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Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All

Richard A. Horsley
Published by Westminster John Knox in 2009

Richard Horsley attempts to employ a more nuanced, historically and socially contingent approach to the interpretation of Scripture in order to lead us to embrace a call for economic justice. The end result is an interpretation of Scripture that portrays modern market capitalism as a violation of the original covenantal principles of economic justice. For a similar polemic written from the opposite end of the continuum, I recommend E. Calvin Beisner’s, Prosperity and Poverty.1 Holding these two works up to each other for comparison helps clarify some of the crucial interpretive issues that challenge Christians of all theological and political stripes as they struggle to use the Bible to confront issues of social and economic injustice in a fallen world. In the introduction, Horsley establishes the foundational precepts on which this work builds by drawing a parallel between the founding documents of the United States and covenants of ancient societies, noting the innate spiritual dimension of all such social covenants. He continues the parallel, observing that,

[T]he people of the United States are now seeing their lives heavily determined by enormously powerful transnational corporations and their super-wealthy CEOs who claim that their only responsibility is to their investors.

This situation bears a striking resemblance to that of the ancient Hebrews caught in hard bondage under Pharaoh, the enormously powerful head of the imperial economy in Egypt. (xv)

A second key statement in this section addresses his conscious rejection of the relevance of modern economic thought, “[as m]any of its basic assumptions and concepts would be anachronistic with regard to the economic system proposed or advocated in biblical texts that originated in the ancient world” (xviii). One can sense the inevitable collision emerging between a market economy and the true Old Testament covenant because of this assumed anachronism.

In Part 1 of the book, Horsley focuses upon the nature of covenantal relationships in ancient civilizations, emphasizing the way in which non-Jewish covenants spiritualize economic and political hierarchies in order to justify existing exploitative relationships. For Horsley, the essential difference between the Jewish covenant and that of other nations was its emphasis upon the worship of a deity who demands the establishment of non-exploitative socio-economic relationships. The second of the Ten Commandments, which appears on the surface to be a “spiritual” command to not worship false gods, is thus in reality a rejection of the exploitative socio-economic relationships which these idols are used to support (24, 25). Continuing this argument Horsley asserts that “each of the last six or seven commandments serves to protect people’s rights in a particular key area of societal life . . .rights that were basically economic” (31). In chapter 3, Horsley unpacks the historical and sociological contextualization of his interpretation of the original covenant. He argues that the true origin of the people of Israel was most likely a group of independent, subsistence-level agrarian communities dominated by familial ties, rather than an invading group of foreigners. Horsley observes that such isolated agrarian societies had, and still have, at their heart a set of moral and economic relationships which demand mutual support and assistance (36, 37). These principles, “rooted in and dependent on the sharing in the local community,’’ later became codified in the Pentateuch (38, 39). The polarity of Horsley’s and Beisner’s interpretation of these same biblical texts is most salient at this point.

Beisner argues that the Jubilee year provisions “protected the lender ’s property by ensuring repayment of the debt; it protected the borrower’s property by ensuring the return of collateral after repayment” (64). Similarly, the remission of debt in Deuteronomy 15 was merely a temporary “sabbatical” of payments to compensate for the fact that the land was to remain fallow and thus not yield sufficient returns to enable continued payment of the loan (62). Horsley, in contrast, sees these passages as explicitly protecting the interests of the poor and powerless individuals of society: “Like many peasant societies . . . Israel evolved certain customary practices, framed as laws in biblical law codes, to aid the poor” (39). Accordingly, the Jubilee year reflects earlier societal codes and involved “not a mere moratorium or postponement, but a cancellation of debts” (45). Thus Deuteronomy 15:4, as Horsley notes, is “bluntly explicit: ‘There will thus be no one in need among you’” (45). Problems arose for Israelite society, according to Horsley, when they abandoned the original covenant for the establishment of a monarchy establishing a “new ‘Davidic’ covenant . . . [which] asserted that the king was not subject to the Mosaic covenant” (57, 62). Despite being forewarned of the consequences, the Israelites ultimately succumbed to the same type of economic oppression experienced by the monarchical societies which surrounded them, where “any protestor challenge was defined as a threat to the sacred economy of the divine cosmos” (62).

