“Go ye!” – Patriarchs and Pioneers

by Kenneth Hanson (July 2012)

“Liberty, next to religion has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime… In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food.” – Lord Acton[1]

Open the pages of the Bible. Pull it off the dusty shelf, and whom do you meet from the outset? The Patriarchs – biblical “pioneers” – rugged individualists in search of a new land. They were the ancestors of Israel’s twelve tribes, just as America’s Pilgrims and early colonists were the founders of the thirteen separate states that would one day comprise a federal union.

We’re all familiar with the story of Abraham, the revered father of three world faiths and progenitor of the people who came to be known as Israel. According to holy writ, he hailed from ancient Babylonia, today known somewhat ignominiously as the country of Iraq. He didn’t, however, follow the advice that most people today would give a son: “Get an education. Become a professional, perhaps a doctor or a lawyer. Find a nice Jewish girl. Settle down. Raise a family. Put something away for retirement.” Surprisingly enough, ancient Mesopotamia boasted such an advanced culture that young Abram, as he was called before his famous name-change, could have done just that.

But this illustrious individualist chose a very different tack. He and his family uprooted themselves and left the city they had called home, known as Ur of the Chaldees. They followed the trade routes that took them far to the west, toward a land they knew not. We take the story for granted, as we do most well-trodden tales of biblical lore, but its particulars strain credulity. While already en-route, at a way-station in the vast deserts called Haran, a voice from the unknown addresses Abram’s inner being and bids him: “Go ye!,” or perhaps better translated, “Go! Go!” – or as we say in the South, “Git!” It’s greatest imperative in religious history, as the voice continues: “Leave the land of your birth, your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.” The otherworldly command is delivered in the future tense, since this “land of promise” hasn’t yet been revealed. Abram must take it on faith, along with the secondary declaration, that his descendants will be “as sands of the seashore.”

The question begged by this peculiar text is never addressed by sincerely religious readers: Is Abram out of his mind? Has he lost touch with reality? Why does a man who came of age in the “cradle of civilization,” where humankind’s earliest geniuses invented everything from writing to the wheel to giant ziggurats to barley beer, take to the roads as a wandering nomad? What might have troubled him so much about this splendid culture that he felt compelled to leave it? We can only take the Bible at face value when it suggests that Abram’s erratic behavior had something to do with matters of faith.

We are of course told that Abraham was history’s first monotheist, but a case can be made that there was something more going on here. The “bottom line” about Mesopotamian religion is that every one of its many gods and goddesses were integral parts of nature itself. They were aspects of the cosmos. To name a few, there was An, the sky god, Enlil, god of the atmosphere, Enki, god of the primordial waters, and Marduk, who slew the goddess Tiamat, creating the heavens with the top portion of her torso and the earth with her lower half. This ancient pantheon was of course immortal, and no single deity could die, lest an aspect of the cosmos itself die. But an unfortunate consequence of this was that the Mesopotamians felt a sense of helplessness before nature. Since the forces of nature are obviously fickle, “the gods themselves must be crazy!” Rains may water the land in just the right quantity to produce an abundant harvest, or too much rain may fall, and everyone may be carried away by a flood. The sun may shine down mercifully to warm the earth, or it may shine relentlessly, parching the ground, turning gardens into deserts and bringing inevitable famine.

Sure enough, when students of the literature of ancient Babylonia pour through the crumbling cuneiform tablets on which the texts are preserved, what they find is a profound sense of fatalism. “No one knows what tomorrow may bring; so eat, drink and be merry, and have another barley beer!” Perhaps Abram simply couldn’t make peace with this fatalistic approach to life and existence. Things don’t just “happen.” There has to be an overarching sense of purpose and meaning, co-mingled with divine justice, as only a good and just God can bestow. So it was, that he saddled up his camels and left.

Whatever the reason that Abram left this storied land, there’s a pattern to be discerned in his narrative that wasn’t lost on the “patriarchs” of early America, who not only devoured the Bible, but were intent on making it part of their personal experience. We know them as the “Pilgrims,” who sadly have been reduced to little more than caricatures in children’s books.

These “Pilgrims,” as we know them, were people of extraordinary faith. It’s rather difficult in our own day to imagine that people might really be motivated to do extraordinary things by pure faith, but such were the Pilgrims. It was their powerful piety that led them to withdraw from the religious structure of their European land – the Church of England. Originally part of a larger movement known as the Separatists, they incurred the wrath of Britain’s King James I, who expected strict obedience from his subjects and condemned them as fanatics. Their first move involved crossing the Channel to the Netherlands, taking refuge in Amsterdam and subsequently Leiden. Holland was their equivalent of the ancient city of Haran, Abram’s midpoint on his long trek out of Mesopotamia.

Such parallels weren’t lost on the likes of William Bradford, who later became governor of this rag-tag group and recorded their adventures in an illustrious memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation. Of their desperate crossing for the New World, undertook in September, 1620, he wrote: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those pleasant things they were leaving, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”[2] Whereas Abram followed the desert trade routes of the ancient tribal nation called the Amorites, the Pilgrims navigated the sea routes of English colonists. Theirs was as much a voyage into the unknown as was that of the first biblical Patriarch, who knew nothing of his future “promised land.”

