out in Scripture. If the Law of God, for example, could help us find ways of maintaining more reliable prices for goods and services, that would be a solid contribution to benefit all members of the economy, easing the burdens of such capitalistic ills as price-fixing, price-gouging, and inflation.
Price-fixing occurs when manufacturers or service providers collude to raise prices beyond what the market might prescribe. Price-gouging is that practice whereby one who monopolizes a market drives the prices up simply because he can. Over the years, government has established a wide range of public policies to minimize these practices, establishing watch-dog agencies or requiring various kinds of disclosure.
Where inflation is concerned, however, government is often the primary cause.
These price-destabilizing ills always work to the disadvantage of the consumer, which is why, in the Law of God, efforts were made to discourage arbitrary price-setting or price-fixing of any kind. Contemporary disapproval of such practices reflects a deep-seated sense of the justice of God’s Law and the importance of neighbor-love. Since God has written the works of the Law on the heart of all His image-bearers (Rom. 2.14, 15), we should expect that awareness (if only subconsciously) to find expression. Put another way, whether they know it or not, people long for an economy guided by Biblical principles and guidelines.
Fair and stable
The Law of God curbs price-fixing and price-gouging. The Law was given to help ensure that prices would be fair and stable. Prices—as well as money—were linked to grain, which was the staple of the Israelite economy. In a real sense, grain was the “gold standard” of Israel’s economy, since grain, more than silver or gold, was needed for survival and available to everyone.
A certain measure of grain was worth so many shekels. The value of a shekel, in turn, was determined by how much grain it could purchase. To charge more for a “homer of barley” than what the Law prescribed—fifty shekels of silver—would have been folly, since no one would pay it, fairer prices being available almost everywhere; and the seller might be charged with fraud or attempted theft. If found guilty by local judges, one who sought unlawfully to manipulate prices might be required to restore justice by giving the goods originally sought plus a percentage more.
The price of grain set the standard for other prices because it set the value of money. The fact that the people of Israel in the Old Testament routinely ignored these laws, often seeking ways to take advantage of their neighbors rather than love them, does not negate the importance or value of the approach to prices indicated in various places in the Law.
Prices of land
The price of land was attached, in the Law of God, to the amount of grain that could be harvested annually within a certain period and the number of years of harvests remaining before the Sabbath Year or Jubilee.God thus discouraged buying and selling of land for profit—real estate speculation. Tribes and families were assigned a certain portion of land to occupy and work. They were to understand that the earth is the Lord’s and that He created it to bear fruit. Those who held God’s land in trust were expected to “exercise dominion” over His property to honor Him, benefit themselves, and bless their neighbors. Landowners could lease or sell portions of their land, but only for a short time. The land would be returned to the family of its original “owners” (stewards) in the Jubilee Year.
Thus, one who was hoping to benefit by purchasing property would have to make sure he could harvest enough grain during the time he would own the property to justify the expense of it. Even then, he would hardly expect to do more than break even, since the price of grain was set to fifty shekels per homer (of barley).
It is unlikely, under such an economy, that housing “booms” and “busts” or “land wars” would have been much of a concern.
Undoubtedly, within the economy outlined in God’s Law, prices could fluctuate somewhat, but probably not much. Since the value of money was rigorously conserved (as we have seen), just and honest measures were enforced, and sellers and buyers were expected to treat one another and all their neighbors with love, it’s hard to imagine that inflation would have been able to make much headway in the economy outlined by the Law of God.
The Book of Revelation notes the injustice of an economy which favors the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the people through the manipulation of prices (cf. Rev. 6.6). Such injustice would be unthinkable in a society where the Law of God set the standards and parameters for economic activity. This was almost never the case in ancient Israel, which struggled throughout its existence to obey the Law of God; however, this fact should not be allowed to obscure the Law’s power to ensure stable prices on goods and services.
While we do not expect to return to a “grain-standard” for the American economy, still, we might give more thought as to what we can learn about maintaining individual buying power over time through a more careful examination of the principles of economic justice embedded in the Law of God. Especially inflationary is the cavalier way government creates money which has no backing in the pursuit of political objectives. Every increase in the money supply destabilizes the prices of most goods and services at the same time it devalues the currency. And inflationary policies make government both a price-fixer and a price-gouger.
We should pursue public policies which make it possible for people to count on stable purchasing-power over time. Seeking policies that are more in line with the mind of God, as this is revealed in His Law, can help us to get beyond those practices that destabilize our current economy to work for policies that encourage justice and neighbor-love.
1. In what ways has your own “economy” been affected by rising prices in recent years?
2. Why do governments “inflate” the money supply? How would the Law of God judge such a practice? Do we need policies to curtail such activity? Explain.
3. In what sense is government “guilty” of the eighth and ninth commandments by these inflationary policies?
Next steps—Preparation: Add to your prayers for the people in civil government that they would cease and decry all inflationary policies and seek policies more in line with economics God’s way.
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Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.