Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Haggai 2: God Will Make You Rich

How do you know that God loves you?

And don't punk out and say, "the Bible tells me so." Is it because you're happy? Is it because the work you do for your temple is fulfilling? Is it because you are content when you're at church? Is it because you just feel blessed?

Or is it because you're rich? This last answer--though it may feel blasphemous to many Jews and Christians--isn't so uncommon as you might think ...

Max Weber, the father of modern sociology, argued in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that early American Christians measured God's love in terms of their own material wealth. Simply put, they knew God liked them because they had cash.

Having no other way to measure the divinity's response to their actions, American Protestants knew God was smiling on them when their bank accounts grew. (For Weber, this theory explains why Protestants are such good free-marketers--and why the predominantly Christian United States has generally enjoyed economic success.)

Weber's characterization of Protestantism finds a modern analogue in the "prosperity gospel" preached by some contemporary evangelicals, among them Atlanta's megachurch baron Eddie Long. The first title that appears in Long's online church bookstore is Think Like a Billionaire, Become a Billionaire.

Bishop Long drove a $350,000 Bentley and lived in a $1.1 million home. Or at least he did until he got caught up in a homosexual sex scandal late last year. But I digress ... according to Long and others like him, God wants to bless his faithful followers with money, with fast cars, with big houses, with cool stuff.

(Benjamin Anastas develops a fascinating critique of prosperity evangelists in a recent Harper's cover story.)

Now for many, Weber's Protestantism and the prosperity gospel are explicitly anti-religious. Jesus claims that it is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye than for the rich to enter God's grace (Matthew 19:24), and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah frequently argue for a form of social justice that encourages charity--not hoarding.

However, a financial or material understanding of divine blessing is not without scriptural precedent. Indeed, the prosperity gospel may find a compelling proof text in an unlikely corner of the Hebrew Bible--Haggai.

Haggai is one of three significant post-exilic prophets whose works are included in the Hebrew Bible. The others are Malachi and Zechariah, and this trio prophesied to Israelites who returned to the Holy Land after the fall of the Babylonian empire.

Haggai was written in 520 B.C.E., eighteen years after Cyrus of Persia issued the edict allowing exiled Jews to return to Israel. Haggai's main goal in his brief book is to compel the Israelites to rebuild the temple, destroyed by Babylonian invaders with the rest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

The prophet's first efforts to persuade the Israelites to do so come in chapter 1. He writes, "Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?" (1:4) The Israelites have homes, Haggai exhorts, but God does not. The temple must be rebuilt so God, too, can have a "house" in the restored nation.

But the Israelites are slow to act. Some among them, it seems, remember the glory of the first temple--built in splendor by King Solomon--and know that "Temple, Part II: The Re-Templing" could only be a thin (and unworthy) reflection of its opulent predecessor (whose construction is described in detail in 1 Kings 5-6).

So Haggai eventually decides to hit the Israelites where it hurts: their stuff.

He channels God in Haggai 2: "Before a stone was placed upon a stone in the Lord’s temple, how did you fare? When one came to a heap of twenty measures, there were but ten; when one came to the wine vat to draw fifty measures, there were but twenty. I struck you and all the products of your toil with blight and mildew and hail; yet you did not return to me, says the Lord" (2:15-17).

Said differently, when the temple lies in ruins, God punishes his people by destroying their material possessions. This passage in chapter 2 reiterates a point made earlier in the book: when God is homeless, "you that earn wages earn wages to put them in a bag with holes" (Haggai 1:6).

If, by contrast, the people do their religious duty and rebuild the temple, God will allow them to prosper--to reap measures, to draw wine, and to earn and save money!

And Haggai, it seems, sees this ball get rolling; the Israelites eventually respond to his prophecy and begin their work, and the second temple will be finished by 515 B.C.E. When the building begins, God starts to reward his people anew: the Lord asks, rhetorically, "Do the vine, the fig tree, the pomegranate, and the olive tree still yield nothing?" (2:19). And the answer is "no." So God concludes, "From this day on, I will bless you" (2:19). With stuff.

And Bishop Long and early American Protestants as well, perhaps ...

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