In the second part of his second speech, Moses describes in detail the “statutes and ordinances” that God charges Israel to obey (Deut. 6:1). These rules deal with a wide array of matters, including war, slavery, tithes, religious festivals, sacrifices, kosher food, prophecy, the monarchy, and the central sanctuary. This material contains several passages that speak directly to the theology of work. We will explore them in their biblical order.
In case the commandments, statutes, and ordinances in God’s covenant might come to seem like nothing but a burden to Israel, Moses reminds us that their primary purpose is to bless us.
If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Lord your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors; he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you. (Deut. 7:12-13)
If you obey the Lord your God: Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out…. The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you. The Lord will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings. (Deut. 28:2-7; 11–12)
Obeying the covenant is meant to be a source of blessing, prosperity, joy, and health for God’s people. As Paul says, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12), and “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
This is not to be confused with the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” which incorrectly claims that God inevitably brings wealth and health to individuals who gain his favor. It does mean that if God’s people lived according to his covenant, the world would be a better place for everyone. Of course, the Christian witness is that we are not capable of fulfilling the law through any power we possess. That is why there is a new covenant in Christ, in which God’s grace is made available to us through Christ’s death and resurrection, rather than being limited by our own obedience. By living in Christ, we find that we are able to love and serve God, and that we do after all receive the blessings described by Moses, in part in the present day, and in full when Christ brings God’s kingdom to fulfillment.
In any case, obedience to God’s covenant is the overarching theme running through the book of Deuteronomy. In addition to these three extended passages, the theme is sounded on many brief occasions throughout the book, and Moses returns to it in his final speech at the end of his life in chapters 29 and 30.
In contrast to joyful obedience to God is the arrogance that often accompanies prosperity. This is similar to the danger of complacency that Moses warns about in Deuteronomy 4:25-40, but with a focus on active pride rather than passive entitlement.
When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deut. 8:12-14)
When, after many years of sweat equity, a person sees a business, career, research project, child raising, or other work become a success, he or she will have a justifiable sense of pride. But we can allow joyful pride to slip into arrogance. Deuteronomy 8:17- 18 reminds us, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.” As part of his covenant with his people, God gives us the ability to engage in economic production. We need to remember, however, that it is a gift of God. When we attribute our success entirely to our abilities and effort, we forget that God gave us those abilities as well as life itself. We are not self-created. The illusion of self-sufficiency makes us hard-hearted. As always, the proper worship and awareness of dependence on God provides the antidote (Deut. 8:18).
Givers Take All: A helping culture improves performance
The strongest factor for organizational performance may be a culture of helping. According to the McKinsey Quarterly, a group of Harvard psychologists studied performance of 64 units in the U.S. intelligence service after 9/11. They discovered that:
The topic of generosity arises in Deuteronomy 15:7-8. “If there is among you anyone in need…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand.” Generosity and compassion are of the essence of the covenant. “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work” (Deut. 15:10). Our work becomes fully blessed only when it blesses others. As Paul put it, “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
For most of us, the money earned by work gives us the means to be generous. Do we actually use it generously? Moreover, are there ways we can be generous in our work itself? The passage speaks of generosity specifically as an aspect of work (“all your work”). If a co-worker needs help developing a skill or capability, or an honest word of recommendation from us, or patience dealing with his or her shortcomings, would these be opportunities for generosity? These kinds of generosity may cost us time and money, or they may require us to reconsider our self-image, examine our complicity, and question our motives. If we could become ungrudging in making these sacrifices, would we open a new door for God’s blessing through our work?
A troubling topic in Deuteronomy is slavery. The allowance of slavery in the Old Testament generates a great deal of debate, and we cannot resolve all the issues here. We should not, however, equate Israelite slavery with slavery in the modern era, including slavery in the United States. The latter involved kidnapping West Africans from their homeland for sale as slaves, followed by the perpetual enslavement of their descendants. The Old Testament condemns this kind of practice (Amos 1:6), and makes it punishable by death (Deut. 24:7; Exod. 21:16). Israelites became slaves to one another not through kidnapping or unfortunate birth, but because of debt or poverty (Deut. 15:12, NRSV footnote a). Slavery was preferable to starvation, and people might sell themselves into slavery to pay off a debt and at least have a home. But the slavery was not to be lifelong. “If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free” (Deut. 15:12). Upon release, former slaves were to receive a share of the wealth their work had created. “When you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deut. 15:13-14).
