Greed as Idolatry: The Origin and Meaning of a Pauline Metaphor

Brian S. Rosner William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids August 28, 2007

In view of the world economic crisis at the time of writing this review, the title of this book is striking. Though the present economic condition is blamed on many different sources, those implicated are often accused of being “greedy.” However, this volume was not written with the present economic crisis in mind. The research and writing occurred earlier. Nevertheless it is relevant to the present situation. However, if the book contributes to any aspect of recovery or provides strategies for financial help, this is only a minor contribution of the book because it discusses issues of much more importance. Individuals may blame Wall Street executives and others for their problems, but this book shifts the focus away from others and onto the readers.

The purpose of this book is to understand the meaning of the phrases “and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5) and “the greedy person, who is an idolater” (Eph. 5:5). The question is, In what sense is greed idolatry? Rosner considers various interpretive options, exploring the metaphoric nature of the expressions, and considering possible background texts that could have informed Paul as he wrote these words. Rosner describes the task by using the metaphor of mountain climbing, which helps keep the reader focused on the process and goals. The result is a fascinating study that reveals many possible views, narrows the options, and provides a convincing conclusion that is both enlightening and convicting.

       Rosner leaves no stone unturned in his discussion of options and his sources. Yet this densely packed study is very readable. The reader comes away confident that the issue has been handled thoroughly.

In chapter 2 Rosner surveys nine interpretive options: (1) no interpretation at all, (2) greed is as bad as idolatry, (3) greed leads to idolatry, (4) greed is worship of wealth, (5) greed is slavery imposed by an economic system, (6) greed is service and obedience to wealth, (7) greed is inordinate love of and devotion to money, (8) greed is trust and confidence in wealth, and (9) a combination of several of these views. Rosner points out that the most common interpretation of “greed as idolatry” is that it refers to excessive love and devotion to wealth (view 7). Although he does not reject this view altogether, Rosner points out that this interpretation is based on views of greed and worship from a modern perspective and that this is not what Paul would have had in mind (p. 31). Further, if this interpretation is valid, is this the only meaning? (p. 32). The most interesting view to this reviewer is the interpretation that greed is trust and confidence placed in wealth (view 8). Rosner spends much time describing this view (pp. 32-38). Martin Luther is its primary proponent.

In discussing the various views Rosner mentions important background texts. Chapter 4, for example, includes a discussion of Old Testament texts, including the first commandment, Deuteronomy, the golden calf, Job 22:23–30; 31:24–28; Psalm 10; and Proverbs 30:7–9. In relationship to the Pauline letters these texts are “distant ranges.” In chapter 5 the texts are closer in time to the New Testament. The “tablelands” include Qumran texts, rabbinic literature, Philo, and the Testament of Judah 19:1. Rosner then scans the “foothills” and discusses the New Testament itself. Here he discusses the Synoptic Gospels; Romans 16:18; Philippians 3:19; and Revelation 18:1–19:10. These chapters are excellent for a number of reasons. First, they are comprehensive. Rosner’s exhaustive research in the Jewish material has resulted in a catalog of texts that may inform the interpretation of Paul’s phrases. Second, Rosner is sensitive to issues such as time and other factors that should be considered in examining background texts. Third, he capably handles these texts to inform his project. This study is an excellent example of how background texts should be used in understanding the New Testament

In the final section, part 3 (chaps. 8–10), Rosner brings his study to a conclusion. In chapters 8 and 9, the concepts of greed and idolatry are looked at somewhat independently and their meanings explained. Greed is considered from a number of angles. Is it mainly a material issue or a sexual issue (i.e., wanting and pursuing these things)? Although it is important to avoid sexual immorality, it is not greed. Rosner concludes, “The greedy are those with a strong desire to acquire and keep for themselves more and more money and possessions, because they love, trust, and obey wealth rather than God” (p. 129). Two models are considered for understanding idolatry. First is the marital model. This is seen clearly in many Old Testament contexts of idolatry. Israel is often portrayed as married to God. Israel’s idolatry is often described as unfaithfulness to her husband, God. This model supports the view that sees idolatry as love and devotion. Second is the political model. Here God is king and the Israelites are His subjects. The subjects must depend on their king for their existence; they must be loyal. This model supports the view that sees idolatry as trust and confidence. Although noting the complexity of idolatry, Rosner suggests that both models include the notion of exclusivity. “Idolatry is an attack on God’s exclusive right to our love and trust” (p. 148). In discussing greed and idolatry together in chapter 10, Rosner makes seven observations about characteristics the two concepts share. These include evil desire and that they both describe Gentiles. Although glimpses of his conclusion occur throughout, Rosner states, “ ‘Greed is idolatry’ may be paraphrased as teaching that to have a strong desire to acquire and keep for yourself more and more money and material things is an attack on God’s exclusive rights to human love and devotion, trust and confidence, and service and obedience” (p. 173, italics his). Chapter 11 concludes the study with some practical considerations and puts greed as idolatry in a wider perspective.

The study is convincing. However, one cannot help but wonder whether including love and devotion, confidence and trust, and service and obedience are all intended in Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5. This is a lot to pack into these phrases. Nevertheless Rosner has attempted to recreate Paul’s background as well as his sources allow. Given his detailed analysis, there is just not enough context (both literary and cultural) to narrow this further. The result is to include all potential meanings. It is possible, but not certain, that a much more in-depth study of the Roman context of Asia Minor could have contributed to this conclusion. This would result in a focus on the readers and thus indirectly on Paul’s potential knowledge (assuming Paul understood to some degree his readers’ understanding of these terms). In any case whether helpful or not, such additional study would need further development and would probably only serve to narrow Rosner’s conclusions, if it would change them at all.

Rosner’s study has demonstrated that the meaning of “greed as idolatry” is more than the traditional interpretation of excessive love of possessions. If Rosner is correct, greed also relates to trust. One cannot simply look at certain individuals with wealth and power and assume these passages refer to them. Readers must ask themselves, “Where is my trust? Do I trust in my salary or my retirement account and social security?  Do I trust in anything other than God for my daily bread and future needs? What role do material possessions and money have in my life. Do they usurp roles intended for God?” If the answer to the last question is yes, then greed is present and greed is idolatry. Rosner’s book will help readers wrestle with these questions.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2010

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2010 vol. 167 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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