Does the Bible Provide Ethical Guidance for Business?

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Scripture has much to say about economic life, and that teaching encompasses more than simply personal finance. Here’s a summary of the Bible’s ethical guidance for business.

First, God calls men and women to business. In Genesis 1–2 God ordains work as part of His calling to Adam and Eve. They were intended to work the garden as a part of their role in exercising dominion over creation. Work has intrinsic value and is the way in which human beings fulfill the ongoing mandate to subdue the earth. It wasn’t instituted as a consequence of the entrance of sin into the world, though sin did serve to make work more taxing and difficult. From the beginning, work has been blessed by God. Thus His people working in business are doing His work in the world in the same way that a pastor is doing His work in the church. The Bible also calls people to work in order to support themselves and their families (2 Th 3:6–12; 1 Tm 5:8), to take care of the poor (Eph 4:28), to support the church and its outreaches (1 Co 16:1–3), and to provide a platform for sharing one’s faith.

Second, the Bible teaches that business is to be run with integrity. The Bible makes it clear that business is to be conducted honestly and is not to be used as a mechanism to exploit others, especially the vulnerable. The Mosaic Law contains numerous mandates regarding business integrity. For example, Leviticus 19:35 mandates that one’s weights and measures be accurate—something very important in an agricultural society. Further, Proverbs makes clear that God demands integrity in one’s business dealings (Pr 10:9; 11:1). The prophets demanded that those in business not use their resources to exploit the poor (Am 2:6–7; 4:1; Mc 6:10–12). The command to “act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” applies to business and establishes values of justice, love, and humility that should govern one’s business dealings (Mc 6:8). Jesus continued this emphasis in the NT. He instructed tax collectors to collect only what was prescribed (Lk 3:12–13), urged His hearers to take care of the poor (Mt 25:31–46), and taught that business is a legitimate enterprise if conducted with integrity (Mt 25:14–30). Likewise, the apostles suggested that work is necessary, that idleness is sinful, and that generosity for the poor is not only virtuous but mandatory.

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Third, the Bible condemns greed but condones an ambition for contentment. Greed motivates most of the unethical behavior in business today as ever. The Bible is clear that greed is a vice that needs to be put away once someone comes to faith in Christ (1 Co 6:10; Col 3:5). By contrast, contentment is a virtue to be cultivated (1 Tm 6:6–8). Paul made it clear that the love of money, not the mere possession of wealth, is the root of all kinds of evil. In the ancient world, it was not uncommon for someone to acquire wealth through means that exploited others. The notion that someone could do well financially and also do good for the community is relatively new, coming as a result of the emergence of capitalism—a system that itself cannot function well without a proper ethical foundation.

Leviticus 19:18 According to the eminent Rabbi Akiba (c. A.D. 50–132), the expression “love your neighbor as yourself” is a central principle in the Torah.

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Leviticus 19:19 Explanations of laws against mixtures include these: (1) Mixtures are a violation of the order God brought into the world by separating the species (Gn 1). (2) Mixtures are symbolic of mixtures of human beings; thus these laws prohibit intermarriage and assimilation. (3) Mixtures are to be avoided because they belong to the sacred sphere, namely the sanctuary, as do its officiants, the priests. The lower cover of the tabernacle and the curtain closing off the most holy place are a mixture of linen and wool (Ex 26:1, 31). The high priest’s ephod, breastpiece, and belt contain the same mixture (Ex 28:6, 15; 39:29). Mixtures, then, characterize the holiness of the sacred sphere and those authorized to enter or serve it.

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Leviticus 19:24–25 The Babylonians, also, regarded the fruit of the first four years as unfit for food.

Leviticus 19:26 The expression “with blood in it” (lit. “eating over blood”) may signify a form of divination, involving the consultation of ancestral spirits. These practices existed in Greek and ancient Near Eastern societies.

Leviticus 19:27 Tearing out the hair of one’s beard, as well as of the head, was a custom associated with mourning over the dead (cp. 21:5; Dt 14:1; Is 15:2; 22:12; Jr 16:6; Am 8:10).

Leviticus 19:28 Laceration was included in the rites of Baalistic fertility worship (cp. 1 Kg 18:28), and may have been a universal religious practice in the ancient Near East.

Leviticus 19:31 Spiritists were involved in necromancy, or purported communication with the dead (see 1 Sm 28:3–25; Is 29:4; cp. Lv 20:6; Dt 18:11; 2 Kg 21:6; 23:24; Is 8:19).

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Leviticus 19:33 The “foreigner” (Hb. ger) in the Bible was most often a foreign merchant, craftsman, or mercenary soldier. This term never refers to the prior inhabitants of the land. Generous actions to foreigners were motivated by the memory of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt (Ex 23:9; Dt 5:14–15).