In some parts of the world people are still sold (usually by parents) into debt bondage—a form of work that is slavery in all but name. Others may be lured into sex trafficking from which escape is difficult or impossible. Christians in some places are taking the lead in rooting out such practices, but much more could be done. Imagine the difference it would make if many more churches and individual Christians made this a high priority for mission and social action.
In more developed countries, desperate workers are not sold into involuntary labor but take whatever jobs they may be able to find. If Deuteronomy contains protections even for slaves, don’t these protections also apply to workers? Deuteronomy requires that masters must abide by contract terms and labor regulations including the fixed release date, the provision of food and shelter, and the responsibility for working conditions. Work hours must be reasonably limited, including a weekly day off (Deut. 5:14). Most significantly, masters are to regard slaves as equals in God's eyes, remembering that all God’s people are rescued slaves. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (Deut. 15:15).
When the Guy Making Your Sandwich Has a Noncompete Clause
If you are a chief executive of a large company, you very likely have a noncompete clause in your contract, preventing you from jumping ship to a competitor until some period has elapsed. Likewise if you are a top engineer or product designer, holding your company’s most valuable intellectual property between your ears.
Read the full article in The New York Times here.
Modern employers might abuse desperate workers in ways similar to the ways ancient masters abused slaves. Do workers lose these protections merely because they are not actually slaves? If not, then employers have a duty at least not to treat workers worse than slaves. Vulnerable workers today may face demands to work extra hours without pay, to turn over tips to managers, to work in dangerous or toxic conditions, to pay petty bribes in order to get shifts, to suffer sexual harassment or degrading treatment, to receive inferior benefits, or to endure illegal discrimination and other forms of mistreatment. Even well-off workers may find themselves unfairly denied a reasonable share of the fruits of their labor.
To modern readers, the Bible’s acceptance of temporary slavery seems difficult to accept—even though we recognize that ancient slavery was not the same as sixteenth- through nineteenth-century slavery—and we can be thankful that slavery is at least technically illegal everywhere today. But rather than regarding the Bible’s teaching about slavery as obsolete, we would do well to work to abolish modern forms of involuntary servitude, and to follow and promote the Bible’s protections for economically disadvantaged members of society.
The effectiveness of property rights and workers’ protections often depends on law enforcement and judicial systems. Moses’ charge to judges and officials is especially important when it comes to work. “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right” (Deut. 16:19). Without impartial justice, it would be impossible to “live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 16:20).
Modern workplaces and societies are no less susceptible to bribery, corruption, and bias than ancient Israel was. According to the United Nations, the greatest impediment to economic growth in less developed countries is lapses in the impartial rule of law. In places where corruption is endemic, it may be impossible to make a living, travel across town, or abide in peace without paying bribes. This statute seems to recognize that in general those who have the power to demand bribes are more at fault than those who acquiesce in paying them, for the prohibition is against accepting bribes, not against paying them. Even so, whatever Christians can do to reduce corruption—whether on the giving or the receiving end—is a contribution to the “just decisions” (Deut. 16:18) that are sacred to the Lord. (For a more in-depth exploration of economic applications of the rule of law, see “Land Ownership and Property Rights” in Numbers 26-27; 36:1-12 above.
United Nations Development Programme, Issue Brief: Rule of Law and Development (New York: United Nations, 2013), 3.
Moses sets up a system of trial courts and courts of appeal that are surprisingly similar to the structure of modern courts of law. He commands the people to obey their decisions. “You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left" (Deut. 17:11).
Workplaces today are governed by laws, regulations, and customs with procedures, courts, and appeal processes to interpret and apply them appropriately. We are to obey these legal structures, as Paul also affirmed (Rom. 13:1). In some countries, laws and regulations are routinely ignored by those in power or circumvented by bribery, corruption, or violence. In other countries, businesses and other workplace institutions seldom intentionally break the law, but may try to contravene it through nuisance lawsuits, political favors, or lobbying that opposes the common good. But Christians are called to respect the rule of law, to obey it, uphold it, and seek to strengthen it. This is not to say that civil disobedience never has a place. Some laws are unjust and must be broken if change is not feasible. But these instances are rare and always involve personal sacrifice in pursuit of the common good. Subverting the law for self-interested purposes, by contrast, is not justifiable.
