Ed. Note: This post has been adapted from its original form. Read the full paper here.
In recent posts, I’ve been exploring assumptions made about the Biblical practice of Jubilee.
Myth #4: Jubilee Leads to Income Equality
Some argue that the periodic “redistribution” of land at Jubilee kept the rich from gaining more wealth, and the poor from descending deeper into poverty.
Derek Tidball, author of The Message of Leviticus, says that,
Jubilee sets…limits on the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
This is only true with regard to permanent acquisition of land. There is nothing in the passage that necessarily prevents income inequality.
Jubilee certainly did prevent any one person or small group of people from buying up most or all of the land. It did stop those “who add field to field, until there is no more room” (Isaiah 5:8). What Jubilee did not do was prevent some people from becoming wealthier than others.
If a lender leased the best land available before Jubilee and worked to make it productive, they could accumulate significant assets prior to each Jubilee. This would allow the lender to lease even more properties during the next fifty years.
Some individuals or families could over time acquire effective control over large amounts of land even though they did not have permanent ownership. The increased assets allowed these individuals or families to buy up an unlimited number of houses in walled cities.
So while the Jubilee law did prevent all the land from being permanently owned by one family or a few families, it did not keep some from becoming wealthier than others.
Jubilee and God’s Promises
The primary intent of the law is not economic equality. God wanted to prevent the Israelites from losing their ability to enjoy the Promised Land. God promised His people freedom from slavery, and a land flowing with “milk and honey,” where they could prosper and enjoy life, using their creativity to farm the land and enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Deuteronomy 8:7-10 describes this promise when it says,
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without scarcity, in which you will not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.
The purpose of Jubilee seems to be not “forgiveness of debt” or “redistribution of land” or “income equality” but the preservation of the prosperity in the Promised Land that God promised His people. John Schneider argues in his book, The Good of Affluence:
It seems the main purpose of the Jubilee was rather to preserve the original integrity of the land as God had apportioned it in the beginning. And in that way its aim was to preserve the substance of the promise of delight to the people of Israel, too. In sum, the jubilee made it harder for people to ruin the basic structures that God had created to secure their prosperity.
This approach to Jubilee has the advantage of avoiding the debates about capitalism or socialism that we might put forward. It places Jubilee firmly in a redemptive-historical context. The purpose of Jubilee was not income equality. It was so that no Israelites would permanently lose the enjoyment of sitting under “his vine and under his fig tree” (Micah 4:4).
Cal Beisner sums up the message of Jubilee on income equality in his book Prosperity and Poverty:
The law of Jubilee was designed not to promote income equality, but to prevent one family member’s destroying an entire family’s means of productivity, not only in his own generation but also in generations to come, by contracting huge debts and selling, permanently, the family’s means of production.
Jubilee was also designed to perpetuate the family’s enjoyment of the fruits of their labors as they used their creativity to turn their land into an approximation of the Garden of Eden.
What do you think? Does Jubilee lead to income equality?