Politics and Pilgrims

Whether speaking of Abraham’s clan or the Pilgrims, a case can be made that their creed was individualism, and that for them freedom meant deliverance from the intrusive power of empire (whether Mesopotamian or British) to tyrannize their lives by forced conformity. To be a bit adventuresome, we might imagine both Abraham and William Bradford’s Pilgrims not only as people of religious fervor, but as distinguished political scientists. They well understood what Lord Acton would later famously articulate, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Furthermore, hasn’t it always been the nature of the state to stifle individuality and retard creativity? So it is, that history’s most brilliant thinkers, from Socrates to Ghandi, have often found themselves at odds with it.

Literary theorists love to point out that the meaning of texts (such as the Bible) is in the eye of the beholder. They like to see them as a product of the dynamic interchange between author and reader. Self-proclaimed “progressives” naturally want to read the Bible as a testament to a caring and compassionate state, to the virtue of centralized authority. They choose to emphasize the concept of “covenant” in God’s promise to Abraham, as well as the promise that his descendants will be as the sands of the seashore (Genesis 22:17). This, however, is more than a trifle at odds with religious individualists, who find in the stories of the patriarchs a bulwark against state intrusiveness.

Bearing this in mind, let’s consider another possible rationale for Abraham’s departure from the “cradle of civilization,” that involves the political realities of that ancient day. History tells us that by 2334 B.C.E. a single king named Sargon comes to dominate Mesopotamia. Having built an Akkadian army, Sargon hastens to take control of southern Mesopotamia. During a reign of fifty-six years, Sargon conquers northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and westward to the Mediterranean coast, even capturing southeast Asia Minor. He carves out for himself the world’s first empire, encompassing people of assorted nationalities, religions and cultural traditions. Sargon’s empire is unique in organization as well as scale. He is the first king who claims to possess a standing army – 5,400 men in arms – conscripted from all the cities in his domain. An army being a costly venture, Sargon initiates a new tactic by which to feed the troops – plunder. The soldiers simply raid and loot the cities and towns along the road of conquest, setting out on the warpath each spring. Some might call it history’s first version of the income tax! For all its advances, the price of developing a complex civilization turns out to be oppression. In 2197 B.C.E. Sargon’s empire collapses at the hands of raiders, who swoop in from the mountains, visiting the Akkadian warlords with a dose of karmic justice.

Chaos follows, during which time a nomadic people known as the Amorites rush in, only to settle down and become absorbed in the larger culture. In 1792 B.C.E. a new king arises – the illustrious Hammurabi. During the course of his long reign he decides to emulate Sargon, casting a covetous eye on cities with whom he had previously been allied. His military adventures are characterized by the increasingly popular practice of taking hostages, who are held for ransom. Specialized merchants ransom Babylonian soldiers from the enemy and then demand repayment with interest. War thus becomes an enterprise, as Hammurabi extends his domain from the Persian Gulf to Syria. While Hammurabi is best known for his renowned law code (resembling in many respects the laws of Moses), it’s also true that even his legal ordinances reveal a striking inequity between various classes of citizens, the upper classes being treated quite differently than servants and slaves. Again, we find the state eminently capable of oppressing its own subjects.

It’s difficult to know for certain in what century Abraham may have lived, and some question whether he is a historical figure at all. His wanderings, though, are consistent with those of the Amorites, and we may suspect that he possesses a healthy disdain for state-sponsored oppression, and the kind of rugged individualism that links him with America’s early pioneers – the Pilgrims. His ultimate destination (revealed to him only after he had already set out on his way): the land of Canaan, a patchwork society that was diffuse and localized, conspicuously lacking anything that remotely resembled a strong central government. Its contrast with the empire of Babylonia’s legendary kings, Sargon and Hammurabi, couldn’t be more striking.

We may liken Abraham’s journey to an ancient version of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century classic that depicts the hero, Christian, setting out from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, meeting many adversaries along the way. The story is an emblem of the kind of religious individualism that came to characterize Protestant theology in both England and America.[3] But let’s cast Abraham instead as “Hebrew” and his destination much more “down-to-earth” in a Jewish sense than the notion of “going to heaven.” Moreover, the lessons are not merely spiritual, but political as well, for individualism is what the “civil society” envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers was all about.

Abraham’s rugged individualism does not, however, override his sense of community, another lesson grasped by America’s earliest settlers. Indeed, in the case of both patriarchs and Pilgrims, clan was everything. Nor does individualism undermine the need for a solemn pact by which to live. There is broad agreement that the most important word in the entire Hebrew Bible is “covenant” – brit – that may best be understood as a legal contract binding Israel to God and the subsequent tribes to each other.

The Pilgrim Chronicles makes deliberate allusion both to Abraham and the covenant, extrapolating the term to their own society:

A covenant, or confederation, according to all the Congregational fathers, is what constitutes a church, and a person a member of it; it may be in writing, or verbal, implicit or explicit… A separation from the world into the fellowship of the gospel and covenant of Abraham, is a true church, truly gathered, though ever so weak.[4]

Their core principles were arguably even more radical, for the Pilgrims audaciously proclaimed that “every … church is strictly independent of all uninspired authority.”[5] In other words, in a day when ecclesiastical and temporal authorities tended to be wedded at the hip and at the head, their greatest desire was to be completely free from the coercive power of the church-state. Freedom was thus understood as emancipation from coercion, from the arbitrary power of others. Moreover, at every juncture, the American pioneers chose to root this understanding in the biblical text.

