Theology 101

Does the Bible Teach that Property Rights Are Relative?

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In recent weeks, we’ve been covering five assumptions Christians commonly make surrounding the biblical practice of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25.

For example, some wonder whether Jubilee requires the forgiveness of debt and whether the principle should be applied to public policy, particularly on a global scale. We discussed that while Christians are encouraged to exhibit mercy, Jubilee doesn’t mandate debt forgiveness. It is a celebration of a debt that has been paid, not a debt forgiven.

We then looked at the assumption that Jubilee mandates that wealth and land be redistributed. Since Jubilee does not involve the forgiveness of debt, no wealth is redistributed. Neither is there redistribution of land because the land never left the ownership of the original family to whom God gave the land.

Today, we look at whether Jubilee shows the relative nature of private property rights—that they aren’t necessarily absolute.

This assumption concludes that since God owns the land, there are no absolute rights to private property. If there are no absolute rights to private property—land or wealth—this provides warrant for the government to take private property and redistribute it.

Actually, Leviticus 25 argues exactly the opposite.

God owns the land, but has given the Promised Land to the tribes and families of Israel with the condition that private property cannot be sold, squandered, or given away permanently. The property rights remain with the tribe or family to whom the land was given in the first place.

Jubilee underscores the value and importance of private property for the tribes of Israel. The family farm cannot be taken away from them permanently:

  • No matter how tragic the circumstances
  • No matter how immoral a family member becomes
  • No matter how unwise the family is in maintaining their property

The family is not permanently deprived of their land.

John Schneider, in his book The Good of Affluence, explains how property rights were originally distributed to the tribes of Israel. He points out that the shares were distributed unevenly:

  • The Levites received no land.
  • First-born sons received twice the land given to other sons.
  • Daughters neither owned nor inherited anything.
  • Non-Israelites had no share in the land.

Jubilee honors property rights by giving land back to its original owners. Schneider concludes,

What the Jubilee did was restore property and power to old landed families, the true Israelites, and there is no condition relating to whether they needed it or not…For by limiting property rights of non-Israelites or other buyers to a form of leasing, rental, or temporary investment, it literally prohibited the liquidation or sharing of assets for ethical purposes.

Far from being relativized, private property rights in Israel were established permanently and enforced by the practice of Jubilee.

That being said, Israelites were stewards of the land that belonged to God and were called to manage it with covenant faithfulness and humility. Likewise, we are called to faithful stewardship of what God has entrusted to us.

 

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

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