The Bible and Henry George
GroundSwell, November-December 2006]
The following July 21, 2006 presentation at the CGO
Conference held in Des Plaines, IL was transcribed and edited by
your GroundSwell editor from her audio tape of Kelly's power point
presentation. Some discontinuity in the written transcript may
result from the fact that the oral presentation was integrated with
the text and pictures in the power point presentation.
Henry George wrote about economics and about prosperity and about
justice. He wrote about freedom, and he wrote about debt, capital,
labor, and most famously he wrote about land. These items are also
very important in the Bible, and not just metaphorically or
spiritually. The Bible considers them to be vital, and the Bible
uses these items very much as George did. Sam Venturella, who ran
the Henry George School in Chicago for many years, touched on this
Biblical /Georgist connection pretty often. He sent me two books,
Biblical Economics by Archer Torrey, and also a book called the
Eleventh Commandment by Francis Nielson. Each of these spoke
eloquently about this Land Law in the Bible, and that part of the
Law of Moses that contained macro-economic legislation. As we all
know, the Law of Moses regulated ritual worship, and set up rules
for everything from skin diseases to harvest festivals. But Sams
books revealed to me that the Bible's Land Law also set up rules
that created a prosperous and just society. At the same time it
provided for the needs of the community without harming the
productivity of the people of the community. As a matter of fact,
part of this sounds downright Georgist.
The Law given to Moses applied to all the people of Israel --
there was no distinction between titled and untitled, rich or poor;
there was no privilege granted to anyone. Everyone was equal under
the Law, and through this it was clear that these basic human rights
came not from the king or the government but that these rights came
from God. So neither the King nor the government could take those
rights away. The next time there was a country founded on the idea
that these rights came not from the king and not from the government
but that they came from God was in 1776. So every 3,000 years or so,
we get it right.
The economic idea laid down in the Old Testament is founded on the
principle of inheritance, that God made the earth and gives this
thing that He made to the people. Each of His people is therefore an
equal inheritor, and under the Law of Moses this land inheritance
was distributed among the people. First it was distributed to the
separate tribes. An attempt was made to give each of the tribes of
Israel an amount of land that matched both their population and the
productivity of the land. Then the different clans within the tribe
got their allotment, and they in turn would give each family within
that clan an equal share.
The Levites were an exception. The Levites were a tribe, but
instead of land they were given 48 walled towns along with a little
bit of pasture land, about four towns per tribal area. Contrary to
what tradition tells us, all the Levites werent priests. Only
the members of the small clan of Aaron were made priests. The rest
of the Levites were divided into 24 groups, and they helped the
priests. Each of these groups, for one week at a time, would assist
the priests, wherever the Ark was. For the other 23 weeks they were
back in their hometowns. It is my opinion that in their walled towns
these Levites developed the urban occupations like carpentry,
blacksmithing, harness making, etc. that supported that agricultural
and pastoral economy that was the economy of ancient Israel. So with
this final view of the Levites we have got all the land in ancient
The next parts of the Law involved time. The first of these
concerns the Sabbath. One day in seven is set aside and dedicated to
God. We do this today. The people were to rest on the Sabbath. They
were not to engage in occupational work. This Law that came down
from God assumes the dignity of His people. God rested after six
days; His people also were to rest after six days.
And Gods land was also to have a Sabbath. Every seventh year
was the Sabbatical year. It was a year off for the land; the land
was to lie fallow that year. It was not a year off for the
individual, though. When we speak of a Sabbatical today we are
talking about taking a year off work. In Biblical times the land had
the year off; the individual did not, he or she probably worked very
hard in the Sabbatical year, attending to all the big jobs that had
built up over the last seven years. Also, all debts were cancelled
in a Sabbatical year. And although this didnt happen on a
Sabbatical year, the maximum amount of time to hold a slave was six
years. After that, you had to free the slave. So by these means
neither debt nor slavery could ever become important parts of their
economy. This was quite different than the system their neighbors
Now adding to the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year, we come to the
most important moment in the Land Law, and that was the Jubilee.
This is the centerpiece of Biblical economic Law for ancient Israel.
The Jubilee year was proclaimed by the blowing of the shofar, a kind
of trumpet, and it occurred after the seventh Sabbatical year. The
Sabbatical year occurred every seven years, so after seven of them
(forty-nine years) had gone by, the next year was the Jubilee year
-- every fifty years. The Jubilee was a big year-long celebration.
