The Land & Biblical Economics
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
ARCHER TORREY is the Director of Jesus
Abbey. a mission located 200 miles from Seoul in Korea.
Two questions were raised when he studied the Bible's teachings on
land: Why is the land question so central? What can be done in the
20th century to remedy the injustices created by the corruption of
the principles embodied in the Bible?
"The land question is central because land is space, on which
man has to live and work. The Hebrew word 'maqom' for 'place' means
'standing room'. Nothing can take place - farming, manufacturing,
commerce or just living - without space. "The two facts of life
are land and labour or space and man, and these are the two facts
with which the Bible deals. To avoid this issue is to render
theology irrelevant and the interpretation of Scripture dangerously
lop-sided. War is the most consuming preoccupation of the world, and
armaments is the largest industry in the world. And what is war
about? Who controls space! No effort to bring about peace can have
any lasting effect without confronting this issue. The choice that
faces the human race is justice in the allotment of space -- or
It was the worship of Baal which corrupted the Mosaic laws, and Mr.
Torrey has grappled with the practical problem of working out a
modern solution to the present chaotic state of land tenure systems.
He concludes that there are two relevant solutions.
The first he calls the "Mother Earth-Communitarian"
solution. Jesus Abbey is an example (see Land & Liberty,
July-Aug., 1978). "It has many practitioners and is in line
with the New Testament solution: not waiting for civil government
action, but by ones and twos and groups returning to the land and
demonstrating on a small scale the proper use and redistribution of
land. This includes both the group farming experiments and the new
homestead experiments. All, consciously or unconsciously, operate
from the premise that 'the land is mine and you are guests on it'."
The second is the redistribution of land values through the fiscal
system. This, says Mr. Torrey, "leaves the fruit of man's
labour unencumbered but takes the rental value of the land for the
public authority which provides the services which help to make the
space worth occupying. This technique prevents land speculation and
creates employment or leaves land available for resettlement, a sort
of on-going land reform which is working in many places."
This paper will attempt to present the teaching of the Bible with
regard to land as well as the evidence given with regard to historical
practices. We will take the Biblical account at face value without
considering the various -'critical theories" with regard to the
dating of the various documents. Some people would regard such a study
to be vitiated by treating later documents as if they were earlier,
but the internal evidence strongly indicates that the so-called "later
documents" correctly reflect earlier principles.
We shall begin with the clear-cut and well-known legislation on the
subject contained in the Pentateuch, and then examine the evidence for
actual practice in Israel from the time of Genesis to Nehemiah. The
teaching of the prophets will be dealt with in the context of their
The laws are stated clearly enough. The basic law is contained in
Leviticus 25, and the key principle enunciated is in verse 23: "Land
must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me and you are
only strangers and guests. You will allow a right of redemption on all
your landed property". (Note: Scriptural quotations will usually
be from the Jerusalem Bible or the more traditional King James
version, but will occasionally be the author's own paraphrase). This
concept underlies all the Bible teaching on land. No other teaching is
indicated prior to the time of Moses, nor is the teaching anywhere
repealed. It is repeated and reinforced by the prophetic teachings.
What makes this study imperative is that where Karl Marx was mistaken
in his prophecies, the prophecies of the Bible have been fulfilled.
Underlying the actual legislation in Leviticus is the fact of
Israel's invasion of the land of Canaan and the division of the land
by lot, as a heritage from the Lord to be passed on to future
The modern word "lot" as used for a piece of real estate
derives directly from this concept. The Greek word usually translated
"inheritance" in the Bible means a division made by casting
lots. The countless references in the Bible to "inheritance",
"lot", "line", "possession", etc., are
all against this background: that the lot expresses the will of God
who divides equally to all his people.
Once the land has been divided and allotted, however, each portion is
to remain within the family or clan that has received it and it may
never be alienated. The land never belongs to an individual, but to
all future generations of the current possessor's descendants.
Therefore, he is not free to give the title of the land to anyone
else. Nor is he able, however he may covet his neighbours' land, to
accumulate a large estate for himself except very temporarily.
According to Lev. 25 when a possessor of land wishes to sell it, aH
he can do is offer a leasehold up until the year of jubilee. There is
no special word in the Bible translated either "lease" or "rent",
because this is what is meant by the word "sell". [In
this paper the modern world "lease" will normally be used to
translate the Hebrew "maker" usually rendered "sell".]