The Tension We Never Mention

All of this in time set up an inevitable tension (though glossed over by religious-minded readers of the Bible). Who, exactly, is Abraham, venerable forefather of Judaism, Christianity and Islam? And what does he represent? Is he (according to one socio-political model – “liberation theology”) an individual, leading to a family, leading to a clan, leading to some sort of “national commune”? Or is he an individual, leading to a family of individuals, leading to a clan of individuals, leading to a nation of individuals – the “libertarian vision”? That’s more in line with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and, arguably, the “American dream.”

The famed existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, loved Abraham for the individualism of his life-choices, dubbing him his “knight of faith.”[6] He makes no apology for parts of the narrative that strain credulity, even praising the patriarch for the most controversial of his actions. Students of the Bible are well familiar with the disturbing story of how Abraham hears the divine voice yet again, being told to take his son, his only son, the one he loves, to the land called Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on a makeshift altar. To the impartial reader this amounts to nothing less than child sacrifice, commanded by a barbarous deity. The story is called the Akkedah, or “binding” of Isaac, by Jewish sages and rabbis, who have engaged in multiple forms of mental gymnastics down through the centuries trying to defend it. True enough, Isaac is not sacrificed in the end, since Abraham’s hand is stayed by an angel at the last minute, before he can perform the grisly act. It was only a test, the commentators rationalize, to prove that Abraham was in fact prepared to follow the divine command, even at the cost of his son. But such justifications sound weak and strained to many.

There is perhaps another, more important message of the Akkedah, namely, that if Abraham’s promised son, Isaac, is to become the vanguard of an empire, then he is to be relinquished on the altar of vanity. Abraham’s calling is not about creating a dynasty or a monarchy. He mustn’t become an autocrat; that was for other builders of empire. His son and scion is to continue a legacy of faith, not raw power. His descendants, who will be as “sands of the seashore,” are not a mob to be ruled; they are “we the people” – just “folks,” comprising a new body politic in which all are “created equal.” The politics of Abraham is revolutionary, especially for its time, when power comes through sword point and grows at the expense of individual liberties.

True, Abraham and his clan understand the power of the sword and are not above acts of brutal brigandry. For example, he and his band of three hundred eighteen rescue his nephew Lot from an alliance of four Mesopotamian kings who had taken him prisoner when they attacked his city of domicile – Sodom. Military conquest, yes, but empire-building, hardly. The Mesopotamians are aware of the riches that pass across the land bridge known as Canaan, and they want their cut, taking it by force if necessary. Lot happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Mesopotamians are all about creating empire; Abraham’s rag-tag force of fighters are all about thwarting it.

Some have identified Abraham as one of a number of tribal brigands known as Habiru, a word that sounds curiously similar to “Hebrew.”[7] They are semi-nomadic people described by ancient Egyptian sources as “wanderers” or “outcasts.” They are shepherds, agriculturalists, stone-cutters, and soldiers. They should be understood as “guerilla warriors” – a kind of ancient militia who rose up as needed. America’s Pilgrims understood that they likewise were wanderers and outcasts. Hardly pacifists, they also brandished weapons as needed, for survival in a sometimes inhospitable land. While their little outpost was initially organized as a colony of the British empire, the first American settlers were, like their biblical model heroes, fundamentally at odds with autocracy.

In another biblical episode, were are told that Abraham journeys down to Egypt during a famine, only to become fearful that he will be killed and his beautiful wife Sarah be taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. He cowardly pretends that Sarah is only his sister and allows her to enter into the great Egyptian’s household. As divine punishment, plagues are sent upon Pharaoh and his clan, and Sarah is sent back to her true husband. After receiving many gifts from Pharaoh, lavished upon him in order to placate patriarch’s incensed deity, Abraham heads for the desert of Canaan once more, resuming his nomadic ways. However, in focusing on Abraham’s moral deficit, we forget another issue regarding his choice of residence. Why doesn’t he simply opt to join the venerable civilization of the Nile? After all, if you’re not going to live in the splendor of Mesopotamia, with its temples, palaces and ziggurats, isn’t Egypt, with its equally grandiose temples, obelisks and pyramids, an acceptable second choice?

Well, not really, if individuality means anything. Abraham might have found security and relief from occasional famine in the land of the Nile, but he still prefers his nomadic existence. What’s so great about being a nomad, and having to cope on a daily basis with camel spit? Perhaps it has something to do with the simple fact that the Egyptians are history’s first true bureaucrats. Being for the most part protected from marauders by deserts to the east and west, and by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, they are free to focus inward. The phenomenal growth of the empire of the Pharaohs also means the proliferation of unfettered bureaucracy. Egypt is in fact able to stretch its tentacles all the way up Mediterranean coast, even taking on the Hittites in Asia Minor. Their overarching attitude: “You will be absorbed; resistance is futile!” When it comes to the ancient near east, the Egyptians are everywhere, and “omnipresent,” but the Bible seems to be shouting at us, that Abraham wants no part of them, or their well-oiled bureaucracy. In spite of its obvious cultural superiority, Egypt traditionally symbolizes slavery and bitter servitude – the “house of bondage.” And so, Father Abraham is content to sojourn down to Pharaoh’s household when the need arises (taking advantage of Egypt’s “famine protection plan”), but he’s also more than happy to hit the dusty roads again after the scandalously embarrassing interlude with wife/ “sister.”

