As the 2008 financial crisis receded, U.S. household wealth rebounded by this year to the astounding record of $89 trillion.
In contributing toward this milestone, many people feel a lingering uneasiness, that the accumulation of such wealth is somehow unrighteous.
At first glance, even the Bible seems to provide contradictory assessments about wealth.
For example, Israel’s prophets decried the rich as unrighteous, yet the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob individually possessed great wealth. Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor, yet Jesus himself rose out of a tomb provided by the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea.
To resolve this apparent conundrum, we examined every case in the Bible where an individual was identified as having substantial material possessions and the means of acquiring these goods was disclosed. We found that in the 21 cases meeting these criteria, the means of acquisition was a reliable indicator of whether a person received approval or disapproval.
On one hand, riches were condemned if one party gained at the expense of another, a situation economists call a “zero-sum game.” On the other hand, wealth was commended if it was accumulated through “positive-sum games,” which economists describe as mutually beneficial, voluntary transactions. Though stewardship and orientation of the heart are also biblically significant, a focus on the means of acquisition can lead to helpful insights in an exponentially changing economic environment.
In a biblical context, farming grain would be a quintessential example of a positive-sum game.
A farmer uses only seeds, sunlight, land and labor to harvest a wealth of wheat in a way that does not directly harm other farmers. Shepherding sheep was likewise a common positive-sum game in the ancient world. Mining, digging wells, crafting leather and engaging in voluntary trade were further examples of mutually beneficial activities.
From this perspective, it is clear the patriarch Isaac became wealthy through a positive-sum game: He sowed in that land and reaped hundredfold in the same year. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich and gained more and more until he became very wealthy (Genesis 26:12-16).
Job was likewise recognized by the Lord himself as a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:8). The text specifically indicates that his vast wealth was generated from the positive-sum herding of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys, such that Job was “the greatest of all the people of the East” (Job 1:1-3).
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul worked with Aquila and Priscilla as tentmakers by trade (Acts 18:1-4). This occupation created wealth through manufacturing and value through trade. Other positive examples of wealth include the prophet Samuel, King Hezekiah and landowner Boaz.
On the other hand, an example of a zero-sum game in the ancient world would be moving a boundary stone in an agricultural field so that one party gained exactly as much as another lost.
Other examples include oppression of widows and orphans, or outright stealing. James condemns rich people for the zero-sum practice of fraudulently employing workers and oppressing others through the court system: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts,” and “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” (James 5:4; 2:6)
Achan was called out by God and condemned to death for stealing portions of the plunder after the Battle of Jericho (Joshua 6:19, 24; 7:13-26), and King Ahab was likewise condemned by God for stealing the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21:17-19), just as the sons of Eli were condemned for stealing the sacrifices of worshippers (1 Samuel 2:13-16; 4:15-18).
What can be concluded from these biblical examples?
First, there is no inherent reason to feel uneasy when increasing household wealth through positive-sum games because this is commended throughout the Bible. Work is intrinsically valuable for human beings, and earning a competitive wage or an honest profit is instrumentally valuable for creating the wealth that cures poverty.
Second, accumulating riches through zero-sum games or illegal means is universally condemned in the Bible and should be avoided even today.
The Bible addresses other important considerations, such as stewardship of possessions and care for others, such that greedy motives and a health- and-wealth mindset are also wrong.
Finally, the means of acquiring possessions is a consistent indicator of whether wealth will be commended or condemned by God.
• David Kotter, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Theology for Colorado Christian University and serves as a visiting scholar for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. He formerly worked as a plant controller in the European operations of Ford Motor Co. Joshua Greever, Ph.D., is a professor of New Testament in the College of Theology at Grand Canyon University. He serves on a GCU task force for the integration of faith and learning and has a research focus on faith and work.