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Private Property In Israel

One of the major themes in the Bible is God’s redemption of the nation of Israel.  God made a promise of land to the sons of Abraham, but generations later his descendants were enslaved in Egypt.  From Exodus to Joshua, you see the activity of God to bring them out of that slavery and into a new land that He had promised them long ago.  On Mount Sinai God gave Moses the laws He wanted the nation of Israel to live by.

Previously, I focused on the laws against charging usury (interest) to those who borrow money.  Now, I would like to look at another economic aspect of the Mosaic law, the establishment of private property

First, we will look at the books of Joshua and Leviticus to understand how land was distributed and who in effect had ownership.  Then we can think about why private property was so important to accomplishing God’s goals for Israel. As a hint, in Deuteronomy 28, He promises Israel material wealth if they obey the Law.  Part of this promise is accomplished through supernatural acts as you read through the chapter. However, the principles and lifestyle God called them to through the Law leads a person to naturally build wealth.

Once Israel took over the land of Canaan in Joshua, there was a need to organize how and where the people were going to live.  In chapter 18 verses 2-7 you see the process outlined.

Joshua 18:2-7

“2 There remained among the sons of Israel seven tribes who had not divided their inheritance. 3 So Joshua said to the sons of Israel, “How long will you put off entering to take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you? 4 Provide for yourselves three men from each tribe that I may send them, and that they may arise and walk through the land and write a description of it according to their inheritance; then they shall return to me.5 They shall divide it into seven portions; Judah shall stay in its territory on the south, and the house of Joseph shall stay in their territory on the north. 6 You shall describe the land in seven divisions, and bring the description here to me. I will cast lots for you here before the Lord our God. 7 For the Levites have no portion among you, because the priesthood of the Lord is their inheritance. Gad and Reuben and the half-tribe of Manasseh also have received their inheritance eastward beyond the Jordan, which Moses the servant of the Lord gave them.”

Joshua and Eleazar the priest oversaw the process and it is completed at the end of chapter 19.  One thing to take note of is that land was given in proportion to a tribe based on how large it was as seen chapter 19 verse 9, “The inheritance of the sons of Simeon was taken from the portion of the sons of Judah, for the share of the sons of Judah was too large for them; so the sons of Simeon received an inheritance in the midst of Judah’s inheritance.”  

Another is that the land is described as an inheritance in throughout the chapter in verses 1, 2, 9, 10, 16, 23, 31, 39, 48. Digging a little deeper to understand who exactly received the land read verse 16 which states that cities and villages were given to the families in the tribe of Zebulun. One way to understand that statement is to apply it to each individual family, though not certainly

To understand exactly how far down ownership was broken we need to look at the laws governing land use in Leviticus.  As Moses describes who is acting, we can get a clearer picture. But first it is just interesting to see that God provided even for those who were not Israelites in Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22.  Land owners were instructed not to harvest the corners of their land so that aliens (immigrants), travelers, or those in urgent need would have food available.

But who was the landowner?  The king or his court? The tribal elders?  Well in Letivicus 19:9 the command refers to “your field” and “your harvest” in the singular.  Likewise, the verbs “you shall not reap” and “nor shall you gather” have singular subjects for “you”.  So the commands filter down through all the people to individuals who own individual tracts of land. That is who God is commanding, individuals.  You see the same description in verse 10, while most of the other commands in chapter 19 are given to nation as a whole.

Additionally, in Leviticus 25 you see the same kind of language as Moses describes the jubilee year and how to buy back land for a family member.  The jubilee year occurred every 50 years and all debts or sales of land (to pay off a debt) were forgiven. The following verses explain:

Leviticus 25

13 On this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his own property... 25 If a fellow countryman of yours becomes so poor he has to sell part of his property, then his nearest kinsman is to come and buy back what his relative has sold...28 But if he has not found sufficient means to get it back for himself, then what he has sold shall remain in the hands of its purchaser until the year of jubilee; but at the jubilee it shall revert, that he may return to his property.

In each statement, God is declaring that property in Israel is private.  Individual people get to decide how they plant, harvest, sell, and buy land within the guidelines of the Mosaic Law.  By looking at these statutes and some of the grammar within them, it should be clear that God established private property in Israel.  

He did, so that Israel would avoid a phenomenon known as the  tragedy of the commons.  It occurs when everyone is free to take resources from a public area but no one has the responsibility to maintain that resource.  Quickly, that resource disappears. The most simple way to prevent this from happening is to give individuals ownership rights over a portion of an area.  

It is in the owner’s best interest to utilize his property to benefit society while maintaining it and protecting it from overuse or abuse. God, the designer of human nature, is also the one who understands the best design of society.  Therefore, He gave instructions to Israel so that they would organize themselves in the most efficient and human prospering way possible