The Bible and International Development

by Geoffrey Clarfield (October 2013)

In this piece I disagree with my colleagues for I believe that there is a deeper Biblical framework of values that underlies international development work and which occasionally can be discerned in programs and projects.

Although there were periods where my work kept me in the capital cities, such as Nairobi, or Dar es Salaam where I lived with my wife and two children, there were times where for weeks, if not months on end, I was alone out in the bush working on various projects.

This question would immediately put me into the Allan Dershowitz mode and I would patiently expound on why Israel has a right to exist as a State. I would point out that the Jewish people were a majority in the land for more than a thousand years. It was in the land of Israel that they developed their national epic the Bible and their collective identity and where they defended against ancient imperialists such as the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was there that they fought the Romans and were partially expelled by them after their defeat. I would ask my friends if they had a choice to live in ancient Rome or Judea which would they choose? Their answer was, inevitably, Judea.

Why not a state where religion is not important, at best a refuge for Jews, but not a Jewish State. Here is where it started to get sensitive but I managed to make the following argument. It is an argument that I put together from many discussions and working meetings with the late Dr. Emil Fackenheim with whom it was my privilege to work with over a period of a few years when I was an undergraduate.

Nevertheless by now my colleagues had often been won over to my way of thinking and I would point out that after the Holocaust, enlightened Christian theologians were coming to the humbling realization that Christian virtue was at best no better than that of the Jews, and that bearing that in mind, a modern democracy based on Jewish biblical values was just as valid as one based on Christian biblical values and perhaps they actually both derived from common Biblical values.

When I got into these kinds of discussion I pointed out that the word development means movement and by implication improvement and that is also its popular meaning. It is not the clarion call for cultural relativism. I argued that these ten principles have always informed the Jewish worldview and most importantly the Jewish desire to help humanity through tseddakah (charity) and mitzvoth (good deeds). I argued that without them the cause of the Jewish people as well, will not be seen as just because without these principles only might will be right. And, I argued that it follows logically that in order to effectively alleviate suffering in Africa all development projects and programs must be measured by these values and against them.

This is what I explained to them it meant to me to bring a Biblical consciousness to international development. Here they are. Conveniently they comprise ten principles that resonate with the Ten Commandments. In each case I will show how they are relevant to the development predicament, specifically in Africa.

  1. In the ancient world time was cyclical, what was will return. The present is just an example of the past. In this worldview every event has already been enacted, is enacted and will be enacted perpetually. The same individuals have appeared, appear and will appear at every turn in the cycle.

The Jewish Bible moved against this cyclical theory of history. The Bible changed history by literally creating history. The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle. Thus gave rise to the Jewish notions of time, history, future, vocation, faith, freedom, justice and hope.

There are many development workers who fall into the old idolatry by saying Africa does not have a future. By saying that they do not know that they have done so. For if all is a circle and there is no history, then nothing we do matters, none of us matter, life does not matter. However all of our actions do matter and we can influence the future. The future is a Jewish contribution to human thought and development is based on the idea of a better future. That is why when we read the Bible and we read the boring list of begats or what anthropologists call lineage tables, we must remember, the Jews valued every individual. There is no parallel in the literature of the ancient world.

  1. The second idea is of course about God, not that he or she or it exists, but unlike the Gods of the ancient world, God cannot be manipulated. It means there is a God and not many Gods, and whose will is one and whose justice is one. This gives the Jewish moral vision its unity. As it is said in Hebrew, Shema Israel adonei alohenu adonia echad (Hear Oh Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One). One God guarantees justice and no double standards.

The third idea is the story of the Exodus. You do not have to be a fan of Bob Marley to realize that this story is one of the greatest inspirations of freedom that humans have ever imagined or described. When the God of Israel defeats the self proclaimed God king called Pharaoh, in one fell swoop this subversive narrative delegitimizes all the political structures of tyranny and one man rule.

The Bible has given the world two notions of freedom. The first is the principled rejection of slavery in the book of Exodus and the second is the freedom that comes from not believing in a cyclical existence. When time after time simple Africans overthrow their dictators and try to create regimes that allow for personal freedom they free up markets and give choice to the people. For those of you familiar with Tanzania you may well remember the shortages and agricultural underproduction that was the result of a one party regime until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 and the Tanzanian decision to adopt a market economy.

When Tanzania opted for democracy agriculture boomed and production rose. For the first time in 25 years the simple peasant had the freedom to grow what he wanted and sell what he wanted. Donors are now promoting new business models of poverty alleviation. Although they are not yet widely adopted, I have seen them work among the poorest of the poor. Not surprisingly it is the Swiss who are at the forefront of this kind of innovation.

  1. The Hebrew bible has a bias for the underdog. This is shown even in the non-canonical books like such as Maccabees One and Two. That bias is behind the constant refrain of development organizations that argue that we must never forget the poorest of the poor. It is a Jewish idea.


  1. The unity of God. No, the Jews did not invent modern science and, as my brother once said to me, the Jewish people are very lucky that Darwin was not Jewish. However, it was the fierce monotheism and deism of the founders of modern science that have provided us with the ability to make sure that millions of people can have clean water, that they can be vaccinated and that we can use science and technology to solve the problems of poverty. The teaching of science is one of the lynchpins of sustainable development, for the Pharaonic leaders of one party regimes are usually the enemies of science and prefer to build presidential mansions rather than universities or technical institutes. They also usually choose to die in western hospitals since they have under funded their own. The origins of science are strongly correlated with the crypto Jewish monotheism of such giants like Isaac Newton.


  1. So I am sitting by the fire in the deserts of Northern Kenya, the camels at my research site are grumbling contentedly, the Rendille warriors are singing their songs in the distance, I sip my tea and my European colleague looks at me and says,

    Whether they believe these values are man made or God given, they agree with me that they are the values which drive development and which we must use to judge the development process until such time that Africans can do so without outside assistance. They are acting in what I like to describe as a Crypto Jewish way but are not conscious of it. Such is the power of Western culture that even when it is no longer taught in the universities and colleges of the West, the values of the Bible can still hold sway when we are forced to judge right from wrong. Any other scenario is moral multiculturalism.

    Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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