I wrote earlier in this series that wealth and prosperity was one of the promised outcomes for faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant. But within that covenant we find this warning:
17 Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. 19 If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the LORD is destroying before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God. (NRSV)
The covenant promised material abundance. Material asceticism is foreign to the biblical image of shalom. But the Old Testament also makes starkly clear that the pursuit of wealth apart from the covenant and acknowledgement of God will bring about terrible consequences. That covenant included private property laws but it also included provisions for the poor like gleaning and regular collections for the poor. Private property was integrated into the larger covenantal relationship.
At the center of acknowledging God were the sabbath-jubilee provisions within the Mosaic code. The jubilee code is widely misperceived as a process for wealth redistribution. Closer inspection reveals something different.
The Israelites were instructed to take a sabbath year every seven years. The land would lie fallow and labor would cease. Every fifty years there would be a jubilee. (Depending on how you read the text it may actually have been every forty-nine years.) Each family returned to their ancestral land, bonded labor come to an end, debts expired, and the people celebrated and worshiped God.
Historically, there is no evidence that the jubilee was ever observed. However, we need to see how the jubilee would have worked had it been observed. Here are the provisions of the jubilee for land transactions:
13 In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. 14 When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. 15 When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. 16 If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. 17 You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God.
The one who holds title to the land holds it permanently. If jubilee is followed, then what we have is a lease agreement based on “a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you” between the time of the transaction and the jubilee. Come jubilee, the lease expires. Keep in mind that this was only agricultural land. The jubilee did not apply to property in the cities. There is no redistribution. There is prevention of exploitation.
39 If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. 40 They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.
If jubilee is followed there are no slaves to set free because “you shall not make them serve as slaves.”
47 If resident aliens among you prosper, and if any of your kin fall into difficulty with one of them and sell themselves to an alien, or to a branch of the alien’s family, 48 after they have sold themselves they shall have the right of redemption; one of their brothers may redeem them, 49 or their uncle or their uncle’s son may redeem them, or anyone of their family who is of their own flesh may redeem them; or if they prosper they may redeem themselves. 50 They shall compute with the purchaser the total from the year when they sold themselves to the alien until the jubilee year; the price of the sale shall be applied to the number of years: the time they were with the owner shall be rated as the time of a hired laborer. 51 If many years remain, they shall pay for their redemption in proportion to the purchase price; 52 and if few years remain until the jubilee year, they shall compute thus: according to the years involved they shall make payment for their redemption.
Again, there is no slavery and people are bound until redeemed or based on the number of harvests between their sale and the next jubilee. It is leased labor.
The jubilee prevented people from being permanently alienated from their land or labor, (the means of economic production in ancient societies). It did not curtail or redistribute the amassed herds, urban real estate, gold, or other measures of wealth. It ensured that everyone had an ownership-stewardship stake in God’s unfolding plans. The sabbath and jubilee observances also demonstrated acknowledgement of God as the source of their wealth by trusting in him for the years that land lie fallow.
In short, we see people living in a covenantal relationship, where abundance is shared with the poor, where each family has an ownership stake in God’s unfolding plan through private ownership of property, and God as the ultimate provider of all their wealth is acknowledged. There is simplicity. There is singleness of focus upon God and what he has provided.
But what about the prophets? Did they not regularly call for redistribution and condemn wealth?