Keith Reeves, professor of biblical studies, Azusa-Pacific University
Note: This article is the first of a three-part series on economic production and Jubilee in the Old and New Testaments.
Jubilee is often proclaimed as a time when debts are forgiven and land is redistributed so everyone can begin again with a fresh start. I have personally heard sermons to that effect, and one does not need to dig too deeply on the Internet to find this view expressed. But is that what the biblical Jubilee is about? Or have we been reading our modern notions of ownership and redistribution backward into an ancient economy where these categories simply don’t apply?
The Jubilee is commanded in Leviticus 25, and it is commanded in a way that might seem baffling to us. The critical directive comes in verse 13: “In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.” People are not commanded to give their property away; in God’s eyes, no change of ownership over the land seems to occur. Rather, people are commanded to return to land that is already, in God’s eyes, “your own.”
We need to back up and examine what it meant to own property in ancient Israel. The story of the land begins with God’s promise to Abraham. In Genesis 12:1-3 we read: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” God’s promise to Abraham drives the entire narrative of Genesis and the fulfillment of that promise is a major theme throughout the Pentateuch and the historical books.
God promises Abraham three things: property, progeny, and prosperity. This blessing is not for Abraham alone; he is blessed so he can be a blessing to the nations. In response to God’s promise, Abraham does something radical. Genesis 12:4 tells us that Abraham “went.” He leaves his people and begins his journey to the promised land. The journey is fraught with difficulties, and at times it appears the promise will not be fulfilled.
Eventually, the people do settle in the land, but very soon there is famine and they are forced to make a trek to Egypt. The time in Egypt ends up being hundreds of years. Though the people are prosperous for a time, soon the harsh realities of being aliens in a foreign land afflict them. They call out to God for deliverance. And through miraculous deeds of power, by the hand of Moses, the descendants of Abraham are delivered from Egypt – only to wander in the wilderness for a period of 40 years.
The books of Joshua and Judges detail their transition into the land. Sometimes it is dramatic, sometimes it is gradual, but eventually the people have established their presence in the land. In some way, they can call it their own.
This transition, or conquest, is described as “inheriting the land.” The word “inherit” (ירשׁ) is used repeatedly in Deuteronomy, where Moses instructs the people about what will happen, and in Joshua and Judges, where the events themselves are narrated. In this article I will translate ירשׁ as “inherit” but it is also translated as “occupy,” “dispossess,” and “drive out” in various Bible translations.
The idea of inheritance reinforces the concept that the land is God’s gift. It is his to give to the people. It also reinforces the familial nature of the relationship between Israel and their God. This is not some business transaction; this is family.
The land was fundamental to Israel’s economic life and to the Israelites’ very identity. According to Numbers 26:52-56, initial allotments were made by lot according to size of the tribe. Larger tribes received larger inheritances, and smaller tribes received smaller inheritances. The tribe of Levi was the only tribe that did not receive an allotment of land; they were to guard and serve in the temple rather than farm the land. Their inheritance was to be the tithes and offerings brought by the other tribes to support them.
Even though the land is originally allotted to the tribes, they do not actually own it. Within the tribe there are smaller groups or clans, and within the clans there is an even more local family unit called the “father’s house.” This unit is headed by the “father,” the oldest living patriarch of the family. Children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are all under the authority of the father.
The father’s house is the essential economic and social unit of ancient Israel. It is in the father’s house where land is maintained and owned. The whole economic system is designed around this central feature, and that means the nature of land ownership is different from anything we are familiar with in the modern world.
The father cannot sell the land of the house. His heirs always have a claim to it. In Leviticus 25:23 we read: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” The father can give some land away, but such a gift is valid only during his own lifetime; then the land returns to the house. Land was never to be permanently sold.
All the various laws governing land are designed to keep the land in the family – in the father’s house. If a family gets into financial trouble, the father can “sell” a piece of land. In reality, however, this purported “sale” functions more like a long-term lease. The value of the property must be computed based on the number of years until the next Jubilee, at which point the original family returns to its own (“your own,” verse 13) land. Ownership of the land was never really transferred.
To divide the land of a father’s house essentially destroys it. When a head of household dies, the land is divided among the heirs. When this happens, the divided father’s house ceases to operate as a father’s house; responsibilities that had rested with it now revert to the clan. This includes such things as holding sacrificial meals, taking vengeance, redeeming family members, and – of course – redeeming family land so it would stay in the clan.
The Jubilee year, then, is not designed to redistribute property. It is designed to keep land permanently in the hands of its original holders, the father’s houses. The economic system of ancient Israel is based on the primacy of these houses, and the Jubilee preserves that primacy.
This is not to say that the Old Testament makes no provision for the poor. Far from it! The well-being of the poor is a central concern throughout the scriptures. But large-scale, systematic redistribution of property is not envisioned as the solution.
Because land can never truly be sold in the economic system of ancient Israel, those who are not part of the original group of landed families cannot acquire it. Land was, of course, the basis of economic production in the agrarian economy of ancient Israel. So provision was made for the landless. Leviticus 19:9–10 states:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.
The provision made for those in economic need is not a redistribution of property. It is the opportunity to work – to support themselves through their own efforts – that is provided. In the zero-sum world of a land-based economy, the land owners must refrain from making full economic use of their own land in order to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to work. But it is work, not property, that is “redistributed” by this requirement. And this work then provides the wealth creation that will in turn support, in the context of household and clan relationships, those who are unable to work.
In a modern, entrepreneurial economy, wealth is created in a wide variety of ways. Agriculture plays a very small role in wealth production. We can be thankful that today, there is no need to impose restrictions on one person’s economic use of his own property in order to provide opportunity to others.
To the contrary, we can best expand opportunity to the poor by protecting property owners’ rights to make full use of their property. Books like “The Mystery of Capital” and “The Locust Effect” have emphasized that the poor benefit disproportionately from such protections. In the second article in this series, we will look at how this critical difference between the ancient and modern economies can inform our reading of the New Testament.