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Christian Economics in One Lesson, II: 2, Scarcity and Ownership

Written by Gary North on April 9, 2016

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Gen. 2:16-17).

God declared the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as forbidden to man, an area outside of man’s lawful jurisdiction. This was a verbal “No Trespassing” sign. Man then violated this boundary.

This trespass can be interpreted several ways. Above all, it was man’s attempt to substitute his sovereignty for God’s. It was an attack on all three offices of God: prophet, priest, and king. It was a prophetic violation, a denial of the reliability of God’s word: He would not bring the negative sanction He had promised, death. It was a priestly transgression, a violation of sacred space: sacrilege. It was a kingly violation, a challenge to the authority and ability of God to bring negative physical sanctions against man in history. It can also be understood as an attempt by the children to collect what they regarded as their inheritance before the father had transferred it. But for our purposes here, it should be understood as a property rights violation: the theft of God’s property.

Sanctions Imposed

God had promised that on the day they ate of the fruit, they would surely die. On that very day, He imposed a death sentence. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19). Man died definitively. i.e., died legally that day. The curse of death was in him, and it would be transferred to his children. To dust all men will return.

But God did not execute this sentence immediately. That is, He did not declare man dead finally. In fact, He offered both time and hope to man: the possibility of deliverance. Both time and hope were explicit in His curse on the serpent: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Both Satan and mankind would receive extra time before the final death sentence is imposed (Rev. 20:14-15). This was an act of grace on God’s part: a gift unearned by either Satan or mankind. God promised that the seed of the woman would someday crush the head of the serpent. The final sanction of death for the serpent, and therefore for the one whom the serpent represented judicially, would be imposed by man. This surely was grace to Adam: not merely a stay of execution but a guarantee of the reversal of at least some of his heirs’ legal status as covenant-breakers.

Having been lured into sin and death by the serpent, Adam had subordinated himself and his posterity to Satan in what Satan intended as a new covenant. It was in fact the original covenant, but with the sanction of judicial death applied. The sentence of death against the serpent was a sentence of death against Satan and therefore all those in covenantal bondage to him. But Adam’s heir, the promised seed, would turn the tables on the enemy and re-establish man’s uncontested authority over nature under God. Covenant-breaking man’s subordination to an evil master can be overcome in history through grace. A truly new covenant delivers those in bondage to Adam’s old covenant.

Grace precedes law. Having revealed His grace, God then declared new laws for mankind. In the exercise of man’s dominion, there will be appropriate negative sanctions. First, there will be pain in childbirth for women (Gen. 3:16). Second, the earth will not surrender its fruits willingly to men.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:17-19).

This negative sanction has a large element of grace in it. Man is bound by a covenant of death, and apart from grace, he seeks to imitate God by becoming a death-bringer, as Cain demonstrated. To restrain men in their rebellion, God has imposed economic limits on their actions. Cursed work has replaced murder in the lives of most men. The limits placed on nature’s productivity bound most men to the soil in the Old Covenant era, and only in the twentieth century did this change in urban, industrialized societies. Yet for most of mankind, it is still true: rural dwellers in India, China, and the underdeveloped world. Men battle the soil for possession of its fruits rather than battle each other continually for supremacy. This was God’s way of limiting the production of swords by creating demand for plowshares.

Grace precedes law. Before casting them out of Eden, God provided animal skins to cover them (Gen. 3:21). This cost some animal its life. Its blood had to be shed for the sake of man. The negative sanction of death had to be imposed by God in order for God to show grace to man. This is the law of God’s covenant of redemption.

God then separated man from the tree of life for as long as it remained in the garden. As in the case of every negative sanction in history, there was an element of grace in this expulsion. Man would not be able to gain access to the source of eternal temporal extension while he was under a covenant of death. He could not eat damnation to himself by feasting directly from the tree of life. Access to its fruit in history would henceforth be exclusively symbolic and representative: through ecclesiastical feasts of covenant renewal. The boundary around the tree would not rely on man’s good judgment to defend it. God placed a flaming sword to defend the tree (Gen. 3:24).

The Biblical Meaning of Scarcity

Modern economics defines scarcity in terms of price: “At zero price, there is greater demand for a scarce resource than there is supply.” Technically, this is a useful definition. It has yielded enormous crops of valuable analytical fruit over the years. But it suffers from its surface appearance as ethically neutral. Scarcity is not discussed by economists in terms of the curse of God.

We know little about how scarcity affected the garden of Eden. We know that man was unable to do two things at once. He had to do things in a sequential order, even as God created the world in a sequential order. Man is not omniscient. So, a learning process is mandatory. This means that man has to make choices: study this rather than that; test this approach rather than that one. So, even in Eden, unfallen man had to allocate his time and effort. But he did not face losses; he faced varying rates of positive return.

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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