The Hebrew System of Land Tenure
Leviticus 25:2-55
Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you…

I. The first and fundamental principle of the land system prescribed to the chosen people who were to inhabit this typical land was, THAT THE LAND BELONGED TO JEHOVAH, AND WAS TO BE HELD BY THE PEOPLE IMMEDIATELY OF AND UNDER HIM, AS THEIR SOVEREIGN AND PARAMOUNT SUPERIOR AND LORD.

II. Flowing naturally — indeed, one might say logically — from the principle of the Divine ownership of the soil, and its possession by the Israelites as the Lord's chosen people, is the next feature of the Israelitish land system — viz., THE EQUAL PARTITION OF THE LAND AMONG THE WHOLE FAMILIES CONSTITUTING THE NATION (see Numbers 26.). It is to be noticed that, in the actual division of the land, each tribe was to receive its allotment in proportion to its numerical extent, distinct from the others; and that the tribal allotment was thereafter to be apportioned among the whole families composing the tribe, so that each should have its own definite share. Besides, it was subsequently provided that an allotment in the territory of one tribe should never become the possession of any member of a different tribe, so that heiresses or heiress-portioners, could marry only "in the family of the tribe of their father." These subsidiary enactments, doubtless, had reference specially to the peculiar character and aims of the Israelitish constitution. They tended to preserve and perpetuate family and tribal traditions and sentiments; they facilitated the keeping of accurate genealogical records; they provided a basis for the practical operation of the law of jubilee; they promoted the self-government of the people by the graduated judicatories of the family and the tribe; and they, at the same time, welded the people into one compact commonwealth, by the bonds of an equal interest in the soil. It is, of course, impossible here even to glance at the much-discussed question of the relative merits of an aristocratic or a peasant proprietory, of large or small landowners, of extensive or limited farms. But it is interesting to notice that, in the Israelitish land legislation, we have precisely and practically that system of peasant proprietory which we find existing and flourishing in many countries, and to which not a few of those who have given the most independent and thoughtful and earnest attention to the matter, look for the solution of the difficulties which are gathering around the subject in our own land.

III. The next feature of the Israelitish land system is, THAT THE RETURN TO BE MADE BY THE PEOPLE FOR THEIR LANDS WAS PRECISELY THE SAME AS THAT WHICH JOSEPH FIXED TO BE PAID BY THE EGYPTIAN CROWN TENANTRY — VIZ., ONE-FIFTH OF THE GROSS ANNUAL PRODUCE. In the case of the Israelites, however, this fifth was divided into two-tenths, and its payment was prescribed in a form breathing the spirit rather of grateful religious acknowledgment than of strict legal exaction.

IV. The next characteristic of the Israelitish land system is, THAT THE LAND THUS ALLOTTED TO THE PEOPLE, AND HELD BY THEM AS THE VASSALS OF THE LORD, WAS INALIENABLE. "The land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is Mine, saith the Lord." It was clearly requisite, for the maintenance of the essential characteristics of the Israelitish constitution, and for the realisation of the national destiny, that the land should be inalienable. A system which permitted of the aggregation, more or less rapidly, of the land of the country into the hands of the few; and of the consequent detachment, more or less extensively, of the population from the soil, would have been fatal to the preservation of the national existence and to the realisation of the national destiny. The law distinctly and absolutely forbade the sale or alienation of the land, and fortified the prohibition by the enactments against usury or interest. The successive landholders had, therefore, in reality, only a different interest in it; and it was equitable and conceivably beneficial that they should possess the power of disposing of this limited interest. Innocent misfortune might compel, or other causes might induce, them to part with it. And this the law of jubilee enabled them to do. By that law the landholder was enabled to dispose of the usufruct — the right to the fruits — of the land for a period not exceeding, at its ultimate possible limit, the interval between the age of twenty, when a male Israelite attained full majority, and seventy, the estimated end of a normal human life. All that the landholder was empowered to dispose of was his own liferent interest. But neither the seller nor the purchaser knew what would be the certain duration of that interest; and in these days actuarial tables, exhibiting the average expectation of human life, did not exist. The law of jubilee therefore stepped in and converted each liferent interest into an interest terminating at the next jubilee; and the purchaser paid for it a price corresponding to the number of years intervening between the sale and the jubilee, under deduction of the sabbatic or fallow years. But the disposal even of this limited interest in the soil was not an absolute or irredeemable one. The power to sell it at all was a concession to human frailty or necessity. It was not to be presumed that a true-hearted Israelite would alienate his interest in the soil of the covenanted land except under the severe pressure of adverse circumstances. Indeed, so strong do we find this attachment to the soil that even in the troublous times of Ahab, Naboth repels the overtures of the king for his land with the exclamation, "The Lord forbid it me that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee" (1 Kings 21:3). And so, to afford an opportunity for the redemption of the land, if the circumstances of the seller should improve, or a kinsman be willing to take his place, the law of jubilee provided that the seller or his kinsman should at any time be entitled to redeem the liferent by paying to the purchaser the value of the usufruct for the period still to elapse between the redemption and the jubilee, calculated on the basis of the original price. It is only to be noticed further that the prohibition to alienate did not extend to dwelling-houses in walled cities. As these were not in any way connected with the agricultural occupancy of the land they might be sold in perpetuity; but to prevent coercion, or thoughtless disposal, or hardship from other causes, the law provided a species of annus deliberandi, so that the house could be redeemed at the stipulated price at any time before the expiry of a year from the day of sale, after which it became irredeemable. The law of jubilee had, of course, a national as well as an individual purpose, a religious as well as a secular significance. It was part of that great system of types which ran through the whole of Mosaism. It made provision for the periodical removal or modification of the inequalities which sprang up among the people in the course of years. It prevented families being permanently impoverished through the incapacity, the profligacy, or the misfortune of an individual member. It periodically restored all diverted lands to their true owners, freed of all encumbrances and trammels. It was a national rejuvenescence, a periodical restoration and renewal of the original constitution of the commonwealth, and an infusion of fresh life and spirit into the whole community!

V. The only other portion of the Israelitish land system that remains to be noticed is THE LAW OF SUCCESSION. The Israelitish law of inheritance is expressed in Numbers 27:8-11. The Mosaic law makes no provision regarding the testamentary disposal of property; and the idea of such a power is excluded both by its fundamental principle, to which we have adverted, and by the system of heritable succession which it expressly prescribes. The principle that the land was the Lord's and that the successive generations of Israelites were merely "strangers" temporarily "sojourning" upon it, necessarily excluded the power of posthumous settlement no less than that of alienation during life.

(R. Reid.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD.

WEB: "Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them, 'When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a Sabbath to Yahweh.

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