Who owns the land?

The idea that landowners have exclusive rights to do whatever they want with their property is a far cry from the land stewardship modeled in Scripture.

By Miguel De La Torre

Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata coined the slogan, “la tierra es de quien la trabaja” — the land belongs to those who work it.  

The Bible seems to agree. The story of King Ahab, Queen Jezebel and Naboth tells how the land was misused by the rich and powerful to the detriment of the marginalized. According to First Kings 21:

[Naboth] had a vineyard in Jezreel, near the palace of Ahab the king of Samaria. And Ahab spoke to Naboth saying, “Give me your vineyard so it can be a garden of green herbs for me.” ... But Naboth said to Ahab, “Far be it from me, by Yahweh, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you.” ... [Ahab told Jezebel his wife these things, and she said to Ahab], “Do you now rule over Israel? ... I will give you the vineyard of Naboth.” ... [Jezebel then had Naboth stoned by bearing false witness against him], and when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab rose to go down to the vineyard ... to take possession of it.

The view that land is a commodity to be acquired by whatever means necessary to increase personal wealth at the expense of the dispossessed is frequently condemned by the prophets. They considered avarice for land to violate the very will of God.

During times of economic crisis, the biblical distribution of land rights was sometimes ignored as some purchased the “inheritance” of their weaker neighbors and in the process created an urban elite profiting from the conversion of subsistence farming to exportable cash crops.

The prophet Isaiah denounced this practice: “Woe to those touching house to house, bringing near field to field until no end of space, and you are made to dwell alone in the middle of the land” (Isaiah 5:8).

Likewise, the prophet Micah proclaimed: “Woe to those plotting wickedness ... they covet fields and seize them and houses, and carry them off. And they oppress people along with their inheritance” (Micah 2:1–2).

Another biblical example of the oppressive effects of ownership of land appears in the account of Pharaoh’s appropriation of all the land at the expense of the Egyptians’ economic welfare:

And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, because each one of the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them. The land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he reduced them to servitude from one end of Egypt to the other (Genesis 47:20-21).

It is interesting to note that Joseph, a patriarch of the faith, is responsible for creating this oppressive economic structure by redistributing the land from the hungry to the well fed.  

In short, the biblical text declares that the right to land is subordinate to the rights of the disenfranchised to earn a just living and the rights of the land itself. Human beings are given biblical rights to be stewards of the land for the purposes of providing basic needs for sustaining all life.  

Two types of claims can be made on property. Capitalism advocates a fee simple ownership of the land giving exclusive right to the owner to do with it whatever he or she desires with no concern to the wants or needs of others.  

Biblical texts, on the other hand, champion inclusiveness, the belief that the land should be openly available. This pattern of land usage liberates both the individual and society from the perpetual grip of capitalism and neoliberalism.

The land is held in stewardship for God so that the owner and her or his neighbors can obtain the basic necessities of life. Property serves the livelihood of all in the community, rather than becoming the form of their subjugation. Such is the paradigm established by Leviticus.

This paradigm of land ownership was also employed in the early Christian church, where all believers shared their possessions (including their real property) according to each person’s needs (Acts 2:44-45).

This biblical concept has its roots in the wilderness experience of Israel when the bread (manna) provided by God was sufficient to meet each person’s daily needs (Exodus 16:18). When accumulated in excess, it spoiled.

What then should Christians in a capitalist economic structure do with their possessions when the overall society’s understanding of land contradicts the biblical text?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.