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This is the second of a series here on the biblical origins of the American character. it definitely builds on the part preceding it, so if you haven’t read part one, do so, here.

We all know, or should, that the early settlers, especially the ones we call the Pilgrims,  felt a close affinity with the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. But why? I’ve always felt it was a disenchantment with the King of England, not least because of their sympathy for Oliver Cromwell. Turns out that I was fairly close to right. Kenneth Hanson has studied in far greater depth than I have ever seen, this paper was published in the New English Review. It’s a fascinating story as well, which sheds light not only on American History but on early Jewish history.

Here you will find the biblical basis of what we as Americans hold sacred.

Jacob Wrestling via Wikipedia

“Go ye!” – Patriarchs and Pioneers

by Kenneth Hanson

“Liberty, next to religion has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime… In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food.” – Lord Acton[1]

Patriarchal “Capitalism”

He’s the “child of promise,” born supernaturally to a barren woman who happened to be ninety years old, or so the story goes. Isaac doesn’t come off as the same kind of visionary we see in his father. He isn’t a pilgrim, and he doesn’t have to journey to any destination in particular. Whereas Abraham set forth from the land of his birth to an unknown country, Isaac stayed put for the most part. That doesn’t however, mean that he ceased his migratory ways. On the contrary, when a famine grips the land, we’re told that he follows in his father’s itinerant footsteps, venturing to the land of the Philistines, on the Mediterranean coast. Passing his wife off as his sister, just as Abraham had done. Far from being models of moral probity, as most religious folk would like to see them, the patriarchs make us mindful of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s famous quip, that his family consisted of “poster boys for bad behavior.” But Isaac’s ruse is discovered by King Abimelech (who might have taken Rebecca into his own tent) just in time, and the crisis passes.

Isaac is thereafter said to have “sowed in the land” (Genesis 26:12), which seems to indicate that he settled down, for a change. The nomad has become a planter, but still an eminent individualist. We might in fact go so far as to call him an ancient “capitalist.” Abraham, after the disgraceful episode in which he passed off Sarah as his “sister,” became “very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold” (Gen. 13:12). In Isaac’s case we are told that in the same year “he reaped a hundredfold.” Why? Because God “blessed him.” Of course it could also be a case of God helping those who help themselves. The text recounts that he not only prospered but that “his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy” (Gen. 26:13). The Hebrew word here is gadal, which means “great,” but the clear intention of the narrative is to tell us that he was flat-out “rich.” In spite of the oft-repeated biblical notion of the “collective,” what we have here is a supreme expression of individualism. Isaac has become a quintessential biblical “fat-cat.” Where in the text do we find any condemnation of such “selfishness”? Why is there no call for him to “spread the wealth around”? We can only observe that in the textual silence there is consent. This is individualism wrapped up in what America’s founders saw as the fundamental right of property, and, vice-versa, private property as the supreme expression of individualism. The Founding Fathers were no strangers to such biblical paradigms; nor was Abraham Lincoln, who eloquently stated:

Property is the fruit of labor…property is desirable…is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built. I take it that it is the best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy.[10]

In another speech Lincoln commented:

I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich. It would do more harm than good.[11]

The coercive redistribution of wealth was no more in Lincoln’s mind than in that of the biblical writers. One of the most seminal volumes of economic and political theory ever penned was Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, that laid out a blueprint for the modern “capitalist” free market economy. Thomas Jefferson commented: “In political economy I think Smith’s Wealth of Nations the best book extant.”[12 Nonetheless, as some see it, Adam Smith’s message for Main Street was later embodied by Wall Street: “Greed works.” Those who read the Bible, however, will notice Smith’s emphasis on the idea of an “invisible hand” that promotes the good of all through interest in the self. He famously wrote:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest… [Every individual] intends only his own security, only his own gain. And he is in this led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.[13]

Such observations are denigrated to scorn in most contemporary classrooms and presented by university professors as a hopeless relic of greedy capitalist imperialism. Let’s face it; in modern citadels of education, you won’t even be exposed to the Wealth of Nations. Karl Marx yes; Adam Smith no![14]

When it comes to the stories of Abraham and Isaac, it isn’t their charity that strikes us as much as their self-interest. Isaac, as a tiller of the ground, was one from whom we might expect our dinner. Yet, the Bible’s “invisible hand” indicates that he was “blessed.” The Bible, like Adam Smith, doesn’t seem bothered by self-centeredness at all; but don’t tell modern “statists,” who seem convinced that only governmental institutions can promote the greater good.