By the end of his life, however, Abraham does in fact become “rooted,” when he makes a point of not just settling, but actually buying the land in which he settles. Driving home the point is the fact that when it comes time for him to secure a proper burial place for Sarah, he goes to the trouble of purchasing the Cave of Machpelah in the fabled site of Hebron:

And he spoke with them, saying, If it is your mind that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and ask for me of Ephron the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah which he has, which is in the end of his field. For as much silver as it is worth he shall give it to me for a possession of a burying-place among you.[8]

On a political level we understand the precedent set by the great patriarch, given that private property rights are ensconced as “sacred” in the U.S. Constitution. The idea is that land held in one’s own hands is less likely to fall prey to government control.[9]

It seems, then, that the Bible is no friend of “big government” and/or bureaucracy. Oh yes, the Israelites will develop their own bureaucratic system of government, wrapped in a chief executive depicted as a God-appointed monarch, but that will be a long time coming, and laden with dark controversy and sharp rebuke from Israel’s great prophets. In the meantime, however, the “people’s patriarchs” will continue to dwell in tents, water their feisty camels, cope with famine and scrounge for food. In the final analysis, wayfarers are wayfarers, and Abraham’s clan and the passengers on the Mayflower are doubtless cut from the same pilgrim-cloth.

Patriarchal “Capitalism”

He’s the “child of promise,” born supernaturally to a barren woman who happened to be ninety years old, or so the story goes. Isaac doesn’t come off as the same kind of visionary we see in his father. He isn’t a pilgrim, and he doesn’t have to journey to any destination in particular. Whereas Abraham set forth from the land of his birth to an unknown country, Isaac stayed put for the most part. That doesn’t however, mean that he ceased his migratory ways. On the contrary, when a famine grips the land, we’re told that he follows in his father’s itinerant footsteps, venturing to the land of the Philistines, on the Mediterranean coast. Passing his wife off as his sister, just as Abraham had done. Far from being models of moral probity, as most religious folk would like to see them, the patriarchs make us mindful of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s famous quip, that his family consisted of “poster boys for bad behavior.” But Isaac’s ruse is discovered by King Abimelech (who might have taken Rebecca into his own tent) just in time, and the crisis passes.

Isaac is thereafter said to have “sowed in the land” (Genesis 26:12), which seems to indicate that he settled down, for a change. The nomad has become a planter, but still an eminent individualist. We might in fact go so far as to call him an ancient “capitalist.” Abraham, after the disgraceful episode in which he passed off Sarah as his “sister,” became “very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold” (Gen. 13:12). In Isaac’s case we are told that in the same year “he reaped a hundredfold.” Why? Because God “blessed him.” Of course it could also be a case of God helping those who help themselves. The text recounts that he not only prospered but that “his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy” (Gen. 26:13). The Hebrew word here is gadal, which means “great,” but the clear intention of the narrative is to tell us that he was flat-out “rich.” In spite of the oft-repeated biblical notion of the “collective,” what we have here is a supreme expression of individualism. Isaac has become a quintessential biblical “fat-cat.” Where in the text do we find any condemnation of such “selfishness”? Why is there no call for him to “spread the wealth around”? We can only observe that in the textual silence there is consent. This is individualism wrapped up in what America’s founders saw as the fundamental right of property, and, vice-versa, private property as the supreme expression of individualism. The Founding Fathers were no strangers to such biblical paradigms; nor was Abraham Lincoln, who eloquently stated:

Property is the fruit of labor…property is desirable…is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built. I take it that it is the best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy.[10]

In another speech Lincoln commented:

I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich. It would do more harm than good.[11]

The coercive redistribution of wealth was no more in Lincoln’s mind than in that of the biblical writers. One of the most seminal volumes of economic and political theory ever penned was Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, that laid out a blueprint for the modern “capitalist” free market economy. Thomas Jefferson commented: “In political economy I think Smith’s Wealth of Nations the best book extant.”[12 Nonetheless, as some see it, Adam Smith’s message for Main Street was later embodied by Wall Street: “Greed works.” Those who read the Bible, however, will notice Smith’s emphasis on the idea of an “invisible hand” that promotes the good of all through interest in the self. He famously wrote:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest… [Every individual] intends only his own security, only his own gain. And he is in this led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.[13]

Such observations are denigrated to scorn in most contemporary classrooms and presented by university professors as a hopeless relic of greedy capitalist imperialism. Let’s face it; in modern citadels of education, you won’t even be exposed to the Wealth of Nations. Karl Marx yes; Adam Smith no![14]

When it comes to the stories of Abraham and Isaac, it isn’t their charity that strikes us as much as their self-interest. Isaac, as a tiller of the ground, was one from whom we might expect our dinner. Yet, the Bible’s “invisible hand” indicates that he was “blessed.” The Bible, like Adam Smith, doesn’t seem bothered by self-centeredness at all; but don’t tell modern “statists,” who seem convinced that only governmental institutions can promote the greater good.

