‘The Land is Mine’: Leviticus 25:23 as Shibboleth Between the Religious Left and the Religious Right

Economics

A number of biblical texts function as shibboleths between the religious left and the religious right. One of them is 2 Thessalonians 3:10, concerning which I have written earlier. Another is Leviticus 25:23: ‘The land is mine [lit: for me]; with me you are but aliens and tenants’.

It is worth noting that this sentiment was quite standard throughout the ancient Near East. God or the gods are the supreme possessors of the land, so human beings are mere tenants. It is also significant that the sense of land (erets) used here refers primarily to land use. The reason is that labour was consistently in short supply in the ancient Near East, while land was plentiful. In this context, the issue is how to ensure sufficient people are actually working the land and producing food from it. In other situations, with plentiful labour and limited land, the focus shifts to the availability of land itself.

How does the right read such a text? Some petty potentate or despot claims that he is the prime representative of God on earth, indeed that God has appointed him to that worthy position. Therefore, he is God’s primary tenant, controlling the land and its use on God’s behalf. The effect is to ensure the supreme power of the potentate, for he determines who farms what and where. Everyone is thereby his tenant, indebted to him. Now we have at least two layers of tenancy, from God to despot to people. The system attempts to reinforce the shaky claim to power by the despot. Woe betide anyone who should challenge such a divinely appointed scheme, for to challenge the despot is to challenge God.

Not only was this text and its sentiment used by ancient emperors and their aspiring pretenders, but so also during the period of the absolute monarchies in Europe, if not beforehand during the medieval era. It works perfectly well if land is in short supply, for then he controls the land; or if labour is short, it then becomes a means of ensuring that labour is indentured. The text has also found service in the hands of Jews and Christians, who used it for colonising purposes. The claim here is that all land belongs to their own God: the implication is that other peoples and their gods thereby have no claim and may be booted off the land on which they dwell.

By contrast, for the religious left, the text is a cry for land redistribution. ‘The land is God’s’ was a slogan of the peasant socialists who challenged the tsar before the Russian Revolution. It was the basis for the efforts by Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers to cultivate common land in seventeenth century England. More recently, the Dutch theologian Ton Veerkamp (in Die Welt anders, 2011) has sought to make it the centre of a radical biblical theology in which ultimate allegiance to Yahweh – in the ‘Torah Republic’ – is the basis of a just society without class conflict and exploitation.

They all have in common the understanding that ‘The land is God’s’ means that no human being can possess it, claim it, fence it, or restrict access to it. If you like, it is a theological version of the renewed interest in the common, put forward as a fundamental challenge to private property and capitalism. Of course, in our situation, it is rarely the case that labour is in short supply, so the slogan becomes one that focuses on land itself.

As a footnote to this discussion: what interests me here is the way the second understanding of this text formed a well-nigh universal assumption for people under the influence of Christianity, up until the early twentieth century. Early classical economists had to battle this assumption in attempting to develop theories of private property, which seemed at the time like a decidedly unbiblical idea. They found themselves in all manner of contortions when attempting to find a divinely sanctioned line from common possession to private property.

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