Biblical Economics

A condensation of the pamphlet by Rev. Archer Torrey, published in 1985 by the Henry George Institute.

1. The Year of Jubilee

his paper will attempt to present the teaching of the Bible with regard to land as, well as the evidence given with regard to historical practices. We will take the Biblical account at face value without considering the various "critical theories" with regard to the dating of the various documents. Some people would regard such a study to be vitiated by treating later documents as if they were earlier, but the internal evidence strongly indicates that the so-called "later documents" correctly reflect earlier principles.

We shall begin with the clear-cut and well-known legislation on the subject contained in the Pentateuch, and then examine the evidence for actual practice in Israel....

The laws are stated clearly enough. The basic law is contained in Leviticus 25, and the key principle enunciated is in verse 23: "Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for he belongs to me and you are only strangers and guests. You will allow a right of redemption on all your landed property." (Note: Scriptural quotations will usually be from the Jerusalem Bible or the more traditional King James version, but will occasionally be the author's own paraphrase). This concept underlies all the Bible teaching on land. No other teaching is indicated prior to the time of Moses, nor is the teaching anywhere repealed. It is repeated and reinforced by the prophetic teachings.

What makes this study imperative is that where Karl Marx was mistaken in his prophecies, the prophecies of the Bible have been fulfilled.

Underlying the actual legislation in Leviticus is the fact of Israel's invasion of the land of Canaan and the division of the land by lot, as a heritage from the Lord to be passed on to future generations.

The modern word "lot" as used for a piece of real estate derives directly from this concept. The Greek and Hebrew word usually translated "inheritance" in the Bible means a division made by casting lots. The countless references in the Bible to "inheritance", "lot". "line", "possession", etc., are all against this background: that the lot expresses the will of God who divides equally to all his people.

Once the land has been divided and allotted, however, each portion is to remain within the family or clan that has received it and it may never be alienated. The land never belongs to an individual, but to all future generations of the current possessor's descendants. Therefore, he is not free to give the title of the land to anyone else. Nor is he able, however he may covet his neighbors' land, to accumulate a large estate for himself except very temporarily.

According to Lev. 25, when a possessor of land wishes to sell it, all he can do is offer a leasehold up until the year of jubilee. There is no special word in the Bible translated either "lease" or "rent", because this is what is meant by the word "sell". The concept of selling land as held in most "civilized" lands today does not exist in the Bible -- except as a crime. (There are three exceptions, where a perpetual title was acquired by purchase, and these will be examined.)

Under the normal law, when a piece of land is sold (leased) the seller has a right to redeem the land at any time by refunding the balance of the lease. If the seller is unable to redeem the land himself, his next-of-kin may do so. The maximum lease is for 50 years, but all leases expire in the same year, the Year of Jubilee, or the Year of Liberty, or the Year of the Trumpet. The Hebrew word "yobel" is translated both "trumpet" and "jubilee", depending on the context.

The year of the Trumpet is the year after the seventh in a series of sabbatical years. The sabbatical years are referred to in Ex. 23, Lev. 25, and Deut. 15. In the sabbatical year the land was to lie fallow, debts (including mortgages) were to be cancelled, and slaves and bondservants were to be set free. When land is under mortgage, the mortgage is cancelled in the sabbatical year, but if it has been sold in good faith, it does not return until the jubilee unless redeemed by the payment of the remaining rent.

In the year of the Trumpet, the "shofar" or ram's horn is to be sounded on the 10th day of the 7th month, the Day of Atonement. This gives everyone five days to travel back to his ancestral land to keep the great feast of Tabernacles on the 15th day, when the Jubilee begins. It also gives the previous lessor of the land time to harvest his last crop before returning the land to the original family.