Almost a month ago I read Joseph Kelly’s post about Ellen Davis’ book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture and it caused me to read Davis’ book. I won’t attempt a full review of the book right now but instead I’d like to offer a few reflections.
I think Davis rightly discerns a strong agrarian perspective on the part of many biblical writers. For the most part, this perspective and an application of it within contemporary religious communities is almost entirely absent. In my opinion this is profoundly disturbing particularly for those communities that claim to derive their beliefs from the biblical text. For this reason I think that anyone interested in biblical studies and/or Old Testament theology should read this book. The theme of (arable) land is so central to the Old Testament that I might go so far as to say that if you do not understand how the OT understands land and the relationship that humankind in general and the people of God in particular have in relation to it then you are not going to have a very deep understanding of OT theology.
Davis points out some stark differences between an OT view of land and modern, western conceptions of land. In modern society we typically view land as a resource, hence the term “natural resources.” The implication of this terminology is that land and its production are viewed as units that derive value in accordance with their economic utility. These units are then commoditized to facilitate more efficient trade. Once land no longer retains an ability to provide economic value it loses its worth. Shockingly, this view is also extended to human beings who are now termed “human resources.” Humans have value now as economic units who are themselves turned into commodities and can be disposed of when they are no longer productive. Or, if cheaper commodities can be found they will be replaced. Sadly, reflecting a certain degree of unreflective theological thinking, even Jewish and Christian institutions have “human resources” departments and business units.
Furthermore, the object of obligation within western society is strikingly different than the biblical ideal. Rather than biblical notions that humans are required to act in accordance with God’s designs for the good of others, modern economies are structured around the assumption that we must incentivize people to make decisions to maximize their self-interest. This is why countries are willing to fight wars in order to maintain a particular “way of life” but sit idly by while genocide occurs. Furthermore, companies are willing to fire employees (who are really only commoditized resources, albeit of the human variety) when they can get cheaper workers elsewhere. Some companies even add insult to injury by withholding severance pay until the displaced worker has trained the employee hired in his or her place. This certainly does not reflect a biblical notion that one has obligations toward the community–even if it costs you something. On a side note, it is amazing that this perspective is so ingrained amongst us that we can not even imagine how companies could function differently. However, there are some noteworthy examples of successful ventures that do: community supported agriculture and Lincoln Electric. Both of these examples involve an entire community which shares in the good times as well as the bad. Lincoln Electric has pretty much guaranteed employment to its workers, however, their pay fluctuates along with the fortunes of the company. There is a strong sense of obligation that the company feels towards all members of its community and therefore the entire community, including management and workers, mutually shoulders tough times and mutually shares in times of bounty. I am not saying that these are the only ways that we can live out biblical notions within modern economies but it does illustrate that there is more than one way to run a company and to treat employees.
Davis further explains, following Christopher J.H. Wright, that the OT views land as a divine gift held in trust by humans for the sake of God and also for others within the community and the generations that will come after them. Therefore, humans have obligations toward land and community members both present and future. To this end there are biblical stipulations against maximizing short-term economic gain (sabbath rest of the land and sabbath rest for humans and animals). Maximizing short-term gain often sacrifices long term sustainability. We see this currently in the obsession of ever expanding quarterly results that produces disastrous and wide-spread consequences. Furthermore, maximizing short-term gain often means shifting certain costs to the future. For instance, it is cheaper in the short-term to dump pollution instead of properly treating it but the full costs associated with the production of whatever produced the pollution are transferred to the generations to come. This kind of calculus is unthinkable within the ethical ideal of the Bible.
In short, Ellen Davis has provided a wonderful book that explores one of the most prominent themes within the Old Testament and she applies the implications of it to modern ethics and societal structures in deep and profound ways. I would encourage everyone to read it.