Using ancient stories to navigate the contemporary marketplace

In his latest book, venture capitalist Michael Eisenberg examines the Bible’s first book through the prism of contemporary business practices.

 ADAM AND Eve in the Garden of Eden. (photo credit: PXFUEL)
ADAM AND Eve in the Garden of Eden.
(photo credit: PXFUEL)

How can Adam and Eve’s experience in the Garden of Eden inform how we think about “universal basic income,” a concept promoted by Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk? How was Abraham’s negotiation over a burial plot for his wife, Sarah, similar to FBI interrogation tactics? And what lessons for start-ups can be gleaned from Jacob and Laban’s fraught familial relationship?

In his latest book, venture capitalist Michael Eisenberg seeks to answer these questions and more, as he examines the Bible’s first book through the prism of contemporary business practices.

The Tree of Life and Prosperity: Ethical, Economic, and Business Principles from Genesis to the 21st Century (Wicked Son, 2021), an updated translation of the Hebrew volume which appeared two years ago and the first in a planned five-volume set, tackles the weekly Torah portion through a monetary lens. “My wife thinks that I look at everything through an economic lens, and I am guilty as charged,” Eisenberg writes in the book’s preface. But the moral and ethical principles behind economics, both in ancient times and today, are what most interest the author.

In examining the story of mankind’s first sin, Eisenberg sees a clear message to those currently debating whether it is, to quote Genesis, “good for man,” to be guaranteed an annual income independent of whether that individual actually works. As proponents of the idea suggest, in Eisenberg’s summary of their position, a universal basic income would give people “the opportunity to take risks, innovate, and try new things that will lead to greater success, wealth, and happiness.” Opponents argue that the freedom of those who receive these funds will lead to problematic behaviors and greater burdens on society.

Neither side in the debate, Eisenberg contends, fully considers the value of work itself. The Bible’s perspective differs. The Tree of Life argues that the Torah sees lack of labor as a corrosive force on humanity. In a midrashic-style reading, Eisenberg takes Genesis’ description of the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates rivers to be the tracing of the early wanderings of man. The banks of the Pishon, which chapter two of Genesis tells us winds through the land of Havilah, “where the gold is,” presumably were enjoyed by Adam, who found among them wealth and beauty. But he grew bored and stagnated. His wanderings continued along the other rivers, aimless and pointless.

That is why God commanded man to work in the Garden – “to cultivate it and safeguard it.” “Man’s labor,” Eisenberg writes in summarizing his understanding of the story, “is necessary for the earth itself to flourish and hence necessary for providing for humanity.” Mankind is not meant to exist simply “as a biological being enjoying the world, but rather as a functional being who contributes, creates and works.”

In the chapter on the Torah portion Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah), Eisenberg discerns modern business negotiation practices at work. Citing former FBI international hostage negotiator Chris Voss’s business book Never Split the Difference and its emphasis on achieving “tactical empathy,” Eisenberg perceives Abraham as a masterful negotiator. Abraham intuits that utilizing the desires of the opponent in your negotiations, and specifically invoking his or her exact words, can help achieve the desired outcome.

Abraham, therefore, uses tactical empathy by repeating key phrases in his negotiations with the Hittites. By repeating their words – that Sarah should be buried “in your midst” and that he will pay “at the full price,” Eisenberg suggests, “Abraham transferred liability to the Hittites, effectively turning his request into their aspiration” and achieving his desired outcome.

The economist Kenneth Arrow has noted how virtually all commercial transactions are based upon trust. Family businesses and start-ups based on funding from family members are therefore particularly fraught. In his book, The Founder’s Dilemma: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls that Can Sink a Startup, Noam Wasserman, Dean of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business, quotes approvingly an experienced advisor who told him “If you go into business with money from friends and family, then you will either lose the business or lose your family, and have a very good chance of losing both.” Thus, it is no surprise that in Jacob’s relationship with Laban, there are multiple deceptions, machinations and even a middle-of-the-night chase. As Eisenberg writes:

“The story of Jacob’s flight to Haran, his experiences there and his return home, is devoted entirely to the importance of cultivating interpersonal trust, as well as the factors that lead to its violation and the price exacted by its absence. The Bible is teaching us the price of the lack of interpersonal trust in family and in business.”

Throughout his readings of the characters, themes, and episodes of Genesis, Eisenberg brings his experience, his Jewish learning and his wit to bear. The Tree of Life and Prosperity is a thought-provoking new take on familiar stories and an argument for mining these ancient tales for their wisdom when navigating the contemporary marketplace. 

The writer is senior advisor to the provost and deputy director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.