Just as people and institutions must not contravene legitimate authority, people in positions of power must not use their authority illegitimately. Moses specifically deals with the case of a king.
He must not acquire many horses for himself…and he must not acquire many wives…also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him…. It shall remain with him and he shall read it…diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes. (Deut. 17:16-19)
In this text we see two restrictions on the use of authority—those in authority are not above the law but must obey and uphold it, and those in authority must not abuse their power by enriching themselves.
Today, people in authority may try to put themselves above the law, as for example when police and court workers “fix” traffic tickets for themselves and their friends, or when high-ranking public servants or business employees do not obey the expense policies others are subject to. Similarly, officials may use their power to enrich themselves receiving bribes, zoning, and licensing exemptions, access to privileged information, or personal use of public or private property. Sometimes special perks are granted to those in power as a matter of policy or law, but this does not really eliminate the offense. Moses’ command to kings is not to make sure to get legal authorization for their excesses, but to avoid the excesses altogether. When those in power use their authority not simply to gain special privileges but to create monopolies for their cronies, to appropriate vast lands and assets, and to jail, torture, or kill opponents, the stakes become deadly. There is no difference in kind between petty abuses of power and totalitarian oppression, merely in degree.
Deuteronomy requires owners of productive assets to employ them to benefit the community, and it does so in a clear-headed way. For example, landowners are to allow neighbors to use their land to help meet their immediate needs. “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in a container. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain” (Deut. 23:24-25). This was the law that allowed Jesus’ disciples to pluck grain from local fields as they went on their way (Matt. 12:1). Gleaners were responsible for harvesting food for themselves, and landowners were responsible for giving them access to do so. (See “Gleaning” in Leviticus 19:9-10 above for more on this practice.)
Likewise, those who lend capital must not demand terms that put the borrower’s health or livelihood in jeopardy (Deut. 23:19-20; 24:6, 10-13). In some cases, they must even be willing to lend when a loss is likely, simply because the neighbor’s need is so great (Deut. 15:7-9). See “Lending and Collateral” in Exodus 22:25-27 above for more detail.
God requires us to be open with our resources to those in need, while also exercising good stewardship of the resources he entrusts to us. On the one hand everything we have belongs to God, and his command is that we use what is his for the good of the community (Deut. 15:7). On the other hand, Deuteronomy does not treat a person's field as common property. Outsiders could not cart off as much as they pleased. The requirement for contribution to the public good is set within a system of private ownership as the primary means of production. The balance between private and public ownership, and the suitability of various economic systems for today’s societies, is a matter of debate to which the Bible can contribute principles and values but cannot prescribe regulations.
Differences of class and wealth can create opportunities for injustice. Justice requires treating workers fairly. We read in Deuteronomy 24:14, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.” Neither the poor nor the aliens had the standing in the community to challenge wealthy landowners in the courts, and thus they were vulnerable to such abuse. James 5:4 contains a similar message. Employers must regard their obligations to their lowest employees as sacred and binding.
Justice also requires treating customers fairly. “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small” (Deut. 25:13). The weights in question are used for measuring grain or other commodities in a sale. For the seller, it would be advantageous to weigh the grain against a weight that was lighter than advertised. The buyer would profit from using a falsely heavy weight. But Deuteronomy demands that a person always use the same weight, whether buying or selling. Protection against fraud is not limited to sales made to customers, but to all kinds of dealings with all the people around us.
Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker. (Deut. 27:17)
Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road. (Deut. 27:18)
Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. (Deut. 27:19)
Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood. (Deut. 27:25)
In principle, these rules prohibit every kind of fraud. As a modern analogy, a company might knowingly sell a defective product while oblivious to the moral implication. Customers might abuse store policies on returning used merchandise. Companies might issue financial statements in violation of generally accepted accounting principles. Workers might conduct personal business or ignore their work during paid time. Not only are these practices unjust, they violate the commitment to worship God alone, “for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deut. 26:19).