On The Boundaries Of Property In The Bible

[Note: The following are the notes for a sermon given to the Dalles congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, February 26, 2022.]

We have discussed several of the ten commandments so far, and we are coming to a set of commands that relates to property. Before I discuss those commandments and their boundaries in detail, I think it would be worthwhile to discuss what the Bible has to say about property, since it is at the base of a great deal of what several of the commandments address in various ways–a theme we find repeated when it comes to the Sabbath, to theft, and to covetousness as well as the biblical prohibition against idolatry and worship of anything other than God.

When we think of property, most of the time we think of what is owned by those who are wealthy and powerful. The Bible, though, makes a great deal of importance about things that are owned by ordinary people, even people who we might think of as having nothing at all. There are a lot of qualities about biblical property that are very complicated and that are worth thinking about in some detail. After all, before we know what can be coveted or stolen, we must know what can be owned by people. I do not intend by this particular discussion to give all of the passages that discuss property and how it is dealt with. There are a lot of such passages, and the Bible’s restrictions on property and on the way that the Bible deals with questions of taxation and eminent domain are subjects we will save for another time. That said, the Bible does have far more layered and far broader view of property than we do, and we would do well to discuss its boundaries so as to better appreciate it.

In addition to that, it is worthwhile as well to note that not only are property rights far more extensive than we are often given to think about them but that they are also much more complicated than we tend to think. Very often, we find situations where multiple people have property rights at the same time, and that these rights are often finely balanced against each other in ways that make it difficult for us to understand how it is that property is to be owned by either one party or another. When we look at some of the property rights that are found in the Bible, we will see that the layers of these rights are designed with very clear intents to protect the well-being of everyone involved, and that they are not as absolute as we might expect because different people have need of different aspects of property. With all of that said, let us note that we will explore a few aspects of property here in this message and that this is by no means a complete discussion of what is owned.

Let us begin with an example of property that may seem rather strange. Let us turn to Exodus 21:7-11. Exodus 21:7-11 reads: ““And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.  If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her.  And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters.  If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights.  And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.”

Here we see an example of marriage rights as property. Those who speak out against marriage have argued that women are the property of men in biblical marriage, but that is not the picture we see. What we see is that a young woman who was sold into concubinage as a slave wife had property rights in her husband-master, namely food rights, clothing rights, and marriage rights. A man who purchased a poor young woman to be his concubine owed her, for her entire life, the intimacy and affection that was due to a wife and if he did not provide these for her she could go out free without paying any money to him.

This is rather striking, and not something that is unique to this passage. Let us turn to Deuteronomy 21:10-14. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 reads: ““When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails.  She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.  And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.”

Let us note that if a man took a young woman to be a wife who was a prisoner of war, the act of taking her as a wife and having sexual intimacy, what the passage says as “going into her” prevented him from then changing his mind and selling her for money or of treating her brutally. Even someone who was a captive and presumably not possessed the full rights that might be expected still received some rights of property for herself–rights that were denied to someone who might have considered her to be his property through right of conquest.

And this is by no means limited to the Old Testament. Let us turn to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5. In talking about marriage rights, which we talked about earlier in Exodus 21, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5: “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.  Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.  Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” We note here that believing spouses in the New Testament church have the same sort of property rights in each other is mentioned in the Law.

From these passages we can get a picture of the property rights that spouses have in each other in the following way. Marriage gives husbands and wives exclusive sexual rights in each other, and neither spouse has the right to deprive the other of the affection and love that is due to them as a spouse. This is true no matter the status that someone may have as a wife. Furthermore, whatever property rights we might have in someone else by purchasing them or taking them as spoils of war is diminished by our treatment of them as a spouse, giving people property rights that we might not expect them to have.

Let us now turn our attention from questions of the property rights of husbands and wives in each other and to the question of the property rights of food, work, and money. In the Bible, the property rights of these three things are closely connected. Let us begin our discussion of this boundary of property rights in food, wages, and work in a strange place, with a discussion made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:1-14. Here Paul talks about his right to live off tithes and offerings as an apostle. 1 Corinthians 9:1-14 reads: “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?  If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. My defense to those who examine me is this:  Do we have no right to eat and drink?  Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working?  Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also?  For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about?  Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.  If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?  If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.  Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar?  Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.”

There is a lot going on in this passage but let us note that Paul appeals to his labor as giving him a right to a share of the possessions of those he teaches and whom he gives spiritual nourishment. In making this appeal as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he also compares himself to other laborers, like farmers and generals and shepherds, all of whom are paid out of the rewards of their labors–a fact to which we will return shortly. Additionally, he also claims that as a minister he and Barnabas have the right to take a wife who can share in those labors of the ministry, alluding to the marriage rights that we spoke about earlier. And, on top of all of this, he mentions a law about the property rights of oxen to eat the grain that they are treading. Let us now look at this law and its interesting implications for us as we look at the boundaries of property. The law that Paul quotes comes from comes from Deuteronomy 25:4, which Paul quote exactly as follows: ““You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” From this short law we see that even oxen have property rights. If an ox is working to help harvest and prepare food for people, it has the right to eat off of its labor.

