Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Merchant of Menace

We don’t get a lot of detail about pre-Genesis Satan in our Bibles, though few things have had a more dramatic and far-reaching influence on our world than his interference in God’s creation.

There is no straightforward literal retelling of the history of Lucifer’s rebellion to be found in either Old Testament or New. Rather, we are treated to a series of vignettes that cast light on various aspects of the demonic rebel heart. They illuminate Satan’s real nature by comparing him to historic figures and to the sort of people we know very well indeed: characters that populate our literature and people whom we can observe all around us.

Satan is a liar, an accuser and a murderer. So says the scripture. So it is.

But Satan is also a deal-maker, a trafficker, a trader and a businessman. Perhaps we are less inclined to think of these things as intrinsically evil.

The Shepherd People

The case may be made that in and of itself trade is not a bad thing. If I have something you need and you have something I need and we are able to reach a mutually agreeable accommodation, well and good. There are efficiencies in such an arrangement that permit economies to grow and allow individuals to do what they do best, rather than attempting to be jacks of all ... er ... trades.

All the same, Israel was not originally a merchant nation. When as a family they went down to Egypt, they were known not for trading and deal-making but for the fact that generation after generation they had been keepers of livestock. They were a shepherd people. Merchants and shepherds are also sharply contrasted in Nahum.

If that isn’t an apt metaphor, I don’t know what is.

From Shepherds to Shylocks

In fact, the word rakal, or “merchant”, doesn’t even make an Old Testament appearance until 1 Kings 10, when Solomon’s unprecedented wealth is revealed to have been partly a product of trade. Jacob, the father of the nation, toyed with deal-making, cheating his brother of both blessing and birthright. But for all his deviousness, he was a comparative novice. His uncle Laban, a far more skillful manipulator, fleeced Jacob with impunity. Only God’s intervention enabled Jacob to leave Haran in good financial shape.

Today, if Jews are known for anything, it is for their aptitude with money. Jacob’s children have perfected the art of the deal, or so we are regularly told. If so, this is not an improvement on sheep-herding. The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock, notorious for his demand of a “pound of flesh”, is not exactly the play’s protagonist.

When you disdain the privilege of caring for living beings and opt instead to make merchandise of them, you are not moving up in the world.

An Island of Wheeler-Dealers

Tyre, on the other hand, was never anything more than a center of commerce. In the Tyrian economy, sheep were merely a commodity. Moreover, its dealers trafficked in the sale of men and women, not just livestock.

It is in this warped Tyrian sense of value that Ezekiel finds the likeness to Satan. Chapter 28 is all about the “Prince of Tyre”, and God reveals in it the true character of his former guardian cherub by comparing him to the earthly ruler of a nation of merchants which God was about to judge most severely.

Done right, the exchange of goods is at worst a morally neutral exercise. But Satan’s wickedness comes out in all his dealings with men. He cannot help being who he is, and trade is one of the things for which he is notorious.

Ezekiel points out three aspects of Satanic deal-making that are to be rejected.

 The Devious Deal
“By your great wisdom in your trade you have increased your wealth.”
The word “wisdom” here is really skill or cleverness. It is not used here in the sense of prudence about moral choices, but rather in the sense of specific knowledge of facts and details, like the craftsmanship and draftsmanship of Bezalel and Oholiab.

In and of itself, cleverness is not a virtue. It is merely a force multiplier. Cleverness at good spreads joy and peace more efficiently to greater numbers. Cleverness at evil digs the pit deeper and makes its stench more pungent.

Satan trades cleverly, with vast experience and historical knowledge of probable outcomes. He outwits his trading partners, always giving us more grief and less value than we bargain for. He outmaneuvered Eve, giving her what she thought she wanted but not at all what was good for her, or for us.

To state the obvious, devious dealmakers are to be avoided. Followers of Christ may be wily, but we are not to be devious dealers.

 The All-Encompassing Deal
“In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God.”
It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Labor is a good thing, but God set limits on it. “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work.” Honey is good, but too much honey makes you vomit. Knowledge is good, but too much knowledge can unbalance your life.

Satan is an abundant trader. He is not satisfied with six days a week, or with getting you to eat just enough honey or accumulate knowledge that is merely practical. He always has to break boundaries and exceed his limits. The greatest created being in the universe says, “I will ascend to heaven above the stars of God.” He can’t help himself. This is who he is.

Merchants were a problem for Israel even when they returned from exile. They wanted more abundant trade than the law of God permitted. Six days a week of flogging their wares was not enough for them. To increase their sales, they profaned the Sabbath and tempted the people of Judah to do the same. Many were natives of — surprise! — the city of Tyre. Nehemiah had to lock the deal-makers out of Jerusalem for the Sabbath to discourage them from seeking profit at the expense of the spiritual character of God’s people.

The prophet Nahum condemns the traffickers of Assyria with these words: “You increased your merchants more than the stars of the heavens … your shepherds are asleep.”

Even the dullest reader of his prophecy won’t be able to find a compliment in there.

 The Unrighteous Deal
“By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries.”
“Unrighteousness” here is chamac, or violence; that thing with which the earth was filled in Noah’s day, and which brought on the flood.

Physical violence is not necessary: malevolent intent will do just fine. That sort of “unrighteousness” is summed up in the way Hagar looked at Sarah when she found herself with Abraham’s child. It is the will to improve my situation by displacing you. This sort of violence makes false accusations. Its practitioners are treacherous.

Sometimes a deal is just plain bad, not because you are being shortchanged, or because God’s time or money are being sucked up by the secular world, but because something evil must be done by someone somewhere in order to make it happen. This sort of deal only works if you cut out your unsuspecting partner, or underpay your employees, or take advantage of hardworking orphans in the third world. It only works if the coffee you’re selling is not Fair Trade, or if what you’re doing pollutes the earth and takes more from the world than it puts in.

These are unrighteous deals, even if everything else about them is lily-white. Satan is the master of the unrighteous deal. You can guarantee that when you have to take a moral shortcut to get what you want, the guy across the table is playing for the wrong team.

A House of Prayer

When Jesus famously drove the moneychangers from the temple, he said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” John’s account says, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade,” or literally, an emporium. Peter speaks of false teachers who exploit (or literally make merchandise of) believers with their false words.

Satan is a trader. He would have us swap good doctrine for bad, fellowship with God for transactional prayer, Body Life for institutional politics, the mutual sharing of truth for paid platform performances, the tending of sheep for the munching of mutton, and future glory for present day ‘gimmes’. These are all bad deals, though churches around us are making them all the time.

Thankfully, we are not ignorant of his designs. Unless we want to be.

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