The Bible – as politics – is telling us that in spite of their personal foibles, Abraham and Isaac relentlessly pursued their self-interest, and in so doing promoted not only their own families, but the larger units of tribe and ultimately the nation that came to be called “Israel.”

Jacob the Entrepreneur

We can see in Isaac’s cultivation of the fields a prophetic prefiguring of a settled nation, which the seed of Abraham would one day become; but the vagabond lifestyle of the patriarchs by no means vanishes, and might even be seen as the biblical “ideal.” Rebecca, we are told, is carrying two sons in her womb. One, to be called Esau, is destined to be a “hairy” fellow, a hunter, a man of the open fields, while the other, known to us as Jacob, is an “indoor” type, a “momma’s boy.” Esau comes out of the womb before his twin brother, thereby securing his father’s birthright, as firstborn.

Jacob, however, is not satisfied with an inferior status and connives with his mother to “steal” Esau’s birthright. He dons sheepskin and deceives the aged and near-blind Isaac into thinking that he is in fact his “hairy” brother, Esau. Sure enough, Isaac mistakenly conveys his blessing and his inheritance to Jacob, who now fears for his life from Esau. Before his enraged twin can slay him, Jacob decides to abandon his secure “homebody” lifestyle and take to the roads, like earlier generations of patriarchs.

His ultimate destination is Mesopotamia, where his grandfather had originated. He has extended family there, specifically an uncle named Laban, to whose household he will join himself. He will fall desperately in love with a beautiful damsel named Rachel, for whose matrimonial sake he will do anything, including the perpetration of foolhardy “business” deals. His uncle Laban will agree to give his daughter to Jacob, but only on condition that the grandson of Abraham become his “indentured servant.”

Laban is certainly motivated by self-interest and “capitalism,” but so is Jacob. Having tended Laban’s flocks for seven years, in order to acquire Rachel as his bride, he agrees to work an additional seven years, since Laban has decreed that his older daughter Leah must be married first. Only by agreeing to work a total of fourteen years can Jacob take to wife both Leah and his beloved Rachel. At first blush Jacob doesn’t seem to be a very astute businessman, but he is not to be outdone.

After the requisite number of years go by, the two capitalists strike a bargain, by which Jacob will stay on with Laban and receive, as “wages” for his labor, the black lambs and spotted and speckled goats from among the flocks. Laban, perhaps recognizing Jacob’s conniving character, does a little conniving of his own. He removes from the flock the male striped or spotted goats, the female specked or spotted goats, and all the black sheep, creating a separate flock for himself. He nonetheless underestimates his nephew, who now devises a scheme to produce speckled and spotted goats from among the flocks in his charge. He does it by using what appears to be a measure of “conjuration,” by having the animals mate in front of branches into which he has cut stripes. Some magical power apparently emanates from the stripes, causing the newborn of the flock to bear stripes as well. How exactly this works is anyone’s guess, but the bottom line is that Jacob emerges as the one with the most animals in his charge, beating his uncle in the game of one-upmanship.

Shouldn’t there be some scorn heaped on Jacob from the pages of the Bible? Doesn’t he know that it’s better to give than to receive? Instead, what he does seem to know is that in the rough-and-tumble world of business, it’s dog-eat-dog. That’s capitalism. It’s The Art of War, and the one who “builds a better mousetrap” ultimately wins. In fact, modern businessmen who seek inspiration from the east’s famous tome on military tactics ought perhaps to read the Bible in tandem with Sun Tzu. Both agree that success isn’t about planning, in the sense of working through an agreed-to “list” of “dos” and “don’ts,” but rather embodies sharp and suitable responses to changing situations.[15] Jacob understands his own changing situation and instinctively decides to exit Laban’s household at the opportune moment. He saddles up his camels with his wives and children and drives his flocks in front of him, taking with him all he had acquired during his tenure with Laban. Rachel even makes off with her father’s household idols. Ten days later, Laban catches up with the fleeing band, but no retribution is meted out. Instead, the two businessmen pile up a mound of stones to commemorate a rapprochement of sorts between them.

But there is yet more insight to be gained here, for the story is as much about private property rights as it is about tactics and strategy in the game of life. The right to property and its improvement by personal labor was to be enshrined in American political theory as something akin to sacrosanct, and political theorists from John Locke to Thomas Jefferson were keenly aware of biblical commentary on the same. Locke observed in 1690:

Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands are properly his.[16]

Jefferson added (1801):

A wise and frugal government … shall leave [men] free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.[17]

Jacob bears out these adages by his years of labor, that results in the improvement of his dubious fortunes. Fortunately for him, there is no unwise or un-frugal government back in Mesopotamia to confiscate (or tax) his earnings. Throughout his story, he proves to be a schemer and a conniver, as so many capitalists generally are. This is precisely why they get such a “bum wrap.” Yet, it is precisely Jacob’s character as a “supplanter” that finds him in a climactic encounter with the Almighty, in the form of an angel. It’s while he’s en-route back to Canaan, after so many long years of indentured servitude to his wily uncle that he meets someone along the road, who engages him in a wrestling match. The stranger struggles with Jacob all night, but by daybreak is still unable to overpower him. That’s when Jacob’s mysterious adversary resorts to a little “magic,” touching his hip joint and wrenching it from its socket. He finally adjures Jacob to let him go, but the son of Isaac will not relent until he receives the man’s “blessing.” The stranger asks Jacob his name and subsequently declares that he will henceforth be known as “Israel,” denoting one who “wrestles with God.” We identify with the story because we know viscerally that there has never been a successful entrepreneur who hasn’t done his or her share of wrestling. Jacob’s road is our road, full of risk and reward, peril and blessing.