This right is repeatedly affirmed in scripture. While we lack the time to cover all of the connections between these three things, let us look at least a few unusual examples where the right to eat, to work, and to be paid is connected together. In Leviticus 23:22, at the end of the discussion of the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, we see a law related to the commandment to allow people to glean grain from the fields that belong to other people. Leviticus 23:22 reads: ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.’ We see from this verse that the poor and strangers who owned no real estate or farmland of their own had a right to be able to work and receive food from fields that belonged to others. Gleaning was by no means easy work, as some of us have personal experience in, but it did allow for such people to have a property right in enough food to survive even if they lacked fields of their own.

Similarly, we find the following law relating to the payment of prompt wages. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 tells us about the prompt payment of wages that is owed to workers. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 reads: “ “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether one of your brethren or one of the aliens who is in your land within your gates.  Each day you shall give him his wages, and not let the sun go down on it, for he is poor and has set his heart on it; lest he cry out against you to the Lord, and it be sin to you.” Here we see that those who labor for wages are owed their wages at the end of every day. Those who labor have the right to enjoy the fruits of those labors to be able to pay for their own necessities of life. In our contemporary world, it is common for companies to pay workers their wages weeks or even more than a month in arrears, forcing them to borrow money at times to pay for their food or fuel or other necessities even after they have labored for some time on behalf of their employees. The wages, and the timing of wages, is property that belongs to the worker, no matter how poor they are nor even if they are a foreigner.

From these passages we can draw the understanding that property rights in the Bible are often bundled together. People, no matter how poor they are nor how matter they are outsiders within a community, have the right to labor in order to obtain necessary sustenance. They have the right to receive wages for their labor in a prompt fashion as well as to obtain that which is required for survival. These rights also provide limitations on the rights that other people have to dispose of their property. Even if a farmer was able to efficiently harvest his or her own land efficiently to profit the most from that land, if doing so denied the right of the landless and strangers to glean from that farm, such actions on their part would be contrary to the law of God. While we may tend to think of property rights as belonging mostly to people who are already relatively well off already, in the Bible such property rights belong to people in general and even to animals who have the right to feed off of the labor that they are asked to do for the people who own them.

Let us now look a bit more in detail at the way in which property is limited, since we have now seen at least a couple of cases where this is so. The property rights of people do not extend to the area where exploitation of other people happens under God’s law. Where our use of what we view as our property reaches levels where it harms other people, those property rights are curtailed because of the property rights of other people. We do not have the right to exclude people from jobs and from their funds that are necessary for them to survive, as is the habit of wicked and evil governments in our present evil age. We do not have the right to cheat workers out of their wages, as is the habit of many companies. While it is the habit of people to exploit the rights of others because of their economic and social vulnerability, the Bible shows particular care and attention to those who are vulnerable to being taken advantage of. We have already seen examples of how this is already, but let us examine more such cases as time permits to look at the limitations on the use and exploitation of property that the Bible provides for the protection of ordinary people.

In Leviticus 25 we have a lot of examples where property rights are limited. During Sabbath years and Jubilee years, for example, people were forbidden from harvesting the land so as to let the land rest, a limitation on one’s property rights. Sometimes those limitations got to be really complicated though, as is the case with the law relating to property redemption in Leviticus 25:23-34: “‘The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.  And in all the land of your possession you shall grant redemption of the land. ‘If one of your brethren becomes poor, and has sold some of his possession, and if his redeeming relative comes to redeem it, then he may redeem what his brother sold.  Or if the man has no one to redeem it, but he himself becomes able to redeem it, then let him count the years since its sale, and restore the remainder to the man to whom he sold it, that he may return to his possession.  But if he is not able to have it restored to himself, then what was sold shall remain in the hand of him who bought it until the Year of Jubilee; and in the Jubilee it shall be released, and he shall return to his possession. ‘If a man sells a house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; within a full year he may redeem it.  But if it is not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house in the walled city shall belong permanently to him who bought it, throughout his generations. It shall not be released in the Jubilee.  However the houses of villages which have no wall around them shall be counted as the fields of the country. They may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the Jubilee.  Nevertheless the cities of the Levites, and the houses in the cities of their possession, the Levites may redeem at any time.  And if a man purchases a house from the Levites, then the house that was sold in the city of his possession shall be released in the Jubilee; for the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the children of Israel.  But the field of the common-land of their cities may not be sold, for it is their perpetual possession.”

Here we see that the prices of land redemption were based on the timing of the Jubilee year and that Levites had special privileges, including the right to redeem at any time and redeem their urban property because they were to be city and town dwellers instead of farmers. There are qualifications for redemption that limit the permanent alienation of property to being in walled cities, which has some interesting implications for the millennium when unwalled towns and villages rather than walled and fortified cities will be the norm. At any rate, what this passage demonstrates is that one’s property rights were limited because not only do those people who are alive have property rights, but one’s descendants and heirs in the future, who may not even be born yet, have property rights on the inheritance they are to gain from their ancestors, and so we cannot deprive even the unborn of their property rights as members of our families.