The Bible – as politics – is telling us that in spite of their personal foibles, Abraham and Isaac relentlessly pursued their self-interest, and in so doing promoted not only their own families, but the larger units of tribe and ultimately the nation that came to be called “Israel.”

Abraham and Isaac as the first capitalists, who said business isn’t pleasing to God. Do note here though that they provided a service for every shekel they earned, it wasn’t because they gave money to the resident emperor to get and keep his favor. It’s a story of capitalism, not crony capitalism.

Jacob the Entrepreneur

We can see in Isaac’s cultivation of the fields a prophetic prefiguring of a settled nation, which the seed of Abraham would one day become; but the vagabond lifestyle of the patriarchs by no means vanishes, and might even be seen as the biblical “ideal.” Rebecca, we are told, is carrying two sons in her womb. One, to be called Esau, is destined to be a “hairy” fellow, a hunter, a man of the open fields, while the other, known to us as Jacob, is an “indoor” type, a “momma’s boy.” Esau comes out of the womb before his twin brother, thereby securing his father’s birthright, as firstborn.

Jacob, however, is not satisfied with an inferior status and connives with his mother to “steal” Esau’s birthright. He dons sheepskin and deceives the aged and near-blind Isaac into thinking that he is in fact his “hairy” brother, Esau. Sure enough, Isaac mistakenly conveys his blessing and his inheritance to Jacob, who now fears for his life from Esau. Before his enraged twin can slay him, Jacob decides to abandon his secure “homebody” lifestyle and take to the roads, like earlier generations of patriarchs.

His ultimate destination is Mesopotamia, where his grandfather had originated. He has extended family there, specifically an uncle named Laban, to whose household he will join himself. He will fall desperately in love with a beautiful damsel named Rachel, for whose matrimonial sake he will do anything, including the perpetration of foolhardy “business” deals. His uncle Laban will agree to give his daughter to Jacob, but only on condition that the grandson of Abraham become his “indentured servant.”

Laban is certainly motivated by self-interest and “capitalism,” but so is Jacob. Having tended Laban’s flocks for seven years, in order to acquire Rachel as his bride, he agrees to work an additional seven years, since Laban has decreed that his older daughter Leah must be married first. Only by agreeing to work a total of fourteen years can Jacob take to wife both Leah and his beloved Rachel. At first blush Jacob doesn’t seem to be a very astute businessman, but he is not to be outdone.

After the requisite number of years go by, the two capitalists strike a bargain, by which Jacob will stay on with Laban and receive, as “wages” for his labor, the black lambs and spotted and speckled goats from among the flocks. Laban, perhaps recognizing Jacob’s conniving character, does a little conniving of his own. He removes from the flock the male striped or spotted goats, the female specked or spotted goats, and all the black sheep, creating a separate flock for himself. He nonetheless underestimates his nephew, who now devises a scheme to produce speckled and spotted goats from among the flocks in his charge. He does it by using what appears to be a measure of “conjuration,” by having the animals mate in front of branches into which he has cut stripes. Some magical power apparently emanates from the stripes, causing the newborn of the flock to bear stripes as well. How exactly this works is anyone’s guess, but the bottom line is that Jacob emerges as the one with the most animals in his charge, beating his uncle in the game of one-upmanship.

