The meaning of Agrarian Laws in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
1. The Sabbath Year
2. The Jubilee
3. Its Object
4. The Legal Rules
5. Ideas and Circumstances of the Legislation
6. Form of the Legislation
7. Its Operation and Extension
8. Other Laws Affecting the Land
The Mosaic provisions on this subject form one of the most characteristic and interesting portions of the legislation. The main institutions are two, namely, the Sabbath year and the jubilee, and they are closely linked together.
1. The Sabbath Year:
In every seventh year the land was to lie fallow "that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat" (Exodus 23:10 f.; compare Leviticus 25:2-7). 'And the Sabbath of the land shall be for food for you; for thee, and for thy servant, and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant and for thy stranger that sojourn with thee; but for thy cattle, and for the beasts that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be for food' (Leviticus 25:6 f.). This has been quoted at length because the rendering of English Versions of the Bible is misleading. "The Sabbath of the land" does not mean that the natural increase thereof is to be eaten by the Israelite peasant. That interpretation is excluded by Lev. Leviticus 25:3-5, Leviticus 25:20-22. What is intended is clearly shown by the latter of these two passages, "I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year." The principle on which the manna had been provided for Sabbaths was to apply to the harvest of the sixth year, and this is the import of the phrase.
2. The Jubilee:
After "seven sabbaths of years, even forty and tone years" a trumpet was to be blown throughout the land on the tenth day of the seventh month (i.e. the Day of Atonement) and the fiftieth year was to be hallowed and celebrated as a "jubilee." No agricultural work of any kind was to be performed, but "ye may (so correct EVV) eat the increase thereof out of the field" (Leviticus 25:12). God would so bless the land in the sixth year that it would bring forth enough for the Sabbath year, the ensuing jubilee and the subsequent period to the harvest of the ninth year (Leviticus 25:20-22).
3. Its Object:
In addition to being a period in which the land was left fallow, the jubilee was intended to meet the economic evils that befell peasants in ancient societies. Wars or unfavorable seasons would soon reduce a farmer to a condition in which he would have to borrow. But money is rarely to be had without interest and security, and in early communities the rates of interest were very high indeed, while the only security the farmer could offer would consist of his land and the persons of himself and his children. Hence we find insolvency giving rise to the alienation of land and to slavery all over the world—sometimes with the retention of civil rights (as in Rome and Israel), at others in a more unalloyed form. The jubilee aims at both these evils. It is provided that in that year the peasants who had lost their full freedom through insolvency should be free (see Wiener, Studies in Biblical Law, 5 ff.) and all lands that had been sold should return to the original owner or his family. "And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with me" (Leviticus 25:23). To this theory there are parallels elsewhere, e.g. in Togoland (Heinrici, Zeitschrift fur vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft, XI, 138).
4. The Legal Rules:
Lev. 25 containing the land laws gives effect to this view by enacting that when an Israelite was compelled to part with his land there was to be a "redemption" of land, and that in default of redemption the land should return to its original owner in the jubilee year. This "redemption" covers two ideas—a right of preemption by the next of kin the first instance, and if that were not exercised, a right on the part of the original owner to buy back the land before the jubilee (Leviticus 25:24-28). The theory did not apply to houses in walled cities. Those might be redeemed within a year of sale: in default the property passed for ever and was unaffected by the jubilee (Leviticus 25:29 f.). Villages were reckoned as country (Leviticus 25:31). The Levitical cities were subject to the rules of land, not of walled cities (Leviticus 25:32 f.; read with the Vulgate in the American Revised Version, margin, "if they have not been redeemed" in Leviticus 25:32), and their fields were not to be sold (Leviticus 25:34). All sales of lands to which the jubilee applied were to be made on the basis of the number of crops (Leviticus 25:14 ff.); in fact, what was sold was not the property itself but the usufruct (i.e. the right of using, reaping, etc.) till the year of the jubilee. Similarly with the laws of Leviticus 27:16-25, where the general principle is that if a field be sanctified the value shall be estimated according to the number of years to the jubilee. Unfortunately the text is corrupt and it is impossible to make out the exact circumstances in which no further redemption was allowed (Leviticus 27:20).