The next several chapters then examine the remainder of the Old Testament as reflecting an ongoing struggle between those desiring to restore the original covenant, those attempting to moderate the worst offenses but maintain the monarchy, and those rejecting the covenant in order to protect their own positions as part of the ruling elite. Chapter 5, entitled “Prophetic Condemnation of Economic Exploitation,” introduces the view that the prophets Elijah and Elisha “led at least some of the peasants in what must have been local revolts against the monarchy (I Kgs. 17-19)” (66). Horsley argues that the ultimate sin of the people of Israel was the exploitation of the poor by its ruling elite, who in their own sinful depravity attempted to lead the people to worship these other exploitative gods. Familiar passages from Amos, Micah, Hosea and Isaiah are presented which overtly condemn both the exploitative and immoral behavior of the rich and powerful. The book of Jeremiah, he asserts, goes even further, “suggesting that the Temple, along with the practices of the monarchy, are in violation of the whole covenant (Jer. 7:9-10)” (74). This is contrasted with the subsequent moderating attempts to edit and compile the covenant books of the Pentateuch that produced inevitable conflicts within the Old Testament itself: “[Editors of t]he book of Exodus, by inserting requirements of centralization of festivals into the covenant making at Sinai, gave the authority of the Mosaic Covenant to the very centralizing reforms that in effect violated it” (77). In Part 2, Horsley argues that it then remains for the coming Messiah to restore the original covenant.

The Jesus depicted by Horsley is much closer to the social revolutionary he was accused of being in Luke 23:1-2 as he was brought before Pilate: “Jesus carries out his renewal of Israel over against the rulers of Israel, the priestly aristocracy appointed by the Romans, and the scribes and Pharisees who represent the Jerusalem temple“ (115). He further argues that Jesus’ focus on Galilee was not mere prophetic fulfillment, but rather a direct appeal to a segment of Jewish society who “still lived on their ancestral inheritance of lands . . . [But] under pressure for tithes, taxes and tribute . . . had fallen into debt and long exhausted the possibility of loans from other villagers” (91). It is to this highly receptive Galilean audience that Jesus thus directed his call to renew the true covenant with its provision for economic justice. In chapter 7, Horsley lays out the explicit call for the covenant renewal by treating the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 as one continuous narrative, and presenting it in what he believes to be a more authentic poetic form (103-106). Jesus begins with the requisite blessings and curses, and then “calls the people to embody the justice they are receiving in God’s blessings in their socio-economic relations with one another” (107). Chapters 9 and 10 extend this to analyze how this “village” covenantal ethic of interdependence was expressed radically and more universally both in the communities of believers founded by Paul and in the communities of Judean believers described in the book of Matthew (147). One anticipates that the following summary section will then bring this discussion up to date with specific applications for modern market economies, but this chapter will leave even sympathetic readers disappointed.

The last chapter begins with an open admission that the author is inadequately trained in economics to address questions of how all this can be applied in a modern market economy (165). He notes again that in the modern market economy it is large corporations that act as the oppressors, and it is the specter of the “globalization” of this power that must be our greatest fear (167). What remains is a rather anemic call to seek some “complex array of mechanisms to protect people’s economic rights” (177). Whatever one’s take on this call, its theological basis appears less than compelling: The reader is asked to place his or her confidence in an interpretation of Biblical sources which, according to Horsley, are a compilation of inherently conflicting perspectives generated in varied historical and cultural situations. Combined with the admitted anachronistic nature of the “true” original covenant, one is left with the sense that any well articulated call for modern economic justice must find its ultimate source somewhere other than the Bible.

Cite this article
Roger D. Johnson, “Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 333-336


  1. E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity (Westchester,IL: Crossways Books, 1988).

Roger D. Johnson

Messiah University
Roger D. Johnson, Economics, Messiah College