Shouldn’t there be some scorn heaped on Jacob from the pages of the Bible? Doesn’t he know that it’s better to give than to receive? Instead, what he does seem to know is that in the rough-and-tumble world of business, it’s dog-eat-dog. That’s capitalism. It’s The Art of War, and the one who “builds a better mousetrap” ultimately wins. In fact, modern businessmen who seek inspiration from the east’s famous tome on military tactics ought perhaps to read the Bible in tandem with Sun Tzu. Both agree that success isn’t about planning, in the sense of working through an agreed-to “list” of “dos” and “don’ts,” but rather embodies sharp and suitable responses to changing situations.[15] Jacob understands his own changing situation and instinctively decides to exit Laban’s household at the opportune moment. He saddles up his camels with his wives and children and drives his flocks in front of him, taking with him all he had acquired during his tenure with Laban. Rachel even makes off with her father’s household idols. Ten days later, Laban catches up with the fleeing band, but no retribution is meted out. Instead, the two businessmen pile up a mound of stones to commemorate a rapprochement of sorts between them.

But there is yet more insight to be gained here, for the story is as much about private property rights as it is about tactics and strategy in the game of life. The right to property and its improvement by personal labor was to be enshrined in American political theory as something akin to sacrosanct, and political theorists from John Locke to Thomas Jefferson were keenly aware of biblical commentary on the same. Locke observed in 1690:

Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labor of his body and the work of his hands are properly his.[16]

Jefferson added (1801):

A wise and frugal government … shall leave [men] free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.[17]

Jacob bears out these adages by his years of labor, that results in the improvement of his dubious fortunes. Fortunately for him, there is no unwise or un-frugal government back in Mesopotamia to confiscate (or tax) his earnings. Throughout his story, he proves to be a schemer and a conniver, as so many capitalists generally are. This is precisely why they get such a “bum wrap.” Yet, it is precisely Jacob’s character as a “supplanter” that finds him in a climactic encounter with the Almighty, in the form of an angel. It’s while he’s en-route back to Canaan, after so many long years of indentured servitude to his wily uncle that he meets someone along the road, who engages him in a wrestling match. The stranger struggles with Jacob all night, but by daybreak is still unable to overpower him. That’s when Jacob’s mysterious adversary resorts to a little “magic,” touching his hip joint and wrenching it from its socket. He finally adjures Jacob to let him go, but the son of Isaac will not relent until he receives the man’s “blessing.” The stranger asks Jacob his name and subsequently declares that he will henceforth be known as “Israel,” denoting one who “wrestles with God.” We identify with the story because we know viscerally that there has never been a successful entrepreneur who hasn’t done his or her share of wrestling. Jacob’s road is our road, full of risk and reward, peril and blessing.

After the strange encounter, Jacob does some “naming” himself, dubbing that precise locale “Peniel,” meaning “the face of God.” Apparently, Jacob gets the idea that he had not just met a stranger, or even an angel, but the living God, who had appeared to him in fleshly manifestation – what theologians call a “theophany.” Jacob/ “Israel” will walk with a limp thereafter as a memento of the occasion – testimony to the fact that it’s a fearsome thing to wrestle with the Almighty. But the episode also hints that the Divine must be rather pleased with Jacob’s hutzpah, with his unwillingness to settle for second-class status. Hidden in the word “Israel” is another Hebraic term – Sar-El – meaning “prince of God.” What we may have here is a play on words, telling us that it’s not through blind obedience, but by wrestling with the Divine that one becomes God’s prince. It’s a supreme reward to the patriarch who isn’t satisfied with his lot in life, who pulls himself up by his own proverbial sandal straps. After all, isn’t that what capitalists do?

And so, once again we see reflected in the American character the patriarchs of old Israel. Does it really seem unlikely that those who spent all of Sunday in church would not begin to show the characteristics of those whom they studied?  They knew, and so do we, that they worked for the Patriarchs, and we also know that they worked for America. We also can claim God’s own blessing on capitalism, and always striving to overcome. After all, we know that the way to become a Prince of God is to wrestle with God himself. What better incentive for personal achievement could there be.

Professor Hanson’s end notes will follow the final installment.

If you can’t wait, I encourage you to go to “Go ye!” – Patriarchs and Pioneers > Kenneth Hanson.

Kenneth L. Hanson is an Associate professor in the University of Central Florida Judaic Studies Program. This is the first chapter from his new book, The Eagle and The Bible: Lessons in Liberty from Holy Writ published by New English Review Press.