5. Ideas and Circumstances of the Legislation:
"The land laws are the product of many independent ideas and circumstances. .... First such a system as that expounded in the 25th chapter of Lev. could only be put forward by one who had to work on what is so very rare in history—a clean slate. In other words, the system of land tenure here laid down could only be introduced in this way by men who had no preexisting system to reckon with. Secondly, there is (mutatis mutandis) a marked resemblance between the provisions of Lev. and the system introduced in Egypt by Joseph (Gen. 47). The land is the Lord's as it is Pharaoh's; but the towns which are built on that land are not subject to the same theory or the same rules. Perhaps the explanation is that Joseph's measures had affected only those who gained their living by agriculture, i.e. the dwellers in the country. Thirdly, the system shows the enormous power that the conception of family solidarity possessed in the Mosaic age. .... And fourthly, the enactment is inspired and illuminated by the humanitarian and religious convictions to which reference has already been made" (Journal of Transactions of the Victoria Institute, XLI, 160). Undoubtedly the most striking feature of the enactment is to be found in these religious convictions with the absolute reliance on constant Divine intervention to secure the working of the law (Genesis 47:20 ff.).
6. Form of the Legislation:
Lev. 26 shows clearly that this legislation was conceived as the terms of a covenant made between God and the children of Israel, and it appears from verses 42-45 that this of the covenant was regarded as being connected with the covenants with the patriarchs though it is also a covenant made with the generation that came forth from Egypt. The land was originally promised to Abraham in a covenant (Gen. 17) and it would seem that these laws are regarded as attaching to that covenant which had been renewed with his descendants. Indeed the laws appear to be presented as terms of the sworn agreement (covenant) under which God was about to give Israel the possession of Canaan.
7. Its Operation and Extension:
As respects the operation of these laws we have no information as to the observance of any fallow years before the Exile: II Chronicles 36:21 is rather unfavorable, but so obviously echoes Leviticus 26:43 that it scarcely seems to be meant as a historical statement. But traces are to be found of the operation of other parts of the system. Ruth 4 shows us the law of redemption working, but with two notable extensions. Widows have acquired a right of property in their husbands' estates, and when the next of kin refuses to redeem, the right passes to the kinsman who is nearest in succession. Neither of these cases is contemplated by the Pentateuch: both appear to be fresh applications of the Levitical law which, like all other legislations, had to be adapted to meet new sets of facts as they arose. Similarly Jer. 32 illustrates the law of preemption, but here a small difficulty arises, for Leviticus 25:34 forbids the sale of the suburbs of the Levitical cities. Probably however this refers only to sale outside the family and not as here to the nearest kinsman and heir presumptive. Similarly Eze. twice refers to the jubilee (Ezekiel 7:12 f. and Ezekiel 46:17) in terms that seem to show that he knew it as an existing institution (see SBL, 96; Churchman, May, 1906, 292). Historical traces of the Levitical cities are mentioned in the article LEVITICAL CITIES. It should be added that under the monarchy a rule seems to have been introduced that derelict lands fell to the king (see II Samuel 9:9 f.; I Kings 21:16; II Kings 8:3, II Kings 8:6).
In later times there are several references to the fallow of the Sabbatical year (1 Macc 6:49,53; Ant, XIII, viii, 1, XIV, x, 6, etc.).
8. Other Laws Affecting the Land:
In addition to these laws Moses enacted provisions favoring gleaning, on which see POOR. He also prohibited sowing a field or vineyard with two kinds of seed (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:9) and prescribed that for three years the fruit of trees should not be eaten, while in the fourth it should be holy, and in the fifth it was to be available for ordinary purposes (Leviticus 19:23 ff.).
Harold M. Wiener
DISCLAIMER: Church of the Great God (CGG) provides these resources to aid the individual in studying the Bible. However, it is up to the individual to "prove all things, and hold fast to that which is good" (I Thessalonians 5:21). The content of these resources does not necessarily reflect the views of CGG. They are provided for information purposes only.