The concept of selling land as held in most "civilised"
lands today does not exist in the Bible except as a crime. There are
three exceptions, where a perpetual title was acquired by purchase,
and these will be examined.
Under the normal law, when a piece of land is sold (leased), the
seller has a right to redeem the land at any time by refunding the
balance of the lease. If the seller is unable to redeem the land
himself, his next-of-kin may do so. The maximum lease is for 50 years,
but all leases expire in the same year, the Year of Jubilee, or the
Year of Liberty, or the Year of the Trumpet. The Hebrew word "yobel"
is translated both "trumpet" and "jubilee",
depending on the context.
The year of the Trumpet is the year after the seventh in a series of
sabbatical years. The sabbatical years are referred to in Ex. 23, Lev.
25, and Deut. 15. In the sabbatical year the land was to lie fallow,
debts (including mortgages) were to be cancelled, and slaves and
bondservants were to be set free. When land is under mortgage, the
mortgage is cancelled in the sabbatical year, but if it has been sold
in good faith, it does not return until the jubilee unless redeemed by
the payment of the remaining rent.
In the year of the Trumpet, the "shofar" or ram's horn is
to be sounded on the 10th day of the 7th month, the Day of Atonement.
This gives everyone five days to travel back to his ancestral land to
keep the great feast of Tabernacles on the 15th day, when the Jubilee
begins. It also gives the previous lessor of the land time to harvest
his last crop before returning the land to the original family.
Houses in walled towns are exceptions. The right of redemption is
limited to one year, except in the case of Levites, who have no landed
property other than the pasture lands attached to their towns. Levites
have an unlimited right of redemption and, if there are unable to
redeem a house, it returns in the year of liberty.
Leviticus 27 elaborates the law with regard to property donated to
G6d (i.e. for the use of the Temple). Its value is computed according
to the number of years until the jubilee. However, if the owner,
instead of exercising Ills right of redemption, should transfer it to
another party, when the jubilee comes it will return not to him but to
the Temple. If a man dedicates a leased field to the Lord, it returns
to the original owner (or his heirs) in the jubilee.
Deuteronomy adds nothing to Leviticus, but stresses the sabbatical
year and the cancellation of debts, along with a solemn command not to
covet another's fields (5.21). In time, the coveting of other men's
lands and the seizing of them by foreclosing of mortgages became a
serious abuse which would only be justified by appealing from the laws
of the Bible to the laws of Baal. There are further references to the
sanctity of boundary markers and subsidiary issues. Deuteronomy,
however, allows a number of exceptions in dealing with non-Israelites,
and the three cases, referred to above, of land being bought in
perpetuity happen all to involve purchase from non-Israelites. In each
case, however, it was not a private transaction but involved the
approval of the entire tribe from whom the title was obtained.
All other titles were obtained directly from the Lord by the casting
of lots on land taken in war under the divine mandate to possess and
divide the land of Canaan.
The three exceptions are as follows. Gen. 23: Abraham buys a burial
place for a perpetual possession from the Hittites. Presumably this
was a valid sale under Hittite law. The ruling body of the Hittite
people witnessed the transacton and approved. Gen. 33: Jacob buys a
lot on which to build an altar, from the Shechemites. This transaction
is referred to again in Josh. 24.32 and John 4.5. It was purchased
from the whole tribe, not from any private individual. Finally, in 2
Samuel 24 and in 1 Chr. 21, we have the account of David buying a
threshing floor from the chief (Araunah, or Oman appears to be a
title, not a man's name) of the Jebusites.
A fourth case is that of Omri (I Kg 16) buying the hill of Samaria
from a private individual. But, as we shall see, Omri was the
revolutionary or usurper who introduced the Baal land-laws into
Israel, and it is recorded of him that "he did what is
displeasing to the Lord."
We come now to the question: Were these laws enforced? If not, what
other laws were accepted? In the absence of specific references to the
jubilee, the trumpet or the year of liberty, it has been supposed by
many that some other system was in force. Even this argument from
silence, weak as it is, breaks down when we recall that the expression
"proclaim liberty" is used.
