Thursday, April 03, 2008

So Much for Property: Leviticus 25

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Apparently pretty much the only things you could own in ancient Israel were animals and foreigners. Accordingly, contemporary capitalists who don't like slavery would probably be well-advised to ignore Genesis 25, and indeed that is what is usually done. Accordingly the Church of the Orange Sky is going to add the first half of the chapter to my list of proposed compromises with the religious right. I'm going to leave slavery off the list but they can add it if they want to. Long live ecumenicism!

God's philosophy on land ownership is an interesting one. It begins with the premise that "the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord," once every seven years. No work must be done in this year; you must live off "whatever the land yields" of its own accord. Once again, God declares a philosophy which too many of his modern-day followers regularly denounce as pagan nature-worship. It's a problematic one for plenty of other reasons, but this implicit link between the people and the land is something we have spent a great deal of time trying to destroy.

What's more, God explains, you can't own land; you can only own the limited use of it. Not only do people and God and the land respect the Sabbath; even the Sabbath itself respects the Sabbath. After every seventh Sabbath, i.e. every 50 years, the people must sound a trumpet "everywhere", and then "proclaim liberty throughout the land." In that year everyone is returned the property they originally were given by God or inherited from their fathers. God explains that the price of the land must be adjusted accordingly - because you would never cheat your countrymen in a business transaction, and also because you're not selling the land: you're only selling the use of the land for harvesting crops (see verse 16). You can permanently buy a house in a walled town, as long as you give the seller a year to change his mind and buy it back - unless the seller is a Levite, in which case he gets it back in the Jubilee year.

Most of the rest of the chapter involves indentured servanthood. As long as you're an Israelite, you can sell yourself into slavery, and buy yourself out of it, almost at will. It's not really slavery, though; an Israelite servant must be treated as "a hired worker," i.e. he has to be well treated. He has to be freed in the Jubilee year. And if one of his relatives is willing to bail him out of slavery, you have to let him go.

On the one hand, these rules are endorsing slavery; on the other, they're contingent on an implicit belief in this chapter that you wouldn't sell land or labour unless you'd fallen on hard times. Virtually each of the sections is prefaced by a statement to the effect of, "if one of your countrymen becomes poor...". No thought is given to why they are poor; it doesn't seem to matter. And they shouldn't have to sell themselves into slavery, either, because God prefaces that section by warning that, if one of your countrymen is poor, you have an obligation to "help him": don't charge interest if you give him money, and don't sell him food at a profit. At the end of the day, though, you can't own an Israelite man, you can only own his labour - because "the Israelites belong to me servants," says the Lord. He owns them, just like he owns the land.

And all that's if you're an Israelite. If you're not an Israelite, you're really screwed. God's love for the alien and the foreigner seems to be decisively on the wane. Such people, he reasons, don't belong to him like the Israelites do - and therefore, if you want to own one for yourself, you can! You can buy a slave from within Israel, or you can buy one from outside the country. Either way, their yours and your children's forever. They will be slaves "for life."

It's an interesting state of affairs that Leviticus 25 leaves us with. The only things you're actually allowed to personally own, without any prior claim from God, are townhouses and foreigners.

That's a disturbing position for a foreigner but probably an equally disturbing one for someone looking for a way to rationalize contemporary Christian capitalism with the Bible. And while God basically gives you carte blanche with respect to the things you own, he takes great pains to protect the things he owns from various forms of abuse. Surely the model for Christian views on property, if we accept the institution of property at all, is not what God permits the Israelites to do with their property, but what he does with property himself.


MR. X said...

Toby said...

Fair enough, but all of these laws are based on 2 ideas that are somewhat unique to Israel's historical situation: 1) the extermination of the Canaanite peoples, and 2) the preservation of the land and seed so that the promise to Abraham could be visibly fulfilled in the Messiah.

With the coming of Messiah, the preservation of the land as ethnic Israel's and in fact of Israel as a distinctive ethnicity no longer has a function. The whole earth is deeded to the Messiah, and the promised inheritance flows through Him to His People, thereby fulfilling the promise to Abraham.

I'm one to take Old Testament law as continually binding for today, with the proviso that the land and seed laws were for a specific time and place. Granted, that interpretation leads to bigger questions about what constitute the land and seed laws as opposed to other aspects of Old Testament law that should govern human conduct in perpetuity, but interpretation will always be a task as long as there is a written text one uses as the basis for law. This is true whether the origin of the written text is divine or not.

I'm a relative novice in the area of theonomy, but if you have any sincere questions about Biblical Law you should consult Greg Bahnsen's work "By This Standard, The Authority of God's Law Today." You will find that he and others like him (myself included) do not toe the line of the popular religious right. We are often lumped in with them, but most of our political views fit the paleolibertarian (think Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry) mold much better than the Republican.

If I have intruded on a blog that is intended merely for satire whose author does not with to seriously engage the ideas of the Bible, my apologies.