Skip to content

Heavenly Treasures, Little Earthly Good


This week, we step away from the Adult Bible Study Guide primary contributor’s personal opinions about loans and credit cards to look at five biblical character sketches on the theme of laying up treasure in heaven. Unfortunately, there’s not much in terms of fresh insight provided. For those who have grown up with the stories of Noah, Abram, Lot, Jacob, and Moses, you know the plots and the points.

Noah “could have spent his time and resources building a home for himself, but he chose to make a drastic change in his life and to spend 120 years of that life in following the call of God to build the ark.” But instead of focusing on a spiritual lesson like the Christian virtue of perseverance, the lesson distracts us with a jag into a reductive summary of the flood debate. Rather than get into that mud, here’s an alternative approach to this story that focuses on God.

For the Jewish Theological Seminary, Sharon Keller, PhD, compares the Noah story with the Epic of Gilgamesh: 

That there are ancient Near Eastern antecedents to the biblical account of the Flood is well known and not surprising. In ancient literature, the cosmic flood could be seen as a point of demarcation indicating the end of primeval time. In ancient literature including the Bible, postdiluvian chronicles are much less fantastical than antediluvian accounts. The flood story found on the eleventh tablet of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh is the best known of the ancient deluge accounts, and is probably the best known of all ancient Near Eastern texts. The Epic first made headlines in the early 1870s when it was initially published and recognized as an early parallel to the Flood found in Genesis. A reading of both stories shows that they share a basic structure and plotline. Both tell how a decision to bring an end to humankind is made in heaven and how one man is singled out to build a boat in order to save himself, his family, and all the earth’s animals.

Keller concludes the comparison by noting two thematic differences in the biblical flood narrative.

God alone brings the Flood and remains in control of it. This is not the case in the Mesopotamian analogue. As would be expected in a polytheistic text, the gods together bring the Flood, all doing their own jobs to open the waters upon the earth. But in the cuneiform version, the gods are not fully in control; their power is limited.

And her second observation:

There is no rationale given for the Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh; the gods bring the flood on a capricious whim. As such, there is nothing wrong with the antediluvian society, so Utnapishtim can bring with him all that he would need to recreate the society that was destroyed, including the silver and gold that could rebuild the economy. The Bible is quite clear: God is not capricious, the Flood was not brought on by a whim. We are told from the outset that the pre-Flood world was corrupt; Noah had to build anew from scratch, no element of the old human world other than Noah and his immediate family could exist. It is God’s morality that drives the story.

The Noah story is really about God. It emphasizes God’s power and moral motivation. After all, the whole story of Noah really doesn’t support the lesson’s focus on laying up treasures in heaven. If anything, Noah labored to preserve a remnant of the earthly. All for what, to enjoy some private vintage pleasures as his multi-generational offspring repeated the mistakes of the mass dead?

The lesson continues to extract simple lessons from the other four Bible stories. Abram made a big bet on a vision of God’s promise and changed his life. Lot didn’t show respect to Abraham and also moved into a city and so paid the price. The gloss on the story of Jacob is a twisted children’s book telling of the tale. “Despite mistakes, he left home with nothing but came back to Canaan a wealthy man,” the lesson states. Lying a lot pays! The final focus is on Moses, who gave up the potential luxury of Egyptian royal life to instead rule over a new independent socio-political entity. I mean, he’s not the only heir to cross a border looking for a better opportunity.

This whole jejune “learning lessons from the lives of Bible heroes” approach is thin moral gruel. The comparisons for us today are not compatible unless we want to assume a very ancient Near Eastern tribal, patriarchal, often barter-based, mostly anti-democratic worldview. The quarterly selects and sanitizes every single one of these five stories. In reality, they are all weird tales. Drunk, nude Noah. Abram rapes his wife’s servant and then banishes her and his son to (almost) death. Credit where it is due, the lesson is right that Lot is a good example of poor decision-making, although more needs to be made about how the women fare the worst in the story. Jacob exhibits almost George Santos levels of dishonesty and has 12 children with two wives and two of his wives’ personal female servants. And the Moses story is really about God. All of these actually are. Let me explain.

Reading this lesson reminds me of Jack Miles’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, God: A Biography. The brilliance of the book is that Miles tells the story of the Old Testament centering the divine action in the biblical human narratives. It’s ultimately the story of God. From the book’s summary:

We see God torn by conflicting urges. To his own sorrow, he is by turns destructive and creative, vain and modest, subtle and naive, ruthless and tender, lawful and lawless, powerful yet powerless, omniscient and blind. As we watch him change amazingly, we are drawn into the epic drama of his search for self-knowledge, the search that prompted him to create mankind as his mirror. In that mirror he seeks to examine his own reflection, but he also finds there a rival. We then witness God's own perilous passage from power to wisdom. For generations our culture's approach to the Bible has been more a reverential act than a pursuit of knowledge about the Bible's protagonist; and so, through the centuries the complexity of God's being and "life" has been diluted in our consciousness.

If “laying up treasure in heaven” means doing things on earth to improve the experience of the hereafter, then the lesson is teaching salvation by works. Christianity recognizes an incarnate divine-human relationship in which salvation by grace transforms us into double agents of the divine will. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, we write new biographical chapters every day about God’s presence in our reality.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,

I was homeless and you gave me a room,

I was shivering and you gave me clothes,

I was sick and you stopped to visit,

I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36 The Message)

This passage does not say we need to lay up treasures in the church storehouse as a heavenly reward. Instead, Jesus calls us to invest our resources here on earth as an expression of our spiritual values.

Discussion question: is the use of tithes and offerings by the current leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church driven by this “right-side of the King” mission?


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Title image: Representation of the Different Ways Leading to Everlasting Life or Eternal Damnation, artist unknown; copy after Gustav Sigismund Peters (public domain).

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.