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.

6 comments on “The Law of the Land

  1. Eh, I’m not sure I’m able to embrace the idea that it’s all about land. Leviticus 25’s laws on land don’t apply to cities. In that chapter there appears to be a separation between urban economy and agrarian economy.
    You seem to argue that services ultimately come from products which ultimately come from land. So, a computer programmer who creates something on a screen is ultimately using a computer which came from raw materials. But, to me that’s a pretty big disconnect.
    My brother-in-law has a company that names companies, he creates brand names. The accounting majors down the hall are looking at people’s books and doing calculations. Those are services that add value (which we could also call wealth) that I don’t see related to land except very remotely.

    Jesus’ parables always used metaphors related to the geographical area he was preaching to. He talked about millstones in the city that was known for making millstones. Same thing in Revelation, the letters to the 7 churches all use metaphors relating to what those areas were famous for, like sheep, hot and cold springs, etc. The fact that much of life then was agrarian is simply endogenous. If he were talking to computer programmers I doubt he’d use use agrarian metaphors because they wouldn’t make sense.

    I started this comment about an hour ago before some students dropped by my office, so I’ve lost my train of thought. Sorry about that.


    • I´m not making a case in this post about our modern economy. I´m making an argument about the world of the Bible and its economics. So, your comments about the modern service industry don´t make sense to me. The illustration about my computer was merely to contrast the difference between our economy and theirs. Many scholars have pointed out that even in areas where there is a diversified labor force (i.e. Jesus was a carpenter) that the majority of the peasants practiced subsistence agriculture. No one in that world was disconnected from the <land the way we are. You seem to assume that cities don´t practice agriculture, but biblical cities and most others until relatively recent were able to exist because of the farm land that surrounded them.


  2. Lucas,

    You can raise sheep, cows, goats, etc. without owning land property rights. Abraham, Issac, and Jacob lived that way. There are plenty of societies in Africa, Mongolia, Finland, and the like who live a semi-nomadic lifestyle where the concept of property does not include land. Land is held in common for the benefit of everyone.

    The Levittical laws reflect how the Hebrew people were evolving from the nomadic lifestyle to a more agricultural lifestyle and simple urban economy. While the economy in Jesus’ day was still largely agricultural, there were major urban economic influences with the Roman empire at play that are similar to many of economic influences we have today. Israel in Jesus’ day was part of a ‘global’ economy.

    I don’t see Jesus re-enforcing the ideas of property rights in the New Testaments, either land based or otherwise. When he called the rich young ruler, he asked him to give up his property rights. And in the early church, Acts records that the disciples held everything in common.

    I had asked about your distinction between property rights of ownership and responsibility for property because while the New Testament is very weak on ownership, it is very strong on responsibility. Many of Jesus parables convey the idea that God has given us responsibility for property for which we will need to be accountable.

    I would be very careful about using the Bible for economic purposes. Just like the Bible is not a science book, it is not an economics book either. I think we can draw very general principles about how God wants us to relate to property, money, and economics, but we need to be careful not try and squeeze our complex modern society into a historical reality that doesn’t exist any more.

    I think you have highlighted a few of those basic principles: care for the land, justice for the poor, and creating systems of grace.


    • Maria,

      I hold property more loosely than it sounds because the conversation began with an economist. Sorry my train of thought was not going to the distinction you’re making between ownership and responsibility. I think it’s close to what I’m saying about absolute ownership. Thanks for your thoughts! Good words!


  3. “The covenant in which God gives the Promised Land . . . is not unconditional.” Are you merely basing this off the verse at hand or the entire body of covenantal literature surrounding the land? Even in Deuteronomy 15 God’s blessing in the land is clearly contingent while the giving of the land is guaranteed. Are you attempting to nullify the Abrahamic Covenant to bolster your argument that all land belongs to God and cannot be possessed by man?


    • Thanks Keith for staying with me…

      I didn’t do an exhaustive reading of all the references to the land for this post, but it seems pretty clear that God sets a condition that the people follow the commands set down for them. Your last question is pretty loaded. Psalm 24 pretty clearly states God is ultimate owner of all things and has ultimate rights to the land and everything as Creator. I didn’t know that was still in question. Ultimately we don’t “possess” anything the way that governments give us rights to according to Scripture. We are given lots of cautions about how to live in a world that doesn’t recognize God’s ownership.


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