Leviticus 20:2 Crimes punishable by stoning in the OT include blasphemy (24:16; cp. 1 Kg 21:9–14), Sabbath violation (Nm 15:32–36), idolatry (Dt 13:10; 17:5), adultery with a betrothed virgin (Dt 22:24), and failure to restrain a dangerous ox (Ex 21:29). Stoning was also the penalty for incorrigible children (Dt 21:18–21) and a bride who was found not to be a virgin (Dt 22:21).

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Leviticus 20:26 An exceptional feature of biblical law is the prominent focus on human values. In Israel, religious offenses and offenses against life tended to be punished more severely than in other ancient Near Eastern law, which regarded financial loss as more serious than loss of life. Punishment, in Israelite law, stands in marked contrast to the degrading brutality of many penalties under Assyrian law. Mutilation is demanded only once in the Pentateuch, in an extreme case (Dt 25:11–12), and there the penalty is mild compared with those in Assyrian laws. The OT demand for at least two witnesses (Dt 19:15) limited the application of penalties to flagrant violations.

Leviticus 21:14–15 In marrying a virgin, a priest would ensure that her children are his own. If a priest married a woman who was not a virgin, it would be possible that the first child (and therefore potential high priest) would not be of the Levitical line.

Leviticus 22:22–24 Many of the deformities that bar a priest from offering sacrifice (21:18–20) preclude animals from being offered as sacrifices.

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Leviticus 23:3 The kinds of work not permitted on the Sabbath, according to the Pentateuch, included plowing and harvesting (Ex 34:21), preparing food by baking and boiling (Ex 16:23), making a fire (Ex 35:3) and gathering of wood (Nm 15:32–36). The Sabbath was to be a day of joy and praise (Ex 23:12; Dt 5:12–15; Is 58:13; Hs 2:11). It was a distinctive sign of the covenant (between Yahweh and Israel, Ex 31:13–17). As the first sacred assembly listed in the chapter, the Sabbath was the most celebrated assembly, observed every seven days. The recurrence of the Sabbath in a seven-day cycle seems to be a model for the rest of the other sacred assemblies. There are seven festivals in the year. During these festivals there are seven days of rest. Most of these festivals occur in the seventh month of the year. This elaborate system of festivals and sabbatical years underscored the importance of the Sabbath.

Leviticus 23:5 The orthodox Jewish view is that “twilight” means “between midday and sunset.” In NT times the Passover sacrifice began around what would correspond to 3 p.m.

Leviticus 23:6 The Hebrew word for festival is chag. It is linguistically related to the Arabic expression hajj, a term that designates Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca. In Israel, all males were required to appear before the Lord at three feasts annually (Dt 16:16).

Leviticus 23:17–18 The giving of the law at Mount Sinai occurred on the occasion of the first Pentecost, or Festival of Booths (Ex 19:1). After the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70, the Festival of Booths became a festival of the law. Several prophets use symbols from this feast when they allude to the coming reign of God (e.g., Is 52:7–13; Zec 14:16–19).

Leviticus 23:23–24 The seventh month (vv. 24, 33) commemorated the end of the agricultural year. The festivals in this month had a more solemn character than those in the spring. Four extra Sabbaths are prescribed in the space of a month, including the most holy Day of Atonement (vv. 27–28).

Leviticus 23:37–44 The religious calendar was closely aligned with the agricultural year and its times of harvest. The Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread came at the time of the barley harvest in the spring, and the Festival of Booths was celebrated during the wheat harvest in our June. The seventh month (our September–October) contained three festivals—the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Booths—and coincided with the ripening of grapes, figs and olives.

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Leviticus 24:10–14 Blasphemy brings guilt on those who hear it as well as on the blasphemer. To rid themselves of this guilt the hearers had to lay their hands on the blasphemer’s head.

Leviticus 24:13–23 On four other occasions Moses made a special inquiry of God about a legal decision (Nm 9:6–14; 15:32–36; 27:1–11). The death penalty was administered outside the area of settlement because of the impurity of a corpse (see Dt 17:5).

Leviticus 24:19–20 The principle known as lex talionis, or “law of such” (i.e. of corresponding retaliation) is found in other ancient law codes before the time of Moses. The laws of Eshnunna and the laws of Ur-Nammu, rediscovered through archaeology, predate the Code of Hammurabi (seventeenth century B.C.) by a few centuries. These codes, too, establish fines for personal injury.

