N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 4 (Inheritance; Jubilee)

dayrevolutionbeganN. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.


The Torah often speaks of the “inheritance” that the Israelites would receive, being the Promised Land. In English, “inheritance” is what you inherit from someone who dies. In this case, “inheritance” refers to a gift from God to the Israelites. When the Promised Land was conquered, the land was divided among tribes, clans, and families, so that each family received its own plot of land to cultivate and become self-sufficient.

More especially, for a people who were once enslaved, they now would own a piece of real estate that their children could inherit. They could be self-sufficient financially and improve their holdings to benefit their children — at last!

The land/inheritance was so important that the Torah required land that was sold or foreclosed to be returned to the original family every 50th year (the Jubilee) — guaranteeing all Israelites an inheritance so long as they lived in the Promised Land.

Land redistribution under Torah [JFG]

This land redistribution requirement was presumably also designed to prevent the formation of a landed aristocracy. For example, in the US during the Great Depression, the very wealthy retained enough cash to buy mortgages and foreclose on the poor — nearly anyone else — at bargain-basement prices, resulting in a concentration of land and wealth among a very few and dispossessing many families of land they needed to farm to support themselves. Check out the deed records for timberland and farmland, especially in very rural areas, and you’ll see the concentration of landed wealth in the 1930s.

Fortunately, diversification of the rural economy has provided alternative means of support, but even today, in largely rural counties, you’ll find that most of the land is held by very few, very wealthy, highly privileged people. The Torah seems to have been written to specifically to avoid the excessive accumulation of wealth, even by voluntarily bargained mortgages or sales. Capitalism was not Moses’ god.

(I’m a very conservative capitalist, but I recognize that capitalism can run amok. Capitalism does not define right and wrong, although it’s generally better than the alternatives — but not always.)

In fact, the Jubilee could be seen as a reaction against the policies adopted by Joseph following seven years of bumper crops. He had Pharaoh tax and save grain to feed the people during the seven years of famine that followed, and eventually the people were forced to sell their land to Pharaoh to have food to eat. The result was that all the land of Egypt was owned by Pharaoh, who leased the land back to the people under a sharecropping arrangement, greatly increasing Pharaoh’s wealth and power — and creating perhaps the earliest feudal economy.

Among other things, this left the Israelites themselves no land of their own, and so they farmed the Goshen region as guests of the Pharaoh. With no ownership and hence no wealth and so no influence over the government, they were defenseless when the Pharaoh declared them to be slaves and required them to make bricks for government projects.

And so it only makes sense that former Egyptian slaves would make it impossible for a feudal system to be established in the Promised Land.

Nonetheless, the Jubilee seems to have been largely ignored, surely because those in power found that the Jubilee made it hard to do business.

The story has a remarkable parallel to the promise of 40 acres and a mule for newly freed America slaves. The idea was that freedom was of little value without a means of supporting oneself. And in Southern agrarian economy, a tract of land was the fundamental source of economic self-sufficiency. Just as Moses and Joshua allocated parcels of the Promised Land to each Israelite family — perhaps the ultimate marker of freedom from slavery in the Ancient Near East — the Union army promised slaves enough land to support themselves.

This order was overturned by President Andrew Johnson — surely for much the same reason that the leaders of Israel seem to have never (or rarely) honored the Jubilee commands.

Jesus often spoke in terms that alluded to the Jubilee year, but it seems unlikely that he was insisting on a literal enforcement of the Torah’s commands. Rather, it seems to me that the principle of Jubilee was picked up by the early church in its willingness to sell land to raise funds to care for those in need.

(Acts 4:34-35 ESV)  34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold  35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

This was an effective substitute for the goals behind Jubilee — that wealth be redistributed so that no one lives in poverty — or is enslaved to debt.

The modern world has a radically different economy, and the modern equivalent of a parcel of land in the Promised Land or 40 acres and a mule is a job — the ability to work to be self-sufficient. After all, even when the Jubilee was the law of the land, farmland was pretty much worthless unless you worked the land — and it was brutal, hard work in the dry, rocky hill country of Palestine.

And most recent efforts at land distribution across the world have often ended in economic disaster, but not always.

Hence, government hand outs are not the equivalent of the Year of Jubilee — but encouraging job creation likely is. See 2 Thes 3:10-12. Then again, both Torah and such NT passages as Acts 4:34-35 make clear that supporting the poor when they cannot support themselves is very near to the heart of God.

For more on the Torah’s commands regarding the treatment of the poor, see here.

Regarding the Torah, aliens, and open borders, see the recent series Sojourners, Walls, and Illegal Aliens.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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3 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 4 (Inheritance; Jubilee)

  1. It’s interesting to me that there seems to be little indication that the Jubilee was ever kept. That’s strange considering how strict groups like the Pharisees were about so many other things.

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Tim A wrote,

    It’s interesting to me that there seems to be little indication that the Jubilee was ever kept. That’s strange considering how strict groups like the Pharisees were about so many other things.

    It’s one thing to argue over mint growing wild in the garden. Quite another to talk about money. Now you’ve gone to meddling. The biblical evidence is that the Jubilee was neglected pre-Exile. Second Temple period Jews claim that the rule only applied pre-Exile since most Jews didn’t live in Palestine and so couldn’t be returned to their ancestral lands. Hence, if the Jubilee was kept, it was an exceptional case.


    See http://ohr.edu/ask_db/ask_main.php/196/Q3/

  3. Jonathan says:

    I think that replacing “land” with a “a job” is too quickly giving into a modern issue that has been taken for granted simply because it allows so much power to go into the hands of the wealthy.

    When you’re working “a job” for someone else in a capitalist system, it invariably means that someone else is profiting off you. And the more land (i.e. capital) that the the job providers possess in relation to the job seekers, the more power they have to maximize how much they profit off of them. The same, of course, goes for those who rent out apartments and such.

    A repeated theme in the OT is that you’re not supposed to profit off the poor. You can’t take a poor man’s land in perpetuity, you can’t take his labor in perpetuity, you can’t charge interest on loans to him, you can’t avoid giving him a loan because he’s poor, you can’t keep necessary possessions of his as collateral for that loan, you can’t without his wages at the end of the day, you can’t abuse him in court, etc. Having land is one of many ways that the poor can avoid being abused by the rich. They have a means to stay self-sufficient, they have a backstop to hardship.

    Only in the last 150 years or so has “a job” been placed so highly above “land”, and I think that’s been to the detriment of society. Part of the issue has been that so many poor people have lost their land (due to the dispossession you mention, as well as the displacement of people by government projects, agricultural subsidies and laws biased against small farmers, and the impositions of the modern economy that have made small farming more financially difficult). Another part has been that there is a heavy societal pull, partly the creation of the job providers and party organic, that has pulled young people off the land and into the cities. Unfortunately, this pull has resulted in many detrimental effects – the erosion of rural communities, the erosion of urban communities, and negative effects on the environment and agricultural sustainability.

    I do believe that there’s something unique about the land that a mere wage-job doesn’t provide.

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