Related to this, it is important to realize that in the Bible there are a great many people besides landowners who had property rights in a given plot of land. Let us examine the situation of the daughters of Zelophehad, who are mentioned in two stories in the book of Numbers. We first meet up with the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:1-11. Numbers 27:1-11 reads: “Then came the daughters of Zelophehad the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, from the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these were the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.  And they stood before Moses, before Eleazar the priest, and before the leaders and all the congregation, by the doorway of the tabernacle of meeting, saying:  “Our father died in the wilderness; but he was not in the company of those who gathered together against the Lord, in company with Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons.  Why should the name of our father be removed from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.” So Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  “The daughters of Zelophehad speak what is right; you shall surely give them a possession of inheritance among their father’s brothers, and cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them.  And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘If a man dies and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter.  If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers.  If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.  And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the relative closest to him in his family, and he shall possess it.’ ” And it shall be to the children of Israel a statute of judgment, just as the Lord commanded Moses.”

Let us now turn to Numbers 36:1-12. Numbers 36:1-12 gives the other half of the story: “Now the chief fathers of the families of the children of Gilead the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near and spoke before Moses and before the leaders, the chief fathers of the children of Israel.  And they said: “The Lord commanded my lord Moses to give the land as an inheritance by lot to the children of Israel, and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters.  Now if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and it will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so it will be taken from the lot of our inheritance.  And when the Jubilee of the children of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so their inheritance will be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.” Then Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying: “What the tribe of the sons of Joseph speaks is right.  This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, ‘Let them marry whom they think best, but they may marry only within the family of their father’s tribe.’  So the inheritance of the children of Israel shall not change hands from tribe to tribe, for every one of the children of Israel shall keep the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers.  And every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel shall be the wife of one of the family of her father’s tribe, so that the children of Israel each may possess the inheritance of his fathers.  Thus no inheritance shall change hands from one tribe to another, but every tribe of the children of Israel shall keep its own inheritance.” Just as the Lord commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad; for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married to the sons of their father’s brothers.  They were married into the families of the children of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s family.”

Putting both of these stories together, we get the following picture. As we have already seen in Leviticus, future generations had claims on property rights, and here we see that if a man had no sons his daughters were eligible to inherit the land so that the land could pass on to his descendants and thus not disappear to history. The problem is that the land would be inherited into the tribe into which the husband’s family belonged, and tribes too had a right in the property of the families within those tribes so that the tribe did not lose land either, and so it was that there was a limit to who the heiresses could marry to make sure that it was within their own tribe. As it happened, they married their cousins and everything worked out well–they got to be heiresses and their tribe kept their borders secure, setting a precedent that property rights were layered and that multiple people and groups of people had rights on the same property, working for the benefit of not only the present generation but also the distant future as well. And because what was allowed had future ramifications as well, there was a great deal of complexity in who had the right to do what with property.

Let us look at one more aspect of property rights in the Bible that demonstrate the boundaries of property. Let us look now at some intangible aspects of property that people could own and what implications that has for believers. Again, we are used to thinking of property rights as being tangible things, but they are intangible as well. Let us turn to Romans 13:1-10. We usually focus on the first part of this passage when it comes to authority, but I would like to talk about the last part in more detail today. Romans 13:1-10 reads: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.  Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.  Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Let us note the sort of thing that are due to others, that are the property of others. We see that Paul here says that there are people who are owed taxes, customs, fear and honor, and that we are commanded to owe nothing to one another but love. Indeed, the sorts of behaviors that are contrary to love are precisely those which are forbidden in the ten commandments that we have been talking about, and consequently the love that is expressed in the ten commandments is something that is owed by everyone to everyone. We owe respect and love and honor to everyone, and that means that everyone has property rights in the behavior of other people, in language that is used and not used. We own our reputation, we own love and honor, and we are not often paid what we are owed in a world that is not filled with the love that the Bible commands.

So let us take all that we have discussed and bring it together. In order to understand commandments like thou shalt not commit adultery, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, thou shalt not steal, or thou shalt not covet, we have to understand what is being threatened in all of these prohibited behavior. All of these behaviors attack at property rights that belong to people. The time to rest on the Sabbath is a property right in time. The right to be able to earn a living and receive a timely wage for it are property rights that belong to everyone. The right to love and affection from one’s spouse are property rights. Far from being very limited, property rights are widespread in God’s law, even universal in the case of love and honor that we are due according to God’s commandments.

In addition, just as property rights are far wider than we may think, they are also far more complicated and far more limited than we tend to think. We tend to think that if we own something that we have the right to do whatever we want with it, but consistently in the Bible we have these rights limited by various circumstances–our property rights over slaves and prisoners of war diminishes if we are sexually intimate with them thus making them into spouses. If we own land, our right to profit from that land may be limited based on the rights that other people have to work on the land and prevent us from getting the gleanings or the crops that are in the corners of a field. We may be limited on whether we can sell the land depending on our tribal identity, and the length of time we can alienate land depends on the timing of the Jubilee years. Similarly, if we are inheritors of property under biblical law, our rights to marry may be limited by the fact that not only do future generations but also our tribes have property rights in our land as belonging to those identities. Now that we have examined some of the complexity of biblical property, we will turn our attention again to commandments that deal with those questions of property in greater detail.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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