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The goal of the penal system in the Bible is compensation, or restitution. The phrase “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” was an illustration of the principle, not to be applied literally. The punishment must be proportionate to the offense (cp. Ex 21:23–25; Dt 19:21), not disproportionately severe. Only in the case of premeditated murder was such compensation forbidden (Nm 35:16–21). The principle of “life for life” must be literally enforced, because man bears the image of God (Gn 9:5–6). Jesus’ statement, “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them” (Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31), is a reflection of the lex talionis in this broader sense (Dt 19:19).

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Leviticus 25:4 Allowing the land to lie fallow every seventh year helped to reduce the amount of sodium in the soil due to irrigation. But it was also a way to recognize that the Lord is the ultimate owner of the land.

Leviticus 25:10 The Year of Jubilee, the fiftieth year, would follow the seventh sabbatical year. Thus, when the Jubilee was celebrated the land would remain uncultivated for two consecutive years.

Leviticus 25:10 This verse is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This legislation has contributed to the Western ideal that every family has a right to own property. The Sabbath Year foreshadows the time when creation will be delivered from the bondage of corruption (Rm 8:21).

Leviticus 25:26–28 An owner of land who had sold his land under economic stress could redeem it at any time, either through his own resources or those of a relative. The purchaser could not refuse the right of redemption.

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Leviticus 25:39–55 These laws are designed to make slavery as humane as possible. Slavery in the OT was somewhat akin to imprisonment in the modern world, and served a roughly similar purpose, enabling a man who could not pay a debt to work it off directly. In some respects it was less degrading and demoralizing than the modern penitentiary; for one thing the man was not cut off from outside society as he would be in prison. Harshness characterized slavery in Egypt (Ex 1:13–14).

Debt could never force a family to sell its land. Faced with financial hardship, however, an Israelite landowner could lease his land for the number of years until the next Jubilee. Land was passed from father to son; the right of redemption that went with such a patrimony permitted the original owner to reclaim full control of his family lands whenever he met the debt of obligation. That is, the lessee could not refuse to return the land to the lessor. The lessor was able to redeem the land in any one of three ways: (1) A relative could pay off the debt. (2) Whenever the head of the family accumulated enough money, he could redeem it himself. (3) At the Year of Jubilee a patrimony was automatically returned to its original owner free of debt. In the last instance Yahweh Himself was acting as the next of kin, liberating His kinsman’s property.

It is evident from 2 Ch 36:21, where it is said that the land lay desolate during the captivity for 70 years to make up for its Sabbath Years, that the celebration of the sabbatical year had been neglected during the last centuries before the captivity. If the number is taken exactly, the passage points to an omission of the Sabbath Year reaching back about 500 years, i.e., to the days of Solomon (Jr 34:8–10; Ezek 7:12). There is some evidence that both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar (109–44 B.C.) reduced the annual tribute Jews had to pay every seventh year.

Genesis 22:2 BDC: Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son when God condemned human sacrifice in Leviticus 18 and 20?

Leviticus 26:14–39 A list of curses occurs in nearly all ancient Near Eastern treaties that have been preserved, as sanctions that guarantee the observance of the agreement. The classic collections of biblical curses in 26:14–33 and Dt 28:15–68 resemble the epilogue of the Code of Hammurabi. But Leviticus and Deuteronomy are unique in holding out the hope of survival for those who experience even the most severe punishment, exile from the homeland. The presence of these curses underscores the character of the biblical covenant as a “treaty” between Yahweh and His people.

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Leviticus 26:21–22 The curse of devouring animals is found in other treaties, particularly the eighth century Aramaic Sefire treaty (cp. Dt 28:38, 39, 42; Jr 8:17). The region of Samaria, after it fell to the Assyrians, experienced something of a fulfillment of this warning (2 Kg 17:25–26; cp. Ezek 14:15). Conversely, Is 11:6–9; 35:9, and Hs 2:18 speak of the future age when animals will live in harmony with humans.

Leviticus 26:46 The belief that God disciplines his people in order to keep them from continuing in their sinful paths is also expressed in Dt 8:5 and Pr 3:11–12 (see Heb 12:4–11). While the ultimate curse of exile would cause Israel to forfeit her occupation of the land of her inheritance for a period of time (cp. 18:24–28), it would not threaten the existence of Israel, the seed of Abraham (Rm 11). The NT seems to regard the principle of blessing and cursing as applying to the church, individually and corporately. As in the OT, those who accept God’s grace will enjoy its privileges in doing God’s will but will suffer if they do not (e.g., Rm 2:6–10). Many of the horrifying judgments described in Rev 6 find their original setting in the covenant curses of Lv 26 and Dt 28.

Leviticus 27:1–8 These figures may represent the price of slaves of different age and gender in ancient Israel. The average earning of an Israelite worker in biblical times was about one shekel per month.

By Scott B. Rae

The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)

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