After the strange encounter, Jacob does some “naming” himself, dubbing that precise locale “Peniel,” meaning “the face of God.” Apparently, Jacob gets the idea that he had not just met a stranger, or even an angel, but the living God, who had appeared to him in fleshly manifestation – what theologians call a “theophany.” Jacob/ “Israel” will walk with a limp thereafter as a memento of the occasion – testimony to the fact that it’s a fearsome thing to wrestle with the Almighty. But the episode also hints that the Divine must be rather pleased with Jacob’s hutzpah, with his unwillingness to settle for second-class status. Hidden in the word “Israel” is another Hebraic term – Sar-El – meaning “prince of God.” What we may have here is a play on words, telling us that it’s not through blind obedience, but by wrestling with the Divine that one becomes God’s prince. It’s a supreme reward to the patriarch who isn’t satisfied with his lot in life, who pulls himself up by his own proverbial sandal straps. After all, isn’t that what capitalists do?

Joseph the Bureaucrat

Jacob, who is now officially “Israel,” has twelve sons, who become the progenitors of twelve tribes. The trouble starts, however, when one of sons, a precocious and ingenuous lad named Yosef (whom westerners call Joseph), has some dreams, depicting him as the greatest of the bunch, and his brothers as subservient. This, understandably, doesn’t strike his eleven siblings well, and they plot to be rid of Joseph and his arrogance. They seize him, through him into a pit, grab his cloak (an exquisite garment bestowed on him by Jacob, who favored him over the others) smear it with goat’s blood, and subsequently return it to his grief-stricken father, explaining that Joseph was killed by a wild animal.

Joseph, however, hasn’t really died; he has been sold to some nomadic Ishmaelites as a miserable slave and in turn taken down to the Nile Delta, being resold to a prominent Egyptian named Potiphar. Entrepreneurial like his father, Joseph soon rises to become chief of Potiphar’s entire household. As we might expect from this particular family line, everything in his care – meaning the property of the great Egyptian – prospers. We’re not told exactly what Joseph does to grow the fortune of his master and benefactor, but he had to have been the consummate businessman. He makes use of his wits to bring enrichment to his boss, and is rewarded in kind. There’s no sense that Joseph is envious of Potiphar’s wealth or position. What an attitude! He doesn’t ask what his benefits are, or how many paid vacation days he acquires per month. He’s happy to serve, and we respect him for that. Like his father, he’s a model capitalist. Furthermore, Egypt must not have had anything like a “progressive income tax” that effectively redistributed wealth. And the Bible does not complain. It only lauds Joseph for his acumen.

Unfortunately, Joseph’s good fortunes are destined to plummet, as he runs afoul of Potiphar’s adulterous wife. According to the classic narrative, Joseph is accosted by the lusty lady, who makes advances on our hero only to be ignominiously refused. As the righteous Hebrew flees from her, she pulls off his cloak, which she next presents to Potiphar himself, claiming that Joseph had tried to rape her. The enraged Egyptian has Joseph thrown into prison, where he languishes in an even worse kind of bondage. But once again he rises to the top, impressing his jailer so much that he is put in charge of all the other inmates. Dreamer that he is, he successfully interprets the dreams of the other prisoners and is finally called upon to interpret the dream of the great potentate of all the land, the pharaoh himself. All of the other magicians and soothsayers were quite clueless as to the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream, involving seven skinny cows who devoured seven fat cows and seven scorched and dry heads of grain that swallowed seven full and healthy heads of grain.

But when, through a quirk of fate, Joseph is summoned, he is by supernatural agency shown the exact meaning the dream is intended to convey. Egypt is soon to experience seven years plenty, including bountiful harvests and abundance for all. These good years, however, will be followed by seven more years of terrible famine that will bring ruination to the whole land. The great pharaoh, on hearing this lucid interpretation, is, to say the least, impressed. Ingenuous and unassuming as he is, Joseph doesn’t display self-congratulation; he simply suggests that the mighty potentate find “someone” in the land capable of putting Egypt in “hoarding” mode for seven years, so that when the famine inevitably arrives, there will be enough gain in the storehouses to last for all seven years of scarcity. Who could such a man be?

