Saturday, September 01, 2007

Private Property in Deuteronomy 15

I've spent a fair bit of the last week in Deuteronomy, with the help of Gordon McConville's excellent commentary. Here's another of the things that struck me:

Deuteronomy 15 contains three groups of laws. Roughly summarised, they are:

Debt release: Debts between Israelites are to be cancelled every seven years. Lending to Israelites who are poor is compulsory, even if the year for debts being cancelled is coming up. While poverty is seen as something that will not be eradicated (v11), it is nevertheless to be aspired against (v4).

Manumission: There was a form of indentured slavery in certain situations, which was very different from slavery as later practiced by the Arabs, British and Americans (among others). These laws put a maximum period of 7 years on it, with the expectation of very good treatment and tell the "owner" to send the "slave" off with very generous gifts.

Firstborn: God claims the firstborn of all animals, and they are to be eaten in a kind of communal party.

What was striking about this was thinking about the underlying implications. There's a lot of talk about a "social contract" now - that we agree to pay taxes and obey the law in return for living in this society. But that kind of thought seems hugely foreign to Deuteronomy. For a start, I'm not at all sure it recognises ideas like private property in the modern sense.

Property, especially land, is seen as belonging primarily to God, and is God's to give graciously to whomever he wants. For example, in Israel, permanent financial transfers of land seem to have been prohibited. The rich being expected to lend to the poor is interesting as well - it doesn't have all of the rubbish baggage associated with a welfare state where the state is seen as obliged to provide and keeps it much more personal, but at the same time it undermines the idea that the property of the rich is actually theirs. Ditto with the debt release and the manumission - property is only seen as being loaned for a limited time rather than actually as owned in the way we'd understand it now.

And yes, I see recognition of that at times in the church with things like

For all things come from You,
And of Your own we have given You
1 Chronicles 29:14b, NKJV

But I don't think we actually live like it most of the time. We tend to see our property as ours, and we choose to give some of it away, rather than seeing our property as God's, and us as borrowers of it.

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