Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Dangerous Reciprocity

Written by: on February 1, 2013


Reciprocity in this context is a word used in what Karl Polanyi deems as a market society where goods are traded. It is defined as the exchange of goods and services without keeping track of their exact value, but often with the expectation that their exact value will balance out over time. An example of how reciprocity does not balance out over time can be seen in the biblical narrative below.

In the book of Joshua the Hebrew people were on a mission to conquer Canaan, the Promise Land. As the story unfolds, the Hebrew people were warned against intermingling with the Canaanites lest they turn from serving Yahweh to embrace syncretism by acknowledging Baal. It just so happened that vocationally the Hebrews were shepherds, and the Canaanites were farmers. After reaching Canaan, the Israelites needed assistance with farming the land and naturally took notice of the Canaanites’ attractive agricultural skills. After swapping tips on some of the practical realities of life and how to best cause a garden to grow, both groups of people began to take on selective aspects of one another’s culture. The Israelites had learned that the Canaanites’ secret for fertile ground was obtaining the favor of the local Baal. Sadly, they ignored God’s warning and instead took the Canaanites up on their advice. For the Israelites, this was not a good trade in the short run or the long run. That decision could never benefit them; it, along with many other bad decisions, resulted in them being disloyal to their covenant with Yahweh. They wrongly attempted to worship both Baal and Yahweh, which can never work.

Ultimately reciprocity can be either a good thing or a bad thing when it comes to decision making and final outcomes. Unfortunately, as we would learn later on in the story, reciprocity with the Canaanites was not a good thing for the Israelites. Make no mistake about it, the moral of the story here is not to condemn or belittle the Israelites. If anything, it is to remind us to think twice about mutual exchanges and privileges. In both the short term and the long run, is it a decision that is a good thing for me, my family, and everyone involved? After all, such a decision impacts everyone in our circle of influence.  

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