Economics 101 & Theology 101

The Biblical Roots of Private Property

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Did you know that private property has biblical roots? It does, though many people don’t realize it.

Property is rooted in the grand story of the Bible. It was given by God at creation, as a means by which we exercise our call to stewardship and dominion as we fill the earth and develop it. Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., a distinguished Old Testament scholar, develops this theme in his paper Ownership and Property In the Old Testament Economy. Kaiser writes,

It was at creation that God the Creator committed the world and its resources to humanity (Gen. 1:28–29). It was because the man and the woman were made in the image of God that they were commanded to subdue the created order and to exercise dominion over the whole of it. As a result, God granted dominion to this first human pair under his law, but he did not grant his sovereignty to them, for God alone is Lord and the only sovereign over all.

Nowhere does Scripture explicitly say that property is a right, but a right to acquire property is present in Scripture:

  • Two of the Ten Commandments assume the right. Exodus 20: 15 exhorts, “You shall not steal,” while Deuteronomy 5:21 commands, “You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land…or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Neither of these commandments makes sense unless there are some things that rightly belong to other people.
  • Speaking of Exodus 20:15, Kaiser writes, “With this command, not only was the principle of individual ownership recognized, but it also thereby regarded as criminal all attempts to take that property from a person in a fraudulent way and to then regard it as one’s own.”
  • One of the fifty chapters of the book of Genesis, chapter twenty-three, is devoted to describing in detail Abraham’s purchase of a plot of land to bury his wife Sarah. This suggests that standards for buying and selling property were already well developed in 2000 B.C. in the ancient Near East.

Kaiser further explains what the Old Testament says about the acquisition of property:

  • We can be rewarded for our work. Kaiser cites 1 Corinthians 9:9-11 as evidence that human beings are “…entitled to appropriate rewards for their labors.” This is what makes withholding wages so grievous in the Bible. Doing so is condemned in Leviticus 19:13 because, as Kaiser explains, “Fairness and justice demands the proper pay for honest labor.”
  • Property can be acquired via inheritance (see Deuteronomy 21:16 and Proverbs 19:14).
  • Virtues such as “industriousness, wisdom, and the development of insight” are also means by which possessions and property may be acquired (Proverbs 10:4, 13:4, and 14:23; Proverbs 3:16, and Proverbs 14:15, respectively).

As Westerners, we benefit from four thousand years of laws, customs, and thinking about the concept of property. Drawing on ideas derived in part from Christian theology, the Western world slowly developed a highly sophisticated system of property law and titling that, without intention, resulted in a system that protects property rights. These rights are a gift Christians can use to live out whole-life stewardship. As Kaiser writes,

Private property is both a gift and a certain type of power God has entrusted to humanity as stewards. It was God’s intention that mortals should be equipped with this gift and power and that under God they should exercise dominion over the earth.

These are just a few of the passages in which the Bible addresses private property. Where else do you see the Bible talking about the issue?

Portions of this post were adapted from the book Indivisible.

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