Biblical Economics

3. Mishpat -- The Laws in Practice

e come now to the question: Were these laws enforced? If not, what other laws were accepted? In the absence of specific references to the jubilee, the trumpet or the year of liberty, it has been supposed by many that some other system was in force. Even this argument from silence, weak as it is, breaks down when we recall that the expression "proclaim liberty" is used.

Actually, very few of the many laws in the Pentateuch are referred to again in detail, but we are told frequently whether the "the laws of the Lord", or the "covenant of the Lord" was kept or violated. We are not told that the laws were ever repealed or other laws enacted prior to the time of Omri, except for the specific case of "the sin of Jereboam the son of Nebat", which consisted in making golden calves in Bethel and Dan, thus leading the people into idolatry and schism and weakening the authority of the Lord so that the way was paved for the introduction of Baalism and the total rejection of the laws of the Lord.

There is no evidence that Jereboam repealed the civil system and, if he did, there are no clues to indicate what system he substituted.

The prophets of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea all assume that Israel is still under the Lord. They see the problem not simply as that of the golden calves but the total abandonment of the Lord for the landlords' god, Baal, introduced by Omri and Ahab. It was this constitutional change under Omri that gave rise to the great prophetic movement which provides the bulk of the material in the Bible.

With this in mind, let us go through the Bible and find the references to land laws and see what they indicate with regard to the validity of the actual legislation set forth in the Books of Moses. The very first reference is in the book of Numbers. It deals with a case where a man had only daughters and his fellow clansmen were afraid that the land would pass to their husbands' clans in the year of liberty (Num. 36). Moses ruled that the girls must marry within their fathers' tribe and that the inheritance could not be allowed to pass to another tribe. This case is referred to also in chapter 27, but the specific reference to the jubilee is in 36.

Within the same year, the people crossed the Jordan and entered the promised land. The first fruits of the conquest was the city of Jericho, and it was ceremonially dedicated to the Lord. Joshua 6 contains the account, which is significant for its use of the word "Yobel". There are two words translated "trumpet" in the English. The word "shofar", for the ram's horn, is used 13 times in the account, and the word "yobel" five times. This was the first jubilee, the liberating of the land from the Canaanite and the beginning of its distribution to the Israelites.

Judges 11.2: Japhthah, an illegitimate son, is prevented by action of the entire clan from receiving any portion of the clan's inheritance. This supports the picture of the division of land into clan allotments as referred to frequently in Numbers and Joshua.

Judges 21.24: "The people returned each to his own inheritance." It appears that after the elapse of some 250 years, no significant alienation of land occurred, or, if it had, that the jubilees had been declared and enforced. This is the language of Lev. 25.10.

The story of Ruth takes place in the time of the Judges, two generations before the time of Samuel. Here a land inheritance plays a key role in the romance. Apparently, before Elimelech left Bethlehem for Moab, he sold (leased) his famine-stricken acres for whatever he could get. Ten years later his wife Naomi returns to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth, but husband and sons are dead. If she lives long enough, Naomi will get the land back in the jubilee or, if she dies and Ruth has married within the tribe of Judah, Ruth's heirs will be able to claim it. The only right Naomi can exercise prior to the jubilee is the right of redemption. Since, due to her extreme poverty, it is not in her power to redeem the land, she offers to "sell" it (that is, to transfer the lease) to the next of kin, who has the right of redemption. But she makes a condition: she will not give this right of redemption to the next of kin unless he is also willing to act as the brother of the deceased and marry the widow to raise up progeny for him. Thus the land will revert, in the jubilee, to the eldest son of Ruth and her husband, who will be counted as the grandson of Elimelech. The conditions Naomi lays down are unacceptable to the next of kin and he transfers his right to Boaz, who is next in line and cheerfully ready to redeem the property and marry Ruth. The entire affair is premised on the legal code of Leviticus.

The next specific reference to land is in I Sam. 8.10ff. Here the prophet Samuel, a bitter opponent of the monarchy, warns the people of what will happen if they insist on having a king. He says that "this will be the manner of the king", and goes on to predict land seizures in the style of the neighboring countries. The word "manner" translates the Hebrew "mishpat", which may also be rendered "rights", or "customs" as well as its more usual translation "judgment". It is used equally of customs established by Israelite (divine) law and the "customs of the heathen", which is what is in view here; the people have demanded of Samuel, "Give us a king to rule over us like the other nations", and the Lord replies to Samuel: "they have rejected me from ruling over them .... only you must warn them solemnly and instruct them in the customs of the king who is to rule over them."

Samuel closes his warning against the violation of the ancient land laws which the monarchy will certainly introduce with the words: "When that day comes you will cry out on account of the king you have chosen for yourselves, but on that day God will not answer you." The prophetic writer adds: "The people refused to listen to the words of Samuel. They said, 'No! We want a king... like the other nations.'"

The "rights", then, that the king will claim, following the custom of other nations, will include: "He will take the best of your fields, of your vineyards and olive groves and give them to his officials." There is nothing in the record, however, to indicate that Saul, the king then elected, did anything of this sort, but we have the following interesting words of Saul himself, in I Sam. 22: "Listen, men of Benjamin... is the son of Jesse ready to give you all fields and vineyards... that you all conspire against me?" This suggests that, although Saul has not followed the pagan custom, he suspects Ben-Jesse of bribing support with such promises. It is not clear, however, whether the fields and vineyards are to be seized from citizens of Israel and given to his officials, as Samuel had threatened, or whether they are going to be from land taken in war.