As a Chinese American female and the oldest of 12 children who lived in one of the poorest sections in Chicago, I did not grow up having the latest clothes or toys that were flung at us in television commercials. My father learned to be an electrician in the Navy. While he fixed televisions for the Radio Corporation of American (RCA), my mom worked as unpaid labor in the home. To keep food on the table for our big family, Dad had to supplement his pay by working as a short-order cook and as a waiter in a restaurant. Knowing this, I worked hard to pay for my own education.
In high school, I washed dishes and cleaned tables after lunch. During college, I changed diapers and emptied bedpans in pediatric and cancer wards in hospitals. In not being paid wages commensurate with the surplus value of our labor, my father and I were exploited for our work in ways similar to what I found in the Bible. It was here that I discovered that the exploitation of subjugated groups is age-old.
Growing up as a Roman Catholic, I did not have the veneration of the Bible that Protestants did. For me, the Bible was literature, which had beauty in many places, but was also violent, sexist, and racist. I discovered in the biblical text what I had already experienced in real life: that there are insidiously complex interconnections among the “-isms”: sexism, racism, classism, colonialism, heterosexism, fundamentalism, and so forth. After almost 20 years of teaching, I personally became “woke” to economic exploitation when writing my book “Poor Banished Children of Eve: Women as Evil in the Hebrew Bible” (Fortress Press, 2003). Though the sexism in the biblical text did not surprise me, it confirmed for me that the exploitation of subjugated groups for greed (along with sexism, ethnocentrism, etc.) can be found even in a work as foundational for spiritual life as the Bible.
The Bible was literature, which had beauty in many places, but was also violent, sexist, and racist.
As a biblical scholar, particularly of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, I see many points of contact between the capitalist exploitation of the so-called Third World of its labor and resources and the economy of ancient Israel when it was ruled by kings. An awareness of these contexts is important, given the fact that the Bible has been used to legitimate an indifference for those victimized by capitalism: the poor, who supposedly “will always be with you” (Mark 14:7). Its stories of exploitation are usually not discussed in studies that focus on “daily life” in ancient Israel and in seminary classes on the Old Testament.
The Bible has been used to legitimate an indifference for those victimized by capitalism.
Israel was originally a tribal kin-based society whose social relations were communal and collaborative. The people had no ruling class of elites that demanded tribute or taxes, but they channeled their human and material resources toward the good of the tribe. When the Israelites chose a king to govern them, the society became stratified with the king at the top of the social pyramid. The majority population at the bottom of this society were the farmers who worked the land.
The prophet Samuel warned the people of the consequences of demanding for a king to rule over them in 1 Samuel 8. First, a king would expropriate their men for his military and wars. He would take their sons from their farms to be “his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots” and “make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots” (8:11-12, ESV). Their daughters will become “perfumers and cooks and bakers” for the palace (8:13). Moreover, he would impose an exorbitant tax of their harvests, herds, and slaves, which they had never experienced before: taking the best of their grain, vineyards, slaves, and livestock and giving them to his officers and courtiers (8:14-17). No “trickle-down economy” here; the fruits of the people’s hard labor would move upward to reward the king’s nobles and toadies.
No “trickle-down economy” here; the fruits of the people’s hard labor would move upward to reward the king’s nobles and toadies.
The ancient Hebrews refused to heed Samuel’s warning and demanded a king like the other nations (8:19-20). But they paid the price. When the exploitation of their labor and goods became unbearable and they cried out to God, the Lord would not answer them (8:18).
The reign of Solomon is considered the “Golden Age” of Israel. Allegedly, “Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy” (1 Kings 4:20). However, his rule had a dark underside. One of the ways in which Solomon controlled his kingdom was by breaking up the tribal structure and reorganizing his kingdom into 12 administrative districts. The people’s allegiance would not be to the tribe but to the centralized government in Jerusalem.
Each district was heavily taxed and had a bureaucrat who oversaw this taxation for the royal house. The daily provision for Solomon’s court “was thirty cors of fine flour, and sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl” (1 Kings 4:22-24). Meanwhile, the peasantry ate very simply, their diet primarily consisting of the Mediterranean triad of bread, wine, and olive oil; they rarely ate meat. Furthermore, Solomon’s own tribe, Judah, was exempt from the onerous taxation and benefited from all the surplus wealth of the 12 districts that flowed southward into it.
“The Hunger Games” displayed a dynamic of economic oppression similar to the oppression found during Israel’s monarchy. A centralized government in the fictional land of Panem oppressed its 11 districts by squeezing them dry of their precious resources, leaving them poor and starving, while its capital lived in conspicuous consumption and physical and moral decadence.