Actually, very few of the many laws in the Pentateuch are referred to
again in detail, but we are told frequently whether the "the laws
of the Lord", or the "covenant of the Lord" was kept or
violated. We are not told that the laws were ever repealed or other
laws enacted prior to the time of Omri, except for the specific case
of "the sin of Jereboam the son of Nebat", which consisted
in making golden calves in Bethel and Dan, thus leading the people
into idolatry and schism and weakening the authority of the Lord so
that the way was paved for the introduction of Baalism and the total
rejection of the laws of the Lord.
There is no evidence that Jereboam repealed the civil system and, if
he did, there are no clues to indicate what system he substituted.
The prophets of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), Elijah, Elisha, Amos,
and Hosea all assume that Israel is still under the Lord. They see the
problem not simply as that of the golden calves but the total
abandonment of the Lord for the landlords' god, Baal, introduced by
Omri and Ahab. It was this constitutional change under Omri that gave
rise to the great prophetic movement which provides the bulk of the
material in the Bible.
With this in mind, let us go through the Bible and find the
references to land laws and see what they indicate with regard to the
validity of the actual legislation set forth in the Books of Moses.
The very first reference is in the book of Numbers. It deals with a
case where a man had only daughters and his fellow clansmen were
afraid that the land would pass to their husbands' clans in the year
of liberty (Num. 36). Moses ruled that the girls must marry within
their father's tribe and that the inheritance could not be allowed to
pass to another tribe. This case is referred to also in chapter 27,
but the specific reference to the jubilee is in 36.
Within the same year, the people crossed the Jordan and entered the
promised land. The first fruits of the conquest was the city of
Jericho, and it was ceremonially dedicated to the Lord. Joshua 6
contains the account, which is significant for its use of the word "Yobel".
There are two words translated "trumpet" in the English. The
word "shofar", for the ram's horn, is used 13 times in the
account, and the word "yobel" five times. This was the first
jubilee, the liberating of the land from the Canaanites and the
beginning of its distribution to the Israelites.
Judges 11.2: Jephthah, an illegitimate son, is prevented by action of
the entire clan from receiving any portion of the clan's inheritance.
This supports the picture of the division of land into clan allotments
as referred to frequently in Numbers and Joshua.
Judges 21.24: "The people returned each to his own inheritance."
It appears that after the elapse of some 250 years, no significant
alienation of land occurred, or, if it had, that the jubilees had been
declared and enforced. This is the language of Lev. 25.10.
The story of Ruth takes place in the time of the Judges, two
generations before the time of Samuel. Here a land inheritance plays a
key role in the romance. Apparently, before Elimelech left Bethlehem
for Moab, he sold (leased) his famine-stricken acres for whatever he
could get. Ten years later his wife Naomi returns to Bethlehem with
her daughter-in-law Ruth, but husband and sons are dead. If she lives
long enough, Naomi will get the land back in the jubilee or, if she
dies and Ruth has married within the tribe of Judah, Ruth's heirs will
be able to claim it. The only right Naomi can exercise prior to the
jubilee is the right of redemption. Since, due to her extreme poverty,
it is not in her power to redeem the land, she offers to "sell"
it (that is, to transfer the lease) to the next-of-kin, who has the
right of redemption. But she makes a condition: she will not give this
right of redemption to the next-of-kin unless he is also willing to
act as the brother of the deceased and marry the widow to raise up
progeny for him. Thus the land will revert, in the jubilee, to the
eldest son of Ruth and her husband, who will be counted as the
grandson of Elimelech. The conditions Naomi lays down are unacceptable
to the next-of-kin and he transfers his right to Boaz, who is next in
line and cheerfully ready to redeem the property and marry Ruth. The
entire affair is premised on the legal code of Leviticus.
The next specific reference to land is in I Sam. 8.10ff. Here the
prophet Samuel, a bitter opponent of the monarchy, warns the people of
what will happen if they insist on having a king. He says that "this
will be the manner of the king", and goes on to predict land
seizures in the style of the neighbouring countries. The word "manner"
translates the Hebrew "mishpat", which may also be rendered "rights",
or "customs" as well as its more usual translation "judgment".
