Public Square & Theology 101

Does Jubilee Require the Redistribution of Wealth or Land?

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This week, we’re continuing a series on the biblical concept of Jubilee—its context, its definition, and what it means for us as Christians as we seek to honor God with how we engage our culture and its economy.

In part one, we explored the assumption that Jubilee means forgiveness of debt. Today, we look at a second assumption made of this biblical practice.

It’s been said that Jubilee is the paramount example of a mandatory, legal (government) redistribution of wealth. Whether the Jubilee was practiced or not, the argument goes, God required by law that land be redistributed every fifty years.

However, if Jubilee did not involve the forgiveness of debt, and was instead the celebration of a debt paid off, then there is no redistribution of wealth. There is no redistribution because the land never left the ownership of the original family to whom God gave the land.

Michael Harbin, in an article titled Jubilee and Social Justice, concludes that,

Jubilee did not entail the forgiveness of debt nor did it require a periodic redistribution of wealth…Actual ownership of the land really did not change hands, but remained with the family who had inherited it from God.

Other passages in Leviticus 25 indicate that some property could change hands permanently. In other words, there are some biblical “footnotes” or “asterisks” to the Jubilee leasing process. Leviticus 25:29-34 says,

“Anyone who sells a house in a walled city retains the right of redemption a full year after its sale. During that time the seller may redeem it. If it is not redeemed before a full year has passed, the house in the walled city shall belong permanently to the buyer and the buyer’s descendants. It is not to be returned in the Jubilee. But houses in villages without walls around them are to be considered as belonging to the open country. They can be redeemed, and they are to be returned in the Jubilee.

“The Levites always have the right to redeem their houses in the Levitical towns, which they possess. So the property of the Levites is redeemable—that is, a house sold in any town they hold—and is to be returned in the Jubilee, because the houses in the towns of the Levites are their property among the Israelites. But the pastureland belonging to their towns must not be sold; it is their permanent possession.”

What this passage points out is that:

  • Jubilee only applied to land in the country (outside cities).
  • Inside cities, a house that is sold could be redeemed for a full year after the sale. After that, it became the permanent property of the buyer.
  • Levites had no permanent land. They could sell or lease their homes but could redeem the house at any time.
  • There was no redistribution of permanently owned houses in the cities.
  • There was no redistribution of wealth gained through leasing land. The profit from bountiful harvests remained in the hands of the leaser. Only land in the country was returned to its original owners.

Far from being an argument for redistribution of land and wealth, Jubilee keeps the distribution in exactly the same place as it started. It is not redistributed to a different family, but returned to the same one, according to God’s original distribution.

Editor’s note: This post was adapted from Dr. Lindsley’s chapter in IFWE’s book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism. Get 15% OFF this book! Use code: CTC15

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