Besides the steep extraction of agricultural and animal reserves, Solomon drafted corvée or unpaid labor for his many building projects, including the famous temple in Jerusalem. Since large timber trees were not indigenous to Israel, Solomon had to import the cedars of Lebanon at a costly price from his Phoenician neighbor Hyram of Tyre, while drafting 70,000 laborers and 80,000 stonecutters under 3,300 supervisors (1 Kings 5:13-17).
As we see, class distinctions and conflicts between the rich and poor have been with us since biblical times and even before: between king and farmer, slave owner and slave, landed gentry and peasant, factory owner and worker. Capitalism is simply the modern variant of the same historical phenomenon. However, a big jump exists from the exploitation by elites in ancient Israel to the capitalist exploitation of the so-called Third World (Global South).
A big jump exists from the exploitation by elites in ancient Israel to the capitalist exploitation of the so-called Third World.
The ancient Israelites did not have the powers of telecommunication, overnight trans-global shipping, international financial institutions to regulate trade, or even notions of private property and money, which are two of the essential characteristics of capitalism. Although dramatically different in means and methods, both exploit the labor and the material resources of the populations from which they profited.
As the dominant economic system of the Western world (or the Global North), the overall purpose of capitalism is to make and accumulate profits for an investor class that owns and controls “capital”, or the means of production, such as factories, businesses, technology, etc. Market competition forces companies to do everything possible to achieve profits; this necessitates keeping the costs of production down by cutting wages and moving middle-class jobs offshore where cheap labor is available. It also necessitates the expropriation of natural resources, such as water, forests, and minerals, depleting the lands of the Third World.
Global capitalism primarily serves the interests of a small and wealthy class of investors. It persuades Americans to participate in one unjust system or another, such as buying sweatshop-manufactured clothes or eating produce harvested by poorly paid migrants, both of which rely largely on the exploitation of non-white workers. The ongoing economic growth that provides steady returns for investors comes at a cost which is ultimately unsustainable, causing both severe environmental damage and adding to the ever widening income inequality.
The word “tribal” has been used to characterize the polarization of people via their economic class in U.S. society, particularly since the election of the present administration. Unfortunately, this characterization highlights negative aspects of the word: its rigid conformity, parochialism, and ethnocentrism. But the underlying roots of tribalism are community, sharing, hospitality, and loving care for family and others we regard as “kin”.
We have lost these values in a society that stresses possessing more consumer goods than we need, while conveniently forgetting those who produced them and were paid considerably less than what the products were sold for. The usual biblical rationale that “the poor will always be with you” causes consumers to forget the lower-class lives that brought them their Nike and Adidas sneakers, laptop computer, or smartphone. This amnesia involves the erasure of the workers and their exploitation from the luxury product itself.
If only we can harness the tools of social media and our manifold technological advances to create a network where the global community can recover those life-affirming tribal values to help the marginalized and exploited in the world. This is a hope that sustains me in my continual exploration of the biblical text.
The biblical prophets like Amos called down God’s punishment against those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:6-7). The courage of these ancient orators to stand up against the powerful on behalf of the marginalized is one of the reasons I devoted my academic work particularly to the prophets.
Poverty and inequality are not the same thing. While poverty focuses on the condition of the poor, inequality focuses on both the rich and the poor. It asks us to confront an important question that is often side-stepped nowadays: How do the ways in which the rich obtain their wealth generate poverty for others?
How do the ways in which the rich obtain their wealth generate poverty for others?
I’ve described how this exploitation took place in ancient Israel; inequality in our own society involves the exploitative mechanisms of capitalism. In order to become prophets ourselves, to critique the unrelenting drive for profits in capitalism and recover the positive ethics of tribal living, we must become educated in the systemic structures of the U.S. economy and of capitalism itself, and then through our God-given gifts, strive to create a more equitable, just society.
*A good place to start is an excellent and readable book by Joel Magnuson: “Mindful Economics: How the U.S. Economy Works, Why It Matters, and How It Could be Different” (2008). Magnuson not only lays out the dangers of capitalist growth for environmental sustainability, but also offers alternate visions for systemic change.
By Gale A. Yee
Illustrations by Angela Lee
Gale A. Yee is Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies emerita at Episcopal Divinity School. She is the author of several books, as well as many articles and essays. She currently lives at Pilgrim Place, a retirement community in Claremont, California, known for its social activism.
Angela Lee is an illustrator and designer based in San Francisco Bay Area. She was featured in Star 85 Magazine with her narrative illustrations. She develops conceptual illustration and design using both hand-crafted and digital-painted media.