Transactions in Markets for Goods and Services

A. The command to love the neighbour, and humankind’s dominion over the created order: the relevance of higher level DSPs. 

Direct comments on market transactions are not absent from the Biblical text, but are not frequent. In deriving DSPs for this area, it is necessary to begin with two higher level DSPs. 

Love for neighbour.   

‘Interactions with others (social and economic) should be relational, in the sense of empathy with the good of the other party’

‘Attitudes to others should be motivated by love (grace, service), not personal gain.’

Natural order (creation) and work 

‘The purpose (telos) of working with the natural order is to provide for human flourishing – food, clothing, shelter, social interaction.’

[Comment: If the creation is abundant and fruitful, but none the less limited, then in working with it we need to be efficient and not wasteful: and we should be particularly careful not to exploit it in such a way that it is permanently damaged or destroyed.]  

B. Biblical ambivalence about trade and commerce

The OT prophets were ambivalent about trade and commerce (based on Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 27-28:10). The context is the judgement on Tyre for its pursuit of trading activities across the Near East in OT times. These passages do not make it entirely clear on what basis Tyre is condemned, except perhaps their arrogant reliance on their wealth and skill in trading (see particularly Isaiah 23: 9). Revelation 18 has a similar description of international trading activities undermined by the fall of Babylon, in a passage closely modelled on Ezekiel.   

Despite this, Calvin wrote: 

‘Economic interdependence and the commerce that flows from this are part of the natural order established by God for serving society in a harmonious way’. 

He based this on Isaiah 23: 17, 18, which speaks of Tyre returning to trade and commercialactivity after seventy years of judgement, ‘... her profits will go to those who live before the Lord, for abundant food and fine clothes’. This suggests that the problem is not with trade and commerce per se, but with the unbridled pursuit of wealth; which is consistent with the condemnation of the pursuit of profit for its own sake (compare James 5: 1-6) rather than profit as a return for the service of others through supplying goods and services. 

C. Market behaviour

1. Dishonest weights and measures:  

Leviticus 19: 35-36. ‘Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.’

Deuteronomy 25: 13-16. ‘Do not have two differing weights in your bag – one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house – one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.’ 

Note that both these passages explicitly invoke ‘the Lord your God’, suggesting that bad behaviour in market transactions is particularly offensive to God. Similar passages: Proverbs 11: 1, 16: 11, 20: 10, 23. Prophetic denunciations of dishonesty in weights and measures: Amos 8: 4-6, Micah 6: 9-11. More generally, Leviticus 19:11, 13 warns against stealing and deceit, possibly in the context of market behaviour.  

2. Objective valuations

The objective valuation of assets appears as a theme in Leviticus, in two rather different contexts. The first is that of the Jubilee regulations in chapter 25, and specifies the basis for land valuations where land is bought and sold. The criteria are the number of years to the next Jubilee, and the prospective value of the crops in those years: ‘because what is really being sold to you is the number of crops’ 25: 16. This regulation is backed up with a warning: ‘Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God’ (v.17). Similar calculations are mandated where the original seller seeks to redeem the land (buy it back) before the Jubilee (vv. 25-27). (The right of redemption does not however apply where a house is sold.) Later in the same chapter (vv.47-53), there are equivalent provisions for the redemption of a person who has been sold into slavery, with the price for release based on ‘the rate paid to a hired worker for the number of years remaining’ to the Jubilee.   

The second context concerns the terms on which a person can buy back an animal, a house, or land or field which has been dedicated to the Lord (Leviticus 27). There is a penalty for such redemption, equivalent to one fifth of the value as established at the time of dedication. The interesting additional element here is that the value is to be determined by the priest on fair terms: the priest becomes the ‘professional’ valuer.  

3. Hoarding

Hoarding comes in for severe criticism, but the context is generally the hoarding of wealth and neglect of the poor (for examples, James 5: 3, or the parable of the rich fool, Luke 12: 16-21), rather than the hoarding of commodities. An exception is Proverbs 11: 26 (‘People curse the man who hoards grain, but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell’). 

In Amos 8: 5, 6, hoarding for speculation may be the market practice which is being condemned. 

4. Bribery

Bribery is strongly condemned in various OT passages. For example, Exodus 23: 8, ‘Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous’ (almost exactly the same wording in Deuteronomy 16: 19). Other references: Proverbs 17: 8, 23, 15: 27, Isaiah 1: 23, Amos 5: 12. But all these are in the context of administration, particularly of justice, rather than market transactions. The Near Eastern culture of gift giving was characteristic of the OT context, and this is reflected in some of the sayings in the Wisdom literature. But this should be distinguished from bribery in transactions. Gifts may simply reflect a culture where the exchange of gifts is an essential element of everyday life: the motivations may be purely formal, or may reflect genuine affection. They certainly should not be regarded as necessarily corrupt. (A point that needs to be given careful attention when seeking to apply these passages in non-Western cultures.)

Derived Social Principles

[Suggested DSPs are in italics, with a brief explanation to follow as necessary.] 

1. Market interactions should be relational, and motivated by service to others. 

This follows from the higher level DSP requiring love for neighbour. The extent to whichtransactions can be truly relational in a market economy is unclear (the standard analysis in economics makes a virtue of the anonymity of market transactions). 

2. The purpose of trade and commerce is to serve others by supplying goods and services that are necessary to human flourishing, especially food, clothing, shelter. 

This follows from the second higher level DSP noted above which identifies the purposes of working with the created order. Where trade and commerce are directed solely to personal gain and the acquisition of wealth, to the exclusion of the ideal of service, they are denounced (as is the case with the prophetic critique of the commercial culture of Tyre). This critique may also apply to hoarding of commodities rather than supplying them willingly to markets. 

3. Honesty and integrity in market transactions are required. 

The substantial references to the condemnation of dishonest weights and measures make this very clear. 

4. Valuations should be accurately based on objective criteria. 

The discussion of valuations in Leviticus requires fairness and objectivity where valuations are required. [No direct application of passages about bribery. There may however be scope for application to situations where contracts are won on the basis of bribery, particularly but not exclusively public sector contracts. Corruption is of course a serious problem in many economies worldwide.] 

[Milan Pavlovic, Donald Hay, April 2014]