In the Beginning—Economics?

By Michael Thigpen May. 9, 2017 9:00 a.m. Biblical Exposition, Culture, Old Testament, Theology

The account of humanity’s creation in the image of God in Genesis 1:26-28, is specifically crafted to lead the reader to conclude that God’s intended outcome, his purpose for creating humanity in his image, was to create flourishing communities, not just flourishing individuals. The cultural or creation mandate as it has been called—God’s command to be fruitful, multiply, fill and subdue the earth, and to rule over the living things on the earth—is rightly seen as a command to fulfill God’s intention. Humanity is to fill the earth and bring about flourishing.

As clear as this divine intention is in the text, there are many questions which surround the mandate now that we live in a post Genesis 3 world. True human flourishing is more than economics and advancement. It includes a right relationship with God, healthy relationships with others, and a God-honoring relationship with the creation itself. Without each of these there may be glimpses of flourishing, an echo of the goodness seen in God’s intent for humanity, but not true flourishing. Yet, human flourishing is not less than economics.

Notice how Jesus weaves together these ideas in the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not be anxious . . . but seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:25-33). What are “these things” to which he refers?—our lives, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear. It is not the case that these are unimportant things, that they are excluded from the flourishing life of the kingdom. Far from that, we ought not worry about them because our Father knows our needs, and just as he cares about the intimate details of the animal world we are to oversee, so too, he cares for us. Yet, the most important thing is to pursue our relationship with him, the kingdom and his righteousness. To put it in Genesis terms, we need to realize he is our creator and we are made in his image, and now we are recreated, born again in Christ. That is foundational to the activities and needs of flourishing that are found in the mandate’s commands.

So flourishing in both the Old and New Testaments is more than economics, but it is not less than that. So if we are to understand our flourishing we must situate work appropriately. This is all the more critical today, as we live in a culture where economics—that is to say, business and work—is increasingly seen to be the source of what is wrong and not an essential component of flourishing.

Much has been written about God’s work in the act of creation, and Adam and Eve’s work in the garden. These provide good resources for considering business and economics, but they don’t give us the whole picture. We also need to focus on the mandate itself and its relationship to economics. Follow along with me for a little thought experiment. Let’s explore what the mandate’s fulfillment might have looked like before sin.

Humanity is to be fruitful and multiply. Initially this will require Adam and Eve to have children and for their children to have children, and so on. Eventually Adam and Eve’s house will grow beyond its capacity and new homes will be built. Eden’s garden will be expanded into new territory and eventually whole new settlements will arise.

Now with this geographical spread will all humanity continue to farm exactly as Adam and Eve have been doing in the garden? Are there places they will live where herding is better than farming? Are there places where sheep will do better than cattle? Will every community have sufficient wood, bitumen for waterproofing, stone for quarrying?

Consider the description of the rivers flowing out of Eden in Genesis 2:10-14. Havilah has good gold. If Havilah’s gold is noted for its quality, it seems to imply that other places have gold, but of lesser quality. Havilah has bdellium and onyx. Again this implies that some places, even in the perfect world of Genesis 1 and 2, do not have bdellium and onyx.

Although subtle, the text indicates that business, specifically trade, will be necessary for each community to gain resources that are not found locally. This will be a requirement, not an option, once humanity truly spreads across the face of the earth. Even without currency as we know it, trade, the equitable exchange of goods, will allow each community to utilize its resources to gain what it needs from another community, while at the same time enriching the other community with goods they need.

Let’s continue the experiment just a bit further, outside Genesis 1 and 2. What about the unique skills of individuals? Shortly after the fall we are introduced to a myriad of specialized occupations like shepherds, farmers, musicians, and metal workers (Genesis 4:20-22). After the fall, we see the construction of cities and civilizations (Genesis 4:17; 10:1-32). These are post-fall fulfillments of the necessary conditions for humanity’s obedience to the creation command. These developments highlight the complementary and cooperative nature of the task. Just as male and female must complement each other—not be the same—and must cooperate together for humanity to multiply, so too, communities must work together and draw upon the varied talents and gifts of each member of their society. The growth of humanity requires economic cooperation, governmental structures and order, and the participation of each member. We see this pattern continue in Exod 31 where God announces that he has gifted Bezalel, Oholiab, and other “skillful men” with both the mental and physical skills necessary to produce the tabernacle.

This gifting in the skills and trades necessary for the construction of the tabernacle fits perfectly with the gifts given by the Spirit for the building of the church. God’s consistent pattern is to equip individuals differently in order for them to work cooperatively, and in complementary fashion, to accomplish his purposes.

Again think this through in terms of business and work. A basic tenet of economics is comparative advantage. Based on resources and skills there are some things you will be able to produce more efficiently, with lower costs and higher quality, than I can. It is wise for me to let you do that, and to trade with you (in goods, services, or dollars) based on what I am comparatively better at doing.

The spread of humanity into varied geographic environments with varied resources inherently leads to trade. The variety of resources, and the variety of gifts and skills God gives to individuals, naturally leads to business. And all of this is accounted for in a world without sin, as it was created, wholly good and fitting for humanity. The presence of sin complicates the practice of work and economics, but we should not see economics as opposed to flourishing. When done in obedience, business and economics, is part of human flourishing, by design, even in the beginning.

 


 

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