The rich get richer, and in the process they make the poor get poorer—unless the law of the land intervenes. It was true in the Ancient Near East, and it is true throughout the world today.
The wealthy in the book of Genesis owned livestock and slaves, but by the 8th century B.C.E. wealth was measured by the ownership of farmland. Rich landowners accumulated more land by buying it when poor farm-owners fell into debt—perhaps because of a drought or another circumstance beyond their control. The first part of Isaiah, written in the 8th century B.C.E., addresses the greed for land:
Hoy!1 Adding house to house
They attach field to field
Until there is no space left
And you alone are owners in the midst of the land! (Isaiah 5:8)
According to the Torah the poor can sell their farms to pay off debt, but once all their land is gone they have to become hired workers, who earn less than farmers who have their own crops to sell. If they fall into debt again, they sell themselves as slaves. The poor also sell their children as slaves when they can no longer afford to feed them.
How could a former small landowner get a second chance? How could his son get even a first chance?
Law codes elsewhere in the Ancient Near East, including the Code of Hammurabi2 , accepted that there were two permanent classes of people, superiors and inferiors, and established two different sets of rules for them. But although the Hebrew Bible recognizes hereditary kings and priests, all male Israelites are subject to the same rules. And the bible rails against rich Israelites who disobey God by cheating or mistreating the poor.
This week’s Torah portion, Behar, outlines three possible solutions to the problem of social injustice due to concentrated wealth.
Do not charge interest
You must not take interest or an increase [in the repayment] from him; you shall fear your God, and let your brother live along with you. (Leviticus 25:36)
Interest is also outlawed in Exodus and Deuteronomy.3 If a debtor did not need to pay interest, the debt would be somewhat easier to repay. But then what motivation would a selfish rich man have to make a loan in the first place? According to Isaiah, debtors were often unable to repay a loan in produce or silver, so they had to turn over some or all of their land. The rich got richer by accumulating farmland.
With less farmland of their own, the poor were more likely to need another loan the following year. Thus prohibiting creditors from charging interest was not enough to solve the problem of the rich taking advantage of the poor and further impoverishing them.
Refund the Sale
Unlike property sales today, the system in the Torah is more like a lease. The buyer pays for the full use of a parcel of land and the buildings on it—knowing that at any time the original owner, or a close relative of the original owner called his “redeemer”4 can buy back the property.
The Torah portion Behar reiterates the concept that a tract of land that has been sold can and should be redeemed by the seller’s nearest kinsman.5 The buyer must accept the redeemer’s payment, pro-rated to reflect the number of years of his possession, and return the land.
If your brother becomes impoverished, and he sells some of his property, then his closest redeemer shall come to [the buyer] and redeem what his brother sold. And if a man does not have a redeemer, but his [own] resources increase and he finds enough for his redemption, then he shall reckon the years since selling it and repay the remainder to the man to whom he sold it. Then he can return to his property. (Leviticus 25:25-27)
The Torah also requires the redemption of slaves whenever possible, by paying all or part of the sales price to the buyer.6
How do the buyer and the redeemer know how much silver must change hands? This week’s Torah portion explains that the land or the slave must not be sold not in perpetuity, but only for the number of years until the next yoveil year. Therefore the original purchase price can be pro-rated.
No sales are final
All slaves and all landed property must be released every fifty years, God commands in this week’s Torah portion. A ram’s horn is blown to announce the start of the year when farmlands revert to their original owners or their sons, and slaves are automatically emancipated.7
And you shall make the fiftieth year holy, and you shall proclaim emancipation in the land for all its inhabitants; a yoveil it shall be for you. And you shall return, each man, to his property, and you shall return, each man, to his mishpachah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:10)
yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram’s horn; year of release; “Jubilee” in old English translations.8
mishpachah (מִשְׁפָּחָה) = extended family, clan.
Since all land reverts to the original owner or his family, the price of land is set accordingly to the number of years left before the next yoveil; a buyer pays more for a field he can use for 40 years than for a field he can use for only 10 years. And if the former owner or his redeemer buys back the land before the yoveil, he subtracts the value of the years the buyer uses the land from the purchase price, and pays only for the number of years remaining until the yoveil.
If the land is redeemed by a kinsman, then the redeemer gets to use it until the yoveil returns it to the original owner.
This week’s Torah portion assumes that people sell their farmland only out of poverty. The system of temporary property sales puts a time limit on poverty. It also reminds the Israelites that their ownership is conditional anyway, since God rescued them from Egypt and arranged for them to conquer Canaan. God is the real owner of all the land.
And you must not sell the land as a permanent right, because the land is mine, and you are immigrants and resident aliens with me. (Leviticus 25:23)
The laws in the portion Behar about interest, redemption, and the yoveil year are remedies only for Israelite men who are impoverished by the rich in Israelite kingdoms. Women are not mentioned. And Israelite men can keep any land they acquire from foreigners (through purchase or war), as well as any foreign slaves, and pass down both categories of property to their heirs.
Nevertheless, the method this week’s portion outlines for correcting the concentration of wealth is a bold plan for redressing injustice. However, there is no evidence that the laws about the yoveil year were ever implemented; then, as now, wealth means power and the powerful protect their wealth.
The yoveil plan would be completely unworkable today. For the ancient Israelites, the well-being of an extended family or clan was paramount, so an act of social justice could wait for a generation or two. In modern western culture, individualism and nuclear families are more important, so opportunities and privileges need to be distributed fairly on a continuous basis.
For example, modern social justice calls for immediate financial relief for an individual who acquires a major debt because of a job loss or a health catastrophe. Modern ideals also call for equal opportunities for all children, regardless of the poverty of their parents. A public education system is one part of the solution, but children must complete their education before the age when they are expected to live independently.
Emergency relief and public education are necessary but not sufficient for social justice today. Wealth in a modern capitalist system, like wealth in the ancient Israelite kingdoms, becomes so concentrated that hard-working poor people no longer have a fair chance unless further measures are implemented.
Since a yoveil year would not work well in modern society, what other ways can we redistribute wealth while being fair to the rich as well as the poor?
A true graduated income tax is a giant step. It was actually implemented for a while in mid-twentieth century America, and is currently in force in many European countries. Government programs such as Social Security and Medicare still help to save retired Americans from poverty by letting them redeem their earlier taxed earnings. Laws providing universal access to such things as utilities, roads, medical care, and police protection also help.
But instituting or maintaining any of these programs requires an idealism that rises above the natural greed of the rich. Can our larger culture achieve this idealism once more, even in the troubled United States? Can we achieve more than the reformers in Leviticus, by making our ethical ideals for society the law of the land?
- The Biblical Hebrew interjection Hoy (הוֹי) usually means the same as the Yiddish Oy: “Alas!” or “Oh, no!”
- The eight-century B.C.E. law code of Babylonian King Hammurabi.
- Also in Exodus 22:24 and Deuteronomy 23:20.
- Go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = redeemer: the kinsman responsible either for buying back an enslaved man or his land, or for avenging his relative’s murder.
- Jeremiah 32:7-8; Ruth 3:9-13, 4:4-6.
- Leviticus 25:52-53.
- Exodus 21:1-11 and Deuteronomy 15:12 say that anyone who buys an Israelite slave must set him free in the seventh year. The book of Leviticus seems to be unaware of this tradition.
- Everett Fox translated yoveil as “Homebringing”, based on cognates in Akkadian and Ugaritic and the use of a ram’s horn to call a flock of sheep home. (Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 628.)
- Leviticus 25:44-46.