Does the Old Testament Teach Wealth Redistribution?

I received a question on a recent blog about the redistribution practices of the Levitical law. I thought this was a good question to answer as I realized that the Levitical Law could be easily misunderstood as promoting socialism. Of course all scripture should be given more weight than our personal opinions, but let’s explore what the Levitical law says about wealth redistribution? God required the Israelites to leave a portion of their crops in the field after harvest for the poor to gather (gleaning). God also instituted the Year of Jubilee, when land was returned to its original owner every 50th year.

So let’s look at gleaning first…

We remember the Bible story of Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz. The laws concerning the gleaning of fields in Leviticus 19:9-10 and also Deuteronomy 24:21 require the poor to work by picking up the leftovers at the edge of the fields. Work was required and it was not a free handout. Those who own the fields do not have their produce taken by the government and then given to the poor. Note that it was a voluntary practice taught as something that was pleasing to God. It was not taught as something a civil government should force to happen.

The Year of Jubilee

Every seven years was a Sabbath year for the Jews to not work the land and live off the produce from the previous year. Every seventh Sabbath year (49 years) was extended another year (50th) called the year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee deals largely with land, property, and property rights. According to Leviticus, in the 50th year, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifested.

Under the jubilee system, an Israelite who owned land could sell the right to farm it until the Year of Jubilee, with the price based on the value of each year’s crop and the number of years remaining until the jubilee. When the Year of Jubilee arrived, the land reverted back to its original owner. “This understanding of Jubilee as the payoff of a lease is common in Old Testament commentaries,” noting that the jubilee does not provide an argument for wealth redistribution. (1) Instead it is more like our modern bankruptcy.

From a legal point of view, the Jubilee law effectively banned sale of land, and instead land could only be leased for no more than 50 years. The biblical regulations go on to specify that the price of land had to be proportional to how many years remained before the Jubilee, with land being cheaper the closer it is to the Jubilee.

The Year of Jubilee — a favorite topic of redistribution advocates — did not help the poorest members of Israelite society because they did not have any land to reclaim. (2) It did not abolish private property as socialism and communism advocate, but it encouraged it. It required the compulsory return of all property to its original owners or their heirs. (1)

Because it seems the Year of Jubilee was intended only for ancient Israel and to the land they were specifically assigned, it has no practical application to modern social policy. The regulations for the Jubilee year have not been observed for many centuries. According to the Torah, observance of Jubilee only applies when the Jewish people live in the land of Israel according to their tribes. So when exile started, Jubilee stopped.

The Bible requires all communities to create an economic “safety net” for the poor. (2) But it does not require governments to redistribute wealth. Providing for those who cannot provide for themselves is certainly not a ‘leveling’ of wealth. It is part of the price paid for being a responsible member of the community, to which we implicitly consent by virtue of our membership in society. (3)

As stated previously, property in the Bible normally belongs to individuals rather than societies or governments. The command not to steal assumes private ownership of property and 1 Samuel 8 warns against a king who would take too much from the people. The Old Testament Levitical requirements do not seem to mean that modern governments should coercively require redistribute of wealth to the poor. In the end, God’s standard of “justice” requires governments to uphold His moral code, not ensure an even distribution of wealth. (3)

Class warfare, wealth redistribution, and socialism can, at best, make people only equally miserable. Free markets, which respect property rights, maximize both producer and consumer welfare, and create wealth, rather than dividing it, are far more compatible with biblical Christianity. (4)

(1) Art Lindsley, vice president of theological initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics in McLean, Va.

(2) Scott Rae, professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at the Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, Calif.

(3) Wayne Grudem, research professor of theological and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona.

(4) Craig Mitchell – Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor (paper presented).

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