We have noted the peculiar cosmology of the Hebrews compared to the Ancient Near East (ANE) cultures. Another peculiarity is the construal of property rights in the Bible, particularly as it relates to land and labor.
The idea of private property rights wasn’t foreign to ANE culture. Records dating back to a least the late Third Century, B.C.E. , spell out rudimentary property rights. Of course, what we think of as economic concerns were thoroughly embedded in kinship and politics. These societies were ruled by a tiny, but powerful, elite who claimed supreme sovereignty over the land and tended to extract excess wealth to fund the ruler’s projects. That made property rights precarious by modern standards. Various types of servitude and slavery deprived significant portions of the population of the basic right to the fruits of their own labor.
With the arrival to the Hebrews, we see concerns for property rights in the Pentateuch similar to those we see elsewhere in the ANE. The Ten Commandments lists prohibitions against stealing and covetousness. The Old Testament simply takes property rights for granted. But we also see some interesting innovations.
While ANE societies had kings who were seen as representatives of the gods (if not gods themselves) and who were sovereign over the land, the law of the Hebrews provided for no such earthly representative. God was directly sovereign over the land. In Leviticus 25:23, regarding the jubilee, God says, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” “Sales” of agricultural land were more accurately leases set to expire at the next jubilee when the land reverted to the original owner. The jubilee made each family a permanent tenant of the land. Similarly, all servitude expired at each jubilee as did all debts. Slavery among the Israelites was forbidden.
Along with this stewardship came a variety of responsibilities in Old Testament Law. It was presumed that there would always be those who were in need. Farmers were to leave the edges of the field to be gleaned. Special offerings administered by the Levites were to be taken to provide for the poor. There were other provisions that protected the poor as well as the general admonition to be generous toward them.
The jubilee made the Israelite families and individuals directly accountable to God. No divinely appointed ruler acted on God’s behalf. It was a radical decentralization of the control over property and an elevation of each Israelite family to the role of stewardship over God’s resources.
In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, Harvard historian David Landes writes:
… The Hebrew hostility to autocracy, even their own, was formed in Egypt and the desert: was there ever a more stiff-necked people? Let me cite two examples, where the response to a popular initiative is directly linked to the sanctity of possessions. When the priest Korach leads a revolt against Moses in the desert, Moses defends himself against the charges of usurpation by saying, “I have not taken one ass from them, nor have I wronged one of them” (Numbers 16:15). Similarly, when the Israelites, now established in the Land, call for a king, the prophet Samuel grants their wish but warns them of the consequences: a king, he tells them, will not be like him. “Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken?” (1 Samuel 12:3).
This tradition, which set the Israelites apart from any of the kingdoms around and surely did much to earn them the hostility of nearby rulers – who needs such troublemakers? – tended to get lost in Christianity when that community of faith became a church, especially once that Church became the official, privileged religion of an autocratic empire. One cannot well bite the hand that funds. Besides, the word was not getting out, for the Church early decided that only qualified people, certain clerics for example, should know the Bible. The Good Book, with its egalitarian laws and morals, its prophetic rebukes of power and exaltation of the humble, invited indiscipline among the faithful and misunderstanding with the secular authorities. Only after censorship and edulcoration could it be communicated to the laity. So that it was not until the appearance of such heretical sects as the Waldensians (Waldo, c. 1175), the Lollards (Wiclif, c. 1376), Lutherans (1519 on), and Calvinists (mid-sixteenth), with their emphasis on personal religion and the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, that this Judaic-Christian tradition entered explicitly into the European political consciousness, by way of reminding rulers that they held their wealth and power of God, and the on condition of good behavior, An inconvenient doctrine.
Yet Western Medieval Christianity did come to condemn the pretensions of earthly rulers – lesser monarchs, to be sure, than the emperors of Rome. (The Eastern Church never talked back to the Caesars of Byzantium.) It thereby implicitly gave protection to private property. As the Church’s own claims to power increased, it could not but emphasize the older Judaic principle that the real owner of everything was the Lord above, and the newer Christian principle that the pope was his vicar here below. Earthly rulers were not free to do as they pleased, and even the Church, God’s surrogate on earth, could not flout rights and take at will. The elaborate paperwork that accompanied the transfer of gifts of the faithful bore witness to this duty of good practice and proper procedure.
All of this made Europe very different from civilizations around. (34-35)
The idea of decentralized stewardship was clearly a central component of Judeo-Christian values. Families and individuals are to participate with God in their own provision through the resources entrusted to them and to participate with God in the provision of others who because of stage of life or disability are unable to provide for themselves.
Are there other implications you see from the Old Testament law and the jubilee?