It is used equally of customs established by Israelite (divine) law
and the "customs of the heathen", which is what is in view
here; the people have demanded of Samuel, "Give us a king to rule
over us like the other nations", and the Lord replies to Samuel: "they
have rejected me from ruling over them
only you must warn them
solemnly and instruct them in the customs of the king who is to rule
Samuel closes his warning against the violation of the ancient land
laws which the monarchy will certainly introduce with the words: "When
that day comes you will cry out on account of the king you have chosen
for yourselves, but on that day God will not answer you." The
prophetic writer adds: "The people refused to listen to the words
of Samuel. They said, 'No! We want a king
like the other
The "rights", then, that the king will claim, following the
custom of other nations, will include: "He will take the best of
your fields, of your vineyards and olive groves and give them to his
officials." There is nothing in the record, however, to indicate
that Saul, the king then elected, did anything of this sort, but we
have the following interesting words of Saul, himself, in I Sam. 22: "Listen,
men of Benjamin
is the son of Jesse ready to give you all
fields and vineyards.... that you all conspire against me?" This
suggests that, although Saul has not followed the pagan custom, he
suspects Ben-Jesse of bribing support with such promises. It is not
clear, however, whether the fields and vineyards are to be seized from
citizens of Israel and given to his officials, as Samuel had
threatened, or whether they are going to be from land taken in war.
In the wars of Saul and, later, David, land was taken from the
Philistines, Amalekites, and other Canaanites. This land had been
given to Israel by God, but the Israelites had not made good their
claim and it had never been included in the original allotments, as is
seen from the accounts in Joshua and Judges. If at a later time these
lands were conquered, the title might well pass to the crown and, by
assignment, to various officials. In this way, both Saul and David
undoubtedly acquired considerable holdings. David's many wars, indeed,
would provide sufficient opportunity to amass legitimately
considerable land. "Legitimately", in this case, refers to
the divine mandate enunciated in Num. 13.1: "this land of Canaan
which I am giving to the sons of Israel", described in v.21 as "from
the Wilderness of Zin to Rehob, the Pass of Hamath".
Actually, David's conquests extended beyond these limits, and much of
what he seized would come under the law for booty of war, as given in
Numbers 31: half to those who fight and half to the rest of the
community. In 1 Sam. 30 we find David enunciating a variant on the
same principle and establishing it as law: "As the share is of
him who goes down to battle, so is the share of him who stays by the
baggage." It was on this same occasion that David sent
proportionate shares of the booty to the elders of Judab in the towns
of the Negeb where the raiding and fighting had been taking place.
At least one considerable estate came to David by way of the old law
of inheritance. When one of the Calebites named Nabal (who owned 3,000
sheep and 1,000 goats) died without heirs, David married his widow,
and the inheritance passed to him under the legislation that was made
for Zelophedad's daughters, referred to in Num. 36. Since the clan of
Caleb, to which Nabal belonged, was also of the tribe of Judab, his
land could be transferred to David's clan through his widow and their
1 Chir. 17.25 lists David's crown estates, or rather, the estate
managers, but leaves unanswered the question as to their exact
locations or how they were acquired. He had cattle in pasture at
Sharon, but this is not to say that he owned land in Sharon, which he
belonged to Manasseb. not Judab. There is nothing to indicate that he
acquired any of his land by speculation, mortgage, or other sharp
practice forbidden by the law. It remained for some of his successors
to introduce such violations of the law of the Lord.
After the death of Saul, the question of what to do with his clan
heritage arose. Pagan custom would decree the wiping out of his
descendants as potential claimants to the throne, and the confiscating
of their estates, but in 2 Sam. 9 we find the account of how David
restored all the land of Saul to his one remaining descendant,
Meribaal, and kept the latter at the palace while a steward, Ziba,
managed the estate. Later, Ziba accused Meribaal of plotting to regain
the crown. David, deceived by what was a very unlikely story, gave the
estate to Ziba. When, later, David found that he had been deceived, he
dared not renege on his oath, so compromised by dividing the estate
between Meribaal and Ziba. There is no record of the extent of this
estate or whether it included, besides the clan holdings (all but one
of the adult males of the clan had been wiped out in the last
disastrous battle and the subsequent struggle for the crown), any
lands seized as booty of war.
During the reign of David one land case is recorded as coming to the
king's attention (2 Sam. 14). A woman of Tekoa comes before the kind
and explains that her husband is dead and one of her two sons killed
the other in a brawl. Now the clan members are demanding the execution
of the living son, which will leave her husband without an heir. She
is, actually, more concerned, in this case, with preserving the name
and posterity (she uses the word "remnant") of her husband
than with the title to the land. The king rules in her favour.