“Joseph,” says the pharaoh, “You are the man!” In an incredible reversal of fortunes the lowly slave turned even lowlier prisoner becomes the second most powerful person in the world’s greatest civilization. His new job description: “Chief Bureaucrat.” Sure enough, he becomes a pretty good manager of the new bureaucracy that he now creates.[18] The silos burst with grain during the years of plenty, and we wonder what kind of commentary the Bible is bringing. Isn’t this the quintessential ancient expression of “big government”? Isn’t it the very thing our third president warned about?:

If we were directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we would soon want for bread. – Thomas Jefferson[19]

One wonders whether Mr. Jefferson might have been reflecting on the story of Joseph when he wrote this quip. But thanks to Joseph, Egypt doesn’t lack bread. “Does God love bureaucrats?” we might justifiably ask. Is bureaucracy and big government perhaps a better way than greedy capitalism, with its cycles of boom and bust? Isn’t the story of Joseph the world’s best example of what an efficient regulation regime can accomplish? Of course calling it “regulation” understates the case. It’s “centralized planning,” Soviet-style! But before we get carried away calling Joseph a Communist, we should reflect that bureaucracies can indeed accomplish impressive ends, as long as they are well-administered. What’s wrong with that? For his part, the pharaoh was untroubled by the idea that government was becoming too big, and Joseph was equally untroubled.

What a flattering picture the narrative paints! As the good years turn to ruin, our hero opens the storehouses, first to the Egyptians, then to foreigners, who begin flooding into Egypt for relief. Through it all, there are some lessons to be learned, politically, from how Joseph administers Egypt. For one thing, our hero seems well aware of an important political adage: “Never let a crisis go to waste!” Fortunately for Egypt, Josephs knows nothing deficit spending. What he does know is that he is sitting on a vast treasure in the form of grain, and he capitalizes on that fact in the capitalistic tradition of his forebears. He sells the produce of the storehouses, not only to the foreigners who come knocking at his gates, but to the Egyptians themselves. We can only imagine the level of wealth that must have come flooding into the land of the Nile. But rather than enriching the populace, it seems to have enriched only the pharaoh’s coffers. Nonetheless, what we have here does resemble an ancient form of “welfare,” for which Joseph is highly credited, as “Bureaucrat-in-Chief.” Over time Joseph will purchase all the land in Egypt on behalf of the pharaoh, and the increasingly hungry Egyptians will be all too happy to sell.

“Big Government,” Slavery, and Indentured Servitude

Does the Bible, then, give a “thumbs up” on “big government”? Should we hail Joseph as an ancient Marxist, who effectuates the complete nationalization of property and the means of production? After all, in addition to saving the Egyptians, Joseph ends up saving his wayward brothers, who end up in Egypt themselves, in search of food. Of course they don’t recognize their brother and don’t know that the pharaoh’s great administrator is in fact the sibling they had betrayed and sold into slavery. This enables Joseph to turn tables on them all and, through a clever ruse, force them to admit their wrongdoing, only to be reconciled through their sincere repentance in an emotionally climactic scene. Joseph’s entire family comes down to join him in Egypt, settling in the rich and fertile land of Goshen, and all ends well … or appears to.

At first blush it looks as though Egypt’s great bureaucracy, created and administered by Joseph, is not just a “good thing”; it is genuine “salvation” for the seed of Abraham. Joseph announces to his wayward siblings that what they intended for evil God has turned to good:

And now do not be grieved, nor angry with yourselves that you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.[20]

Nonetheless, what begins as Joseph’s grand ambition to save his people from famine will end up enslaving them, over time, to an intrusive and totalitarian state. It will become nothing less than a four-century sojourn into slavery for all the children of Israel.[21] We don’t know the exact circumstances by which the Hebrews go from being Joseph’s honored guests – who live in the land of Goshen and become rich (Gen. 47:27) – to “slaves,” but one intriguing theory links them with the semi-nomadic Habiru, a group including farmers, merchants, construction workers, and warriors. While the Bible suggests that Jacob’s descendants peacefully coexist with the Egyptians for two of those four centuries, if the Habiru theory is correct, they would actually have been employed as an integral component in the defense of Egypt, protecting it from the Canaanite menace to the north. This is why the Bible takes pains to point out that they settle in the northern Nile Delta area – the land of Goshen.

Some speculate that this mercenary army is only about a thousand strong, but they are significant enough to trouble “a pharaoh … who did not know about Joseph”.[22] The reference might conceivably be to Seti I (c. 1294-1279 BCE), who becomes concerned about the growing power of this Habiru horde, declaring:

Let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it will be when there comes a war, they join also to our enemies, and fight against us, and get out of the land.[23]

He decides that the best course is to set them to work, building fortifications and city walls. The tradition persists at every Passover meal celebrated to this day: “Once we were slaves in Egypt…” In point of fact, we’re not really sure what this “slavery” amounted to. The traditional idea that vast throngs of Hebrews wearing shackles labor under the cruel whips of their taskmasters is undoubtedly a stretch. By contrast, while standard English translations tell us they are “slaves,” the actual Hebrew word is avadim, meaning “laborers,” perhaps “corvée laborers,” or “day laborers.”[24] Such work is generally without compensation, being imposed by aristocrats or nobles on people of lower-class standing. The Hebrews, according to this theory, aren’t “owned” in the way we imagine slaves in bondage; rather their servitude consists only in the dispensation of their labor.

