I read this week’s Adult Bible Study Guide earlier than normal. Its focus on personal piety and admonitions against covetousness left me uninspired for days. It begins with a condescending tone, a “beware of covetousness” message that seems more appropriate as the moral in an Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Story: “Little Billy ate too much candy and due to his sick tummy he learned not to covet.” The fact is that desire, selfishness, overconsumption, unrestrained capitalism, and entitlement contribute in complex ways to what is also oversimplified as the deadly sin of avarice. The lesson does provide a solution from an Ellen White quote: the cure for coveting is benevolence.
The history of the Christian church reflects that tension between self-serving and kindness as well. While warning an impoverished laity against avaritia, sometimes the clergy would live a life of predatory excess. The script below the 1558 Pieter van der Heyden engraving illustrating this article states, "Scraping Avarice sees neither honor nor courtesy, shame nor divine admonition." It doesn’t require rich robes or Gucci loafers—sometimes the worst church leaders covet power, driven by their own sense of ideological purity. Off-the-rack suits hide covetous hearts too.
Most of the lesson covers Bible stories of people acting in greedy and deceitful ways. Achan, Judas, and Ananias and Sapphira are used to warn against robbing God. But the punishments are horror-movie extreme. For colluding with Jesus’s enemies for money, Judas hangs himself. For not following through on their donation pledge, Ananias and Sapphira were just outright killed by God in public.
A story that needs much closer attention is the fate of Achan in Joshua 7. (If I were teaching Sabbath school, I’d have the class read through this chapter and discuss it.)
As punishment for his selfishness, Achan is blamed for about 36 Israelites dying in a failed attack. Missing from the lesson’s telling of this story is the poor work from the spies. They are the ones who reported to Joshua that the entire Israelite army wasn’t needed for the first assault. And honestly, Joshua’s leadership could use a little questioning here.
But really taking a moment to read the story in the Bible is important because God is the direct cause of the roughly 36 Israelite deaths. Only God knew Achan’s covetousness and showed omnipotent displeasure by causing the failed attack and thus the human deaths.
It takes Joshua and the elders to ask, but God reveals a disappointment that is expressed toward the whole Israelite camp. Now fearing total annihilation, the Israelites need to find the cause. In a pattern that is repeated over and over and over and over in ancient cultures, the group looks around for the cause of this trouble in their midst.
That singularity is important. I’m not saying that Achan was a scapegoat, but he sure functions like one in the story—especially when one understands that something like dice were cast to isolate the problem. Of course, God controlled the casting of the lots for the Israelites. This form of sortition was used among almost all ancient cultures, which is how a literal scapegoat is chosen in Leviticus 16. But back to the story in Joshua 7. Versus 16–19 read like the deliberate community horror in the New Yorker short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. (It would make a great pairing with Joshua 7 for Sabbath school discussion.)
First tribe, then family, then household, then man by man until the roulette ball lands on Achan. Of course, he confesses, and the loot is found in his tent. (Was he the only greedy guy in the sacking of Jericho? No other tents are inspected.)
Achan’s stash is discovered, and for that he is stoned and then burned (alive?). Now God is happy again. I forgot to mention: Achan’s animals and children are also burned to death for his covetousness. Ethical point made.
But the biggest moral claim made by the lesson is that coveting is the “ultimate original sin.” The sinners are not Adam and Eve but Lucifer, coveting the homage paid to God. A few verses from Isaiah and a paragraph from Ellen White support this idea in the study guide. However, there are plenty of other Ellen White quotes that predicate pride as the first cause of Lucifer’s fall.
Most importantly, the references used to support this idea of Satan's covetousness mislead. Except those Adventist professors and clergy who covet power and place in the current climate of ideological control, few biblical scholars interpret the Star of the Morning in Isaiah 14 as Satan. In fact, the origin of the name Lucifer itself comes from fifth-century Bible translator St. Jerome (Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus). In forming the Vulgate, he created the name essentially out of thin air by turning what’s best translated as “bright one” as “carrier of light.” St. Jerome combined the Latin words for light (lux) and carry (ferō) to create the term lucifer. All the surrounding verses focus on Babylonian royalty.
“That Satan inspired the wicked king even as he rules all degenerate men is undeniable but that is quite different from saying Lucifer is Satan,” Robert L. Alden writes for the Evangelical Theological Society’s journal. “The king boasted that he was as great as God and Isaiah likened him to that star which is beautiful for a moment but quickly eclipsed by the glory of the sun itself. That Satan made such a boast is not known.” Alden adds, “We have no more justification for such an identification here than we do in Ezekiel 28 where the king of Tyre is in view. Lucifer is only the proud but now fallen king of Babylon.”
Even official Adventist media like Ministry magazine prints articles that acknowledge this reality.
The designation of the king of Babylon as “morning star, son of dawn” in verse 12 (NASB) has led many commentators to the ancient Near East, where astronomy and astrology often played central roles…. Probably Isaiah was simply making an astronomical analogy by associating the king with the morning star: even though the star tries to rise above the horizon every morning, this morning star disappears when the sun comes out and does not succeed its ascension “above the stars.”
By their misuse of Ellen White, and by presenting the Bible as a codebook rather than a casebook, what do the creators of the Adult Bible Study Guide covet?
Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.
Title image: Avarice (Avaritia) from the series The Seven Deadly Sins by Pieter van der Heyden, 1558 (public domain).
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