Does the Bible Require Wealth Redistribution? Part II: The Jubilee Year Law

In the first article in this series, we tested claims that the Bible requires redistribution and equalization of wealth in two different passages: Jesus’ instructions to the rich young ruler to sell all and give to the poor, and the Sabbatical year law requiring “release” of debts every seventh year. Now we’ll consider another attempt by Progressives and others to justify wealth redistribution and equalization: the Old Testament’s Jubilee Year Law (Leviticus 25).

When God brought Israel into the Promised Land, He divided the land among the tribes, providing each family a plot over which it became steward and that it should hand down to its descendants. However, economic inequalities would develop due to differences in diligence, intelligence, physical ability, soil quality, water supply, oppression by fellow Israelites, invasion by foreigners, or natural tragedies.

Except when they resulted from oppression or invasion, however, these were not unjust. But to preserve family unity and possession of land, as well as to restrain any one person from squandering all his descendants’ wealth by contracting debts he could not pay, God gave Israel the Jubilee regulations.

According to these regulations, land in ancient Israel should not be sold permanently, because God asserted a special ownership of it beyond what He asserts over the whole earth (Leviticus 25:23). It could, however, be “sold” temporarily, its price constituting a loan for a term not to exceed the years to the next Jubilee. The price was the value of the intervening harvests (presumably excluding those during Sabbatical years, when land was not to be worked) (Leviticus 25:13–16), “for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you” (verse 16).

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Income the buyer (lender) earned from the land during the term of the loan would constitute repayment. So the land would be returned at the end since the loan would have been repaid.

Also, if the seller (borrower) offered to repay the loan before its term ended, the buyer (lender) had to accept the offer—the price again calculated by the value of harvests in the intervening years (Leviticus 25:25–28). The land, in other words, would have functioned as collateral.

Similar arrangements were made regarding houses (Leviticus 25:26–34) and labor (verses 39–54).

The whole system worked out quite similarly to modern mortgage loans: when the borrower pays off the loan, the bank no longer holds a mortgage on the property but must title to the owner.

Careful examination of the Jubilee year’s regulations disproves claims that it required any redistribution or equalization of wealth. The regulations did not cancel or forgive any debt but ensured repayment and then return of collateral.

Also, the regulations notably said nothing of newly created wealth. If one farmer produced far more per acre than another or gained riches through industry or trade, the Jubilee regulations didn’t require any redistribution of that wealth or any equality of outcome between him and his neighbors.

In the next article in this series, we’ll consider whether the collection the Apostle Paul arranged for the poor Christians in Jerusalem, the goal of which he said was “equality,” justifies a requirement of wealth redistribution or equalization.

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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