If we translate this into political/ economic theory, it means that a direct result of trusting Joseph and the Egyptians he serves, they go from being “capitalists” (as was the tradition of the earliest patriarchs) to something akin to “indentured servants.” But isn’t this what often happens when government – in this instance, the great bureaucracy of Egypt – owns the means of production? Of course their basic needs are now provided for, and it’s difficult to overestimate the value of such security. The pharaoh’s laborers are certainly free from the nagging fears that plague so many of the ancient world’s populace, who can never be sure what the future would hold, whether the next harvest will be bounteous or scant, whether they might be invaded and ravaged by enemies, and in the final analysis whether they will live or die.

Nevertheless, trusting in “Big Brother,” even when doing so yields tangible security, has an ironic downside; for owing one’s livelihood to the state involves significant tradeoffs – most often the loss of “self-determination.” We can even draw a parallel with the tendency of certain twentieth century European societies to surrender to collaborationist regimes during the Second World War. These included governments headed by fascists like Mussert in Holland, and others, which over time evolved into full-fledged Nazi regimes under the likes of Seyes Inquart. How many people in the modern world would indeed be more than happy to trade in their freedoms for “indentured servitude” to the state? Isn’t a government job more secure, “cushier,” and even better paying than working in the private sector? The comparison is hardly a stretch, for scholars have noted that ancient Egypt’s bureaucracy persisted for many centuries and seemed to run quite efficiently. And while debates rage about the nature of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, their servitude in the land of the pharaohs must certainly have been a function of the region’s entrenched bureaucratic structure.

Hindsight being twenty-twenty, it must have seemed to the editors of the Bible that entering into the pharaoh’s employ, however it came about, was a grievous form of bondage. If the Bible is indeed political, then it is not-so-subtly preaching: “Don’t rely on any pharaoh’s government to be your salvation!” After all, who would not argue that it might have been better for the children of Abraham to suffer the ravages of famine in the land of Canaan than to enter the “safety” of servitude in Egypt? But enter they do, and in the end they will require nothing less than a revolution. They will need an “exodus.”

[1] The History of Freedom in Antiquity,1877.

[2] William Bradford, Edward Winslow, Robert Cushman, John Robinson, George Barrell Cheever, The Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth: in New England in 1620: reprint from the original volume, New York, J. Wiley, 1848, 182.

[3] Bunyan’s work has been described as “a study of an individualist sensibility.” See Vincent Newey, The Pilgrim’s Progress: Critical and HIstorical Views (Liverpool, England: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1980), 3, 19.

[4] Nathaniel Morton, William Bradford, Thomas Prince, Edward Winslow, New-England's Memorial (Boston, Congregational Board of Publication, 1855), 423.

[5] Ibid., 422

[6] Edward F. Mooney, Knights of faith and Resignation: Reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling (Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1991), 33.

[7] Robert Wolfe, From Habra to Hebrews and Other Essays, (Minneapolis: Mill City Press, 2011), 11ff..

[8] Genesis 23:8-9.

[9] Jay W. Richards, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 72-3. Richards compares Abraham’s acquisition of permanent title to the land with the observation of Peruvian economist Hermando de Soto, that the key that unlocks the mystery of capital is a formal property system.

[10] Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. VII, “Reply to New York Workingmen's Democratic Republican Association” (March 21, 1864), 259-260.

[11] J. G. Nicolay and J. Hay: Abraham Lincoln, I., 615-616.

[12] Letter to Thomas Mann Randolph, May 30, 1790.

[13] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Chap. 2: Of the Principle which Gives Occasion to the Division of Labour.

[14] Adam Smith is generally ignored as a trade theorist in textbooks of international economics. See Kibritçio?lu, Aykut (1994): On Adam Smith's Contributions to the International Trade Theory. Published in: Uluslararas? (Makro)?ktisat (1996): 31-38.

[15] Sun Tzu, The Art of War (eBookEden.com, 2009), 3; Gerald A. Michaelson, Steven Michaelson, Sun Tzu – The Art of War for Managers: 50 Strategic Rules Updated for Today’s Business (Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010), 171.

[16] Micheline Ishay, ed., The Human Rights Reader: Major Political Essays, Speeches, and Documents from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Routledge, 2007), 117.

[17] Jedediah Purdy, “Languages of Politics in America,” in James Boyd White, Jefferson Powell, eds., Law and Democracy in the Empire of Force (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2009), 14.

[18] David W. Tandy, Warriors Into Traders: The Power of the Market in Early Greece (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997), 103-4.

[19] Warren L. McFerran, Political Sovereignty: The Supreme Authority in the United States (Sanford, FL: Southern Liberty Press, 2005), 123.

[20] Genesis 45:5.

[21] Geoffrey P. Miller,The Ways of a King: Legal and Political Ideas in the Bible (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), 103. As Miller comments, the author of Genesis fails to recognize that a centralized bureaucracy can be an agent of oppression as well as a vehicle for stability.

[22] Exodus 1:8.

[23] Exodus 1:10.

[24] Richard Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2003), 61ff.

Kenneth L. Hanson is an Associate professor in the University of Central Florida Judaic Studies Program. This is the first chapter from his new book, The Eagle and The Bible: Lessons in Liberty from Holy Writ published by New English Review Press.


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