Land belongs to God


IMG_2092Good thing to remember on this Tax Day 2013. Everything belongs to God.

One way Scripture makes this clear early on is in Levitical law. Specifically below I’ll explain what Leviticus says about land ownership. The maxim gets more specific here: Land belongs to God.

Further, I want to begin with a specific principle of “Jubilee” within the life of Israel. The celebration called for families, individuals to return to their tribal land (Twelve tribes of Judah) and acknowledge that it was God who gave them the land, who gives all land and no man can possess it permanently—it is, instead, at all times on loan from God.

Case in point of God’s ownership and Israel’s use of the land is the content of the sale of land to one another. If an Israelite bought or sold crops, what he was really buying, says Leviticus 25:16, is not land. The land is God’s. He was buying a number of crops until the Jubilee. If you are buying land, you might think of it this way: You are investing in the right to receive a certain number of crops until Jubilee from a specific plot of land God has given your people.

An important point connected with the sale of the number of crops—land deals—is this exhortation: “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 25:17). This exhortation develops the second principle that is built on the foundation of the first related to property. First, land is God’s. Second, don’t cheat one another or kick people when they are down. What does that look like in Israelite life? Four examples are given, the first in Leviticus 25:25-28:

If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. If, however, a man has no one to redeem it for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to redeem it, he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it; he can then go back to his own property. But if he does not acquire the means to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and he can then go back to his property.

The second example given in Leviticus 25:35 exhorts Israel to treat the poor as one who is an alien among them who is in need, and they were not to extract any interest on this care for them:

If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.

A third example is given relates to the poor who have absolutely nothing of value, except themselves and out of desperation sell themselves as a slave. Immediately the idea is contradicted as implausible with each other. It is dismissed as a disgrace to hold a neighbor or fellow Israelite as a slave but rather could be viewed and treated as a hired worker. Leviticus 25:39-43 describes what this looks like:

If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.

Anything about slavery is difficult for us to discuss, because we abhor it altogether in the twenty-first century. Israel, however, was urged to treat slaves with justice and goodness (reference) and slaves would typically be from neighboring nations (25:44).

Finally, a fourth example is given of reversal of fortunes, if an Israelite loses everything and sells himself or family members to an alien living among them who has become rich. Essentially, the alien must also abide by the Year of Jubilee and allow the Israelite and family members to be free in that year. The Israelite retains the right to be redeemed by his countryman after he has sold himself (v. 47). He may also redeem himself if he prospers, and the price is the number of years from the time he sold himself until the next Jubilee. At the end of this section the second major concern of this chapter—proper treatment of one another—is repeated: “you must see to it that his owner does not rule over him ruthlessly (25:53).

Concluding the chapter is a third major concern for Israel related to property. Remember, the first is that all land is God’s. The second is that they do not cheat one another and not treat one another ruthlessly in property dealings.

The third and concluding concern is that Israel remember always that they are God’s servants in the land. No alien is to permanently possess them. They are God’s possession and servants. The year of Jubilee, then, is to enforce this concern of God’s to preserve his for-all-time people. The exodus is invoked again as the overriding grace that compels them, not as forced unwilling servants but as grateful, humble servants who know how God saved them from slavery itself in Egypt. “They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (25:55).