Solomon, of course, was famous for his great wealth, but it seems to
have been derived from tribute paid by areas conquered by his father,
David, and from various forms of trade, including the munitions trade
(chariots and horses). There is no indication that he seized anyone's
land, as Samuel had predicted, and the rebellion under Rehoboam seems
to be directed more against burdensome taxation and forced labour on
grandiose construction projects than with any injustices with regard
to land (1 Kg 12, 2 Chr 10). On the other hand, we are told (1 Kg
4.25) "Judah and Israel lived in security, each man under his
vine and his fig tree", a common phrase for one's own
It was for another king, the notorious Ahab, to fulfil the dire
warnings of Samuel and revise the land-laws, earning for himself the
reputation of being the worst king in the history of the country.
Before Ahab's time, a succession of fairly decent kings had managed
to keep the laws of the Lord and enforce them. Solomon's dedication of
the Temple in the 12th year of his reign. 52 years after David's
accession to the throne of Judab in Hebron and possibly just 50 years
after David's acknowledgment by the men of Israel, has all the marks
of a jubilee. It is kept on the feast of Tabernacles and ends with the
people being sent back to their homes with the king's blessing,
'joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had done
for David his servant, and for Israel his people": (1 Kg 8.66).
The Chronicler notes: 'Solomon kept the feast seven days, and all
Israel with him, a very great congregation, from the entering in of
Hamath unto the river of Egypt." The Temple had actually been
completed 11 months earlier, but Solomon delayed the dedication to
make it coincide with the celebration of the feast of Tabernacles.
The next jubilee would have been during the reign of Asa, and
although we are told nothing very complimentary about his father and
grandfather, we are told that Asa renewed the covenant, urging the
people of Judah to observe the law and commandment (2 Chr. 14 and 15),
and that they pledged their oath, after a series of reforms, "with
shouts to the sound of trumpet and horn." Asa had a very long
reign, as did his son, Jehoshaphat, and the next jubilee would have
been due in Jehoshaphat's reign, which came in Judah after Omri and
Ahab had begun their work of introducing Baalism and wiping Out the
religion and laws of the Lord in the Northern Kingdom. We find that
Jehoshaph at, under the influence of the prophet Elijah, is
consistently opposed to Baalism and sent officials around the towns of
Judah to teach the laws of the Lord (2 Chr 17) and, later, (2 Chr 19)
reformed the judicial system. 2 Kings 3 makes it clear that he was
influenced by and had the approval of the prophet Elisha. There is no
reason to suppose that he failed to proclaim either sabbatical years
or jubilees as they fell due, especially in view of his concern for
law and judgment.
As for the Northern Kingdom, Israel, sabbatical years and jubilees
and the entire Mosaic system were now abolished and the Phoenician
system, sanctified by the worship of Baal, was instituted. The changes
were first introduced by Omri, who seized the throne of Israel in the
thirty-first year of Asa's reign in Judah. But it was the daughter of
Omri's ally, the Phoenician, Ithbaal, who married Omri's son, Ahab,
who seriously set about not merely introducing the Phoenician system
but wiping out every trace of the Mosaic system.
Of Ahab we are told (1 Kg 16): "Ahab, son of Omri, did what is
displeasing to the Lord, and was worse than all of his predecessors."
The least that he did was to follow the sinful example of Jereboam the
son of Nebat (idolatry and schism). He married Jezebel, the daughter
of Ithbaal, king of the Sidonians, and then proceeded to serve Baal
and worship him . . . . and committed other crimes as well, provoking
the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, more than all the kings of
Israel who were his predecessors. (The Jerusalem Bible adds this
footnote: "Ithbaal was a priest of Astarte who seized power in
Tyre at the same time as Omri in Israel; the two usurpers came to
terms and sealed their alliance by a family marriage. The effects on
the religion of Israel were to be increasingly felt throughout the
reign of Ahab.")
It was Ithbaal's immediate successors who established the colony of
Carthage in North Africa. It was from Carthage, after the Punic Wars,
that the Phoenician (Baalistic) land laws were eventually adopted by
Rome whence they spread to Europe, Britain, and the western world.
Actually, the Phoenician system did not originate with Ithbaal but is
as old as the religion of Baal, according to the Bible. It is the same
system which so polluted the land of Canaan that God ordered the
Israelites to wipe it Out (2 Kg 17.8, Jer. 2.7f, Ex 23.24, Deut. 9.5,
18.12, Hos. 11. If, etc.).