Cast thy bread upon the waters

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This phrase is both “useful” and “dangerous” says David Crystal in Begat.  And the reason it’s useful and dangerous is one and the same – no-one knows quite what it means!

What is “thy bread”?  What are the waters?  And what is the outcome that is promised?

“Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”  (Ecclesiastes 11:1)

Which begs the question, who would want to find it again after many days?  Neither water nor “many days”  do much for the quality of bread.  Whatever investment is implied by this “casting”, the return of an old, soggy loaf does not inspire.

I have often heard Christians teach this verse as an encouragement towards generosity.  Bread is clearly money they say.  And the waters means spreading it abroad.  Thus God will bless a profligate giver.

Well charitable giving might be one application, as we’ll see.  But if this were straightforwardly an encouragement towards philanthropy it would be the only one in Ecclesiastes.  Remember that just two verses earlier Solomon has told us, “money answereth all things” (Ecclesiastes 10:19).  This is “life under the sun” remember, not a religious treatise.

To get a sense of its original meaning it’s best to read on in the chapter:

2 Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth. 3 If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be. 4 He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. 5 As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all. 6 In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.  (Ecclesiastes 11:2-7)

From the context, “casting thy bread” does seem to be financial advice.  But it’s not about giving money away.  It’s more about diversifying your investments to protect you against market variations.

“Oh,” says the spiritual interpreter, “so this verse has nothing to do with God?”

Well actually such a spirit of investing springs from a very particular view of God and reality.  Ancient cultures did one of two things with wealth.  They either hoarded it, protecting themselves against future scarcity; or they displayed it, making a show of their cultural standing.

Of course neither hoarding nor expensive displays will be good for the economy.  Everything stagnates when the money is squirrelled away or wasted on needless pomp.  But both Solomon and Jesus speak of another approach.  (Think for instance of Jesus’ parable of the talents, or many others in which the gifts and forgiveness of God are spoken of in monetary terms).  Here is a third way – investment.  Money gained is to be reinvested – cast upon the waters – in the hope of gaining a good return.

There is a belief here in a world that is open and yielding.  There’s a confidence that this world’s resources are not like a warehouse of tinned meats – each tin consumed reducing our supplies by one.  Instead this world is a bountiful place – a place that is fruitful and multiplying.

And such a conviction is founded upon belief in a generous God.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are an inexhaustible fountain of life and their gifts are enjoyed more in their passing on.  It works in the spiritual realm – out of the abundance of God’s love and forgiveness we pass on love and forgiveness to other – but it also works in the financial realm.  The same LORD Jesus is Lord of all.  And His world operates according to His character and purposes.

So, yes, I suppose “casting thy bread” can inspire us to be generous with our wealth.  But we can be generous because first we have a generous God whose world is correspondingly bountiful.

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