Does the Bible Require Wealth Redistribution? Part I: The Sabbatical Year Law

In recent years Progressivism—the label now preferred by what we used to know as political liberals or simply socialists—has reared its head again, especially under the banner of “social justice.” One of its claims is that the Bible requires redistribution and equalization of wealth.

Progressives typically appeal to five different parts of the Bible to justify their claim:

  • Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler to sell all had and give to the poor;
  • the Old Testament’s law requiring the release of debts every seventh year;
  • the Old Testament’s law requiring return of land, previously sold, to its original owner every fiftieth year;
  • the early church’s sharing of goods and having “all things in common,” and
  • the Apostle Paul’s collections from churches around the Mediterranean world to meet the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, the goal of which, he said, was “equality.”

Do those passages really justify the claim?

In this article, we’ll examine the first two. In three more articles, we’ll examine the others.

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Libertarian economist Robert Higgs, in listing proponents of communism, wrote, “Jesus told his disciples to sell all that they owned and give the proceeds to the poor.”

A little more careful reading of Jesus’ words and their context (Luke 18:18–30) reveals, however, that Jesus did not tell His disciples to do that. He was speaking to a particular man—the rich young ruler.

The ruler was full of pride and confident that he’d fulfilled God’s commandments from his youth up, though really he had broken the very first, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” by making his riches his god. Jesus recognized that this man had a particular problem, and He prescribed a particular cure, one targeted directly at the problem. The prescription didn’t apply to everyone.

In the very next chapter we read (Luke 19:1–10) that Jesus encountered another person, Zacchaeus. This tax collector was detested by his neighbors for cooperating with the oppressive Romans. He implicitly admitted that he’d overcharged some of his countrymen on their taxes to enrich himself. Zacchaeus came to Jesus humbly, confessing his sin, and announced his willingness to repent by repaying anyone he’d wronged and then giving half of the remainder to the poor.

How did Jesus respond? By saying, “Oh, no, Zacchaeus, you must give all you have to the poor”?

No. He said, “Today salvation has come to this house”—not, by the way, because Zacchaeus had bought his way into Heaven but “because he, too, is a son of Abraham,” i.e., his actions manifested his faith in God’s covenant with Abraham (Romans 4:9–17, 24–29; 9:1–9).

Contrary to Higgs, then, Jesus didn’t tell His disciples to sell all they had and give everything to the poor.

But others still claim the Bible requires equality through at least periodic redistribution of wealth. Unlike Higgs, some—Progressive Christians—profess to accept the Bible’s authority.

The first Biblical teaching to which they appeal is the Mosaic law’s requirement regarding debts in the Sabbatical year: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts” (Deuteronomy 15:1, NIV). That seems pretty clear. Or is it? Another translation puts it differently: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release” (ESV). Do they mean the same thing? More important, what does the underlying Hebrew mean?

The Hebrew translated cancel by the NIV and grant a release by the ESV is the verb’asah, meaning “to make” or “do,” followed by the noun shemittah, “a letting drop of exactions, a (temporary) remitting,” according to the standard Old Testament Hebrew lexicon by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. (The boldface is in the original.)

The word temporary interests us. Was the “release” or “remitting” or “letting drop” of debts a cancellation—permanent? Or was it a suspension—temporary? For the Progressives’ application to be correct, it must be permanent.

The noun shemittah occurs only four times in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 15:1–2, 9; 31:10), all connected with this law, so OT usage won’t answer the question. However, the noun comes from the verb shamat, “let drop, fall.” Both noun and verb occur in the next verse: “And this is the manner of the release (shemittah): every creditor shall release (shamat) what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release (shemittah) has been proclaimed” (Deuteronomy 15:2).

The earliest OT use of shamat is in Exodus 23, again regarding the Sabbatical year. But here it describes what to do not with debts but with land: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow” (Exodus 23:10–11). The phrase “let it rest” translates shamat.

Were the Hebrews to abandon a particular plot of ground forever after the Sabbatical year? No, they were to “release” it, “let it rest,” during that year but resume cultivating it the next.

The requirements to release land and debts in the Sabbatical year were analogous to the requirement of rest on the weekly Sabbath (Exodus 23:12). Just as people, refreshed by a weekly Sabbath, would return to work after it, so land would be cultivated again, and debtors would resume their payments.

The verb shamat appears elsewhere in the OT only five times (2 Samuel 6:6 [parallel to 1 Chronicles 13:9]; 2 Kings 9:33; Psalm 141:6; Jeremiah 17:4). In none is a permanent dropping implied, and in the last the context shows that it must be temporary.

Thus in every instance in which shamat and shemittah occur regarding the Sabbatical year, they must be understood in the sense of a temporary, not a permanent, release. Indeed, Deuteronomy 15:3, “Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release (shamat),” makes it clear that what the creditor had loaned remained his even during the Sabbatical year—he simply couldn’t collect payments during that year.

In short, the Sabbatical year debt-release law required not permanent cancellation but a year-long suspension of payments so debtors could be refreshed by resting, along with their fellow Israelites, in the Sabbatical year, but creditors would still be repaid.

There was, then, no redistribution or equalization of wealth involved.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at another Old Testament law to which some Progressives appeal in their effort to justify the claim that the Bible requires redistribution and equalization of wealth.

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a former Christian college and seminary professor, and the author of the new booklet Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, from which this article is adapted.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a former seminary and Christian college professor, and author ofWhere Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate and ten other books

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