The adjective/noun עָשִׁיר ‘āśîr ‘rich’ (H6223) occurs only 23x in the Bible. It is not a particularly unique word in Hebrew, but it does help to demonstrate the differences in the worldview of the Bible against our own common conceptions.
Where are the ‘Rich’?
The first point to notice is where the term occurs. The bulk of appearances occur in poetic literature—Job 1x; Psa 2x; Prov 9x; Ecc 3x; Isa 1x; Jer 1x; and Mic 1x. Though the prophets are not part of the ‘writings’ (כתובים kǝtûbîm) section of the Bible, prophetic oracles are structured just like poetry. The word is also used in 2 Samuel 3x (12:1, 2, 4), and even then it is in the prophetic oracle from Nathan against David. In Ruth 3:10 the word is used in the mouth of Boaz to Ruth, and it is paralleled against the “poor” (discussed more later). Finally, in Exodus 30:15 it is used in a command about a census tax; again, it is paralleled against the “poor”.
Why are the ‘Rich’ Rich?
Interestingly, when discussing the ‘rich,’ the Bible gives no indication as to why the rich are rich. Rather, it is simply assumed that they are rich. Their wealth could be inherited, earned, and obtained through illicit means.
How are the ‘Rich’ Depicted?
Generally, the ‘rich’ are depicted negatively. They oppress the poor ( Proverbs 22:7); they are full of violence ( Micah 6:12); they steal from the poor (2 Sam 12:4).
More important than how they act, the ‘rich’ are compared and contrasted against the poor ( Exodus 30:15; Ruth 3:10; Psalm 49:2; Proverbs 14:20; 18:23; 22:7, 16; 28:11; Ecclesiastes 5:12).
Study of the Bible without consideration to social context or a word’s usage can lead to false conclusions. Yes, the ‘rich’ are depicted negatively in the Bible, and a typically contrasted against the more righteous ‘poor.’ This, however, does not mean that all depictions of wealth in the Bible are evil. ‘Rich’ and ‘poor’ are used more as tropes for teaching moral lessons (like in Nathan’s oracle or Proverbs). They are stock characters with no real particular ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ person in mind. Perhaps the most important lesson taught about the ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ is:
The rich and poor meet together: the Lord is the maker of them all. ( Proverbs 22:2 KJV)
Charles Loder has an MA in Jewish Studies from Rutgers University. His work is in Biblical Hebrew and comparative semitic linguistics, along with a focus on digital humanities. His work can be found on his Academia page and Github.
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