The Law of the Land

This is the second post in a series responding to a conversation I’ve been having with a friend of mine about the notion of property rights in the Bible. The first post was mainly to respond to his post. The intention of this post is to outline another possible view of the biblical understanding of property. Then perhaps we’ll draw out some application to our current global context.

I think it’s helpful to step back and take a more broad look at the Bible and its context. It is a thoroughly agrarian book produced by agrarian people and is very concerned about matters agrarian. The Old Testament laws we like to skip over are often concerned in detail about agrarian matters (i.e. your brother’s ox or sheep Deut 22:1-4). The parables Jesus used to talk about the kingdom were based on agrarian ideas and metaphors. (For a very thorough, scholarly, yet accessible book on an agrarian reading of the Bible, I can’t recommend highly enough Scripture, Culture and Agriculture by Ellen Davis).

I think the conversation about property rights and the Bible should be rooted where the Bible roots it… in the land.

If we are attempting to discern what the Bible has to say about economics, it is imperative that we begin with the biblical worldview, not our own. In the biblical world land is not simply one thing among a long list of possible possessions. It is the basis of all wealth, assets and possessions. The biblical writers understood economics in the only terms they possibly could… the land. All aspects of wealth in the biblical world are directly connected to the land. When Jacob tries to win over his estranged brother, Esau, he sends gifts, symbols of his wealth, in the form of goats, sheep, camels, cows and donkeys (Gen 32). These are the flocks and herds he has shrewdly accumulated from his father-in-law, Laban. Without modern CAFOs these animals required a large amount of land. Wealth at this time would simply not be possible without a direct connection to land. Even Jesus, who was apparently a carpenter by trade, likely practiced subsistence agriculture in season and was a carpenter during the off months.

So, what then was the relationship to the land? And what does this mean about a biblical understanding of property?

I’ve written before about how the Sabbatical laws build on each other, the commandment to remember the Sabbath every seventh day, practice the Sabbatical year every seventh year and finally the Jubilee every seventh Sabbatical Year. I think it’s essential in order to understand the biblical framework to recognize that these laws form an integrated whole that (whether or not they were always practiced) form the ideal relationship between the people of God, the earth and each other, what some might call biblical economics.

Leviticus 25:23-24 “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.”

I mentioned before that the Jubilee sets an ideal limit on economic growth for the sake of the community and the earth. Leviticus 25 sets the price for land at the number of harvests until the Jubilee, when the land will be returned to its original owner (Lev 25:15). One objection that immediately comes to mind is that not owning the land indefinitely may lead those working the land to abuse it in order to squeeze as much from the land as possible before the Jubilee. In practice this probably happened and as before the Jubilee may never have been implemented. Yet the community decided to preserve these laws in their sacred text as the ideal.

Leviticus 25 begins by cautioning the people how to use the land justly (which again is the basis for all property and wealth) during the Sabbatical Years (Deuteronomy 15). The land is commanded to have rest every seventh year. Obviously this means the people and animals rest from work as well. The covenant in which God gives the Promised Land (which, by the way, was previously inhabited and certainly belonged to other people before the Israelites) is not unconditional.

Deuteronomy 15:4 “However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land your Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.”

The commands referenced in the above verse are partially the Sabbatical laws which concern debt forgiveness and setting slaves free, but more importantly concern access to and proper us of the land. There are conditions set by God for the possession and ownership of the land. The possession of the land is not absolute. The land may be bought and sold between Jubilee years, but this is only to be temporary. God also cautions here that the condition for their possession of the land is their proper and just use of the land. The question before us is what to do when the land or possessions are not used justly, which I hope to discuss in the next post.

Modern capitalism tends to forget that nothing, no product (except maybe financial instruments, but don’t get me started), is disconnected from the land. The laptop I’m typing this on was produced from petroleum that took millions of years to produce, minerals, silicon, etc. to make up all the parts. My computer (and any physical object you buy) represents probably hundreds if not thousands of plots of dirt around the globe where the raw materials were extracted to create this product. So, although we have become more and more disconnected from the land in our minds and our everyday lives, the reality continues to be that we are ultimately dependent on the land. I believe that biblically and rationally we should be wary of any economic system that does not recognize this relationship and take it into account.

So, simply applying the economics of the Bible directly to a system in which land is only one possession and not the basis of wealth, would be a categorical error. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to learn from biblical economics, just that it should always be understood first within its original context. Hopefully, I will be able to draw out some principles that we can apply in the next post more concretely.