A text often used by those of the religious left, or those advocating for a type of socialism, is Lev. 25. Here we find Yahweh’s instructions on giving the land rest every seventh year (vv. 1-7), and the Year of Jubilee, after 49 years (vv. 8-54). Because both concepts are often misunderstood, or misused for leftist agendas, it is worth devoting some time to this chapter.
Leftists like to use passages such as this as an argument for socialism, that is, government-enforced redistribution of wealth. They claim this was the intent of Moses, and that it is a stinging condemnation of capitalism. Ron Sider for example said in his 1977 volume, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:
“Actually, it might not be a bad idea to try the Jubilee itself at least once. It has been somewhat more than fifty years since the people of God divided their capital equally among themselves. We could select 1980 as the Jubilee year… In 1980 all Christians worldwide would pool all their stocks, bonds, and income producing property and business and redistribute them equally.”
At least it seemed to be a call for voluntary wealth redistribution. But plenty of other religious lefties have been quite happy to use the coercive power of the state to push these schemes. (It should be noted that in later revised versions of his book, Sider did move away from some of his more radical and naive support for socialism.)
And modern day activists want an international Jubilee, in which all Third World debts are cancelled. This and other radical proposals have all been gleaned recently from this one chapter. Whether they are in fact reflective of the original intent of the legislation remains to be seen.
So what is this text all about then? While a shorter but similar passage can be found in Deut. 15, I will confine myself to the text in Leviticus. A number of points can be made about this. The first and most obvious point is that this text really has nothing at all to do with socialism or the statist redistribution of wealth or property.
The whole intent of the legislation is to restore private property to its original owners. Private property is of course the very basis of the free market system – not socialism. It is presupposed everywhere in Scripture, including the Eighth Commandment against theft (Ex 20:15).
When Israelites found themselves in financial difficulties, they could sell themselves into indentured servitude, or sell off their properties. In both cases, the Jubilee Year reaffirmed the freedom which God had called His people to enjoy, as was so powerfully expressed at the Exodus.
Thus this legislation provides for the return of lands to their original owners. These lands could not be permanently disposed of. See Numbers 36:9 as an example about this command to Israel. The original division of tribal lands had to be maintained.
That private property is assumed here (although God is the ultimate owner of course) is quite clear. As Derek Tidball comments, “This legislation endorses the legitimacy of the private ownership of property, especially when it is invested in the family.”
He continues, “Although there is a recognition that some land is in common ownership, this is the exception rather than the rule. As Robert North points out, while socialism says that none shall own property, the message of Leviticus is that none shall lose property.”
John Jefferson Davis offers some useful remarks here: “Leviticus 25 is not really concerned with income equalization but with the restoration of leased family lands.” He reminds us that “the incomes earned prior to the Jubilee were retained by the most recent owner.” He then makes this important point:
“The provisions of Leviticus 25 were intended to safeguard equal opportunity for Israelites to earn income without destroying the incentives to work and invest through normal economic activities. Unlike many modern welfare programs and systems of progressive taxation, the Jubilee laws, by allowing retention of income earned from the land, did not destroy the incentives to work and invest, which are essential to the economic well-being of a society.
“Notice also that Leviticus 25 is not a program of ‘expropriation’ or seizure as, for example, in the case of certain Latin American programs of ‘land reform.’ In the Jubilee laws, there is compensation for land restored to the original owner.”
He continues, “The intent of the Jubilee legislation was to preserve the broad ownership of property in Israel. When the prophet Micah looked forward to the blessings of the messianic age, he envisioned not vast collective farms operated by the state, but a society with ‘every man under his vine and under his fig tree’ (Mic. 4:4).”
And the legislation is quite restricted as well, pertaining only to slaves and those with land outside of walled settlements. And it did nothing to help immigrants who were without an original allotment of land. So this was not at all a major scheme of radical “social justice” but a rather limited endeavour.
Finally, all this was possible because of the original land allotment to the tribes of Israel. Thus how this might be applied to any other nation or group is hard to see. And it needs to be pointed out that we have no record in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Year of Jubilee actually ever having been carried out. If it seemed difficult to carry out there, how much more difficult to carry it out in a nation other than ancient Israel.
Davis offers this overview of Old Testament law and the poor: “The Mosaic provisions place a ‘safety net’ under the poor, but do not represent any attempt at a wholesale redistribution of income or general restructuring of society. These provisions created no administrative bureaucracies. On the contrary, the aid passed rather directly from, for example, the owner of a field to the needy gleaner.”
Also, unlike the modern coercive welfare state, “the Mosaic provisions concerning the poor operated through moral suasion. Generosity to the poor was commanded, but that was to be a willing response to the grace of God.”
And economic levelling – so much a desire of the religious left – is not part of this legislation. As David Chilton notes, “In biblical law, the first-born son receives twice as much as the other sons (Deuteronomy 21:17). As my second son will be happy to inform you, that is a significant inequality. Moreover, a father has the right to disinherit an ungodly son and pass an inheritance along to a godly servant (Proverbs 17:2).” So much for the Greens’ death taxes!
Concern for the poor is high on the biblical priority list. But how exactly that is to be achieved is another matter altogether. Calls for socialist or welfare state redistributionism can be appealed to, but they find little warrant from Leviticus 25. Such calls will need to find other biblical sanction, if it can in fact be found in Scripture at all.