At one point all the people were expected to gather where the Ark of
the Covenant was kept. In the centuries before the temple was built,
the Ark was kept in a tent as it had been in the desert during the
exodus. There the leader would read the entire Law to the people and
all the people would dedicate themselves to it. Economically, the
Jubilee resembled the Sabbatical year, all debts were cancelled, all
slaves were freed, and just like in the Sabbatical year the land was
again given a Sabbath. After the seventh Sabbatical where the land
took a Sabbath, the very next year the land also took a Sabbath
during the Jubilee, so, at the Jubilee there were two years in a row
that the land was not worked.
But the unique event of the Jubilee involved access to land. All
the land was redistributed, unencumbered, free and clear to new
family units that had formed since the last Jubilee. No family in
Israel could ever be alienated from their inheritance, which was the
land. Or they couldnt be alienated for very long; every fifty
years at least they had it back. Leviticus contains the basic
injunction which enables the rest of Israels Land Law: "The
land will not be sold absolutely, it belongs to me, and you are only
strangers and guests of mine." This was not a figurative or
metaphorical statement. This was in a legal and economic sense, an
absolutely true statement. From that quote flowed the rest of the
There are some important points to remember about the Jubilee. God
was the landowner, so there was no private title to land. Land could
be leased but the lease could never extend beyond the next 50-year
Jubilee. In the first year if you wanted to lease it out until then,
you could with a 48-year lease. It was redeemable at any time at
your discretion, so if you leased it out for ten years, and within
five years, you wanted to redeem that lease, the person who was
leasing it from you had nothing to say about it, though you would
have to refund money to him for unused lease years. You had an
absolute right to redemption. Since a person didnt own the
land they wouldn't have a land mortgage, either. Land was not held
communally; it was legally possessed by individuals.
The land was allocated by its productivity, so all the families
should have had approximately the same income level. For this great
gift the Israelites owed the tithe, which was supposed to be a tenth
of the lands production. Since all family lands had about the
same productivity, all tithes were about the same. So there didnt
need to be an elaborate assessment mechanism. The tithe was Gods
demand for the use of his land and it was paid each year. When we
pay somebody for the use of their land, we call it rent. The tithe
was a land rent. Now the Bible says that the Levites who lived in
the walled towns didnt pay a tithe because they didnt
receive any inheritance in the land. They were to collect the tithe
but they didnt pay a tithe, even though they had income. The
town residents -- they were the blacksmiths, the harness makers, the
carpenters, etc. -- had remunerative occupations, but they didnt
pay a tithe. Numbers says they didnt pay a tithe because they
didnt get any inheritance in land. So the tithe was not an
income tax as we think of it today; it was a land rent.
The tithe funded the responsibilities of the larger community.
Those included not only the responsibilities of what we today would
call a religious nature but also those that we today would call
civil or governmental. The Bible did not differentiate between the
sacred and the secular. The whole community enterprise was Gods
work; it was all sacred. First, as we know, the tithes supported
religious needs, the priests and the Levites but only when they were
serving their week of duty at the temple. Back home they supported
themselves. The unfamiliar purpose of the tithe was what we would
call civil government: the stocking of the armories, the building
and repair of roads and bridges. So the country ran on a tithe. The
tithe was a tenth of an average years production ; it was a
land rent; it was not a production tax. It was rent on the land that
you possessed, and its purpose was to cover the needs of the priests
and also the civil needs of the community.
So now we have a better idea of the basic rules of the Law. First,
we have a foundation of equal rights, then the Sabbath when man was
to rest, and then every seventh year the Sabbatical year when the
land was to rest and also the debts and slaves were released, and
then most importantly the Jubilee when the land all went back to
each individual family free and clear. These rules took care of the
individuals, the families of ancient Israel. Then to take care of
the common needs, the community needs, there was the tithe.
Lets talk about the Bible and Henry George. The Bible
declares equality under the Law. Henry George naturally assumed that
as well, being a Good American. But he got more specific and added
that there should be no government grants of privilege. Both the
Bible and Henry George give people access to land -- the Bible
through the Jubilee and the Sabbatical year; George through site
taxation. Both saw access to land as the key to freedom and
prosperity. Both favored widespread landownership.
Under the Law of Moses pubic revenue was primarily the tithe. Also
under Moses Law, Israel occasionally would levy a head tax.
They employed the head tax a fair amount out in the desert before
they got their own country. It kind of fell out of favor once they
got their own country, but it remained a legal method of getting
public revenue. The head tax is just a per capita tax, i.e.
everybody owes $100. It is not levied versus production.
George proposed collecting the annual value of God-made or
community-made goods. There is the synthesis, at least in my mind,
that morality and good economics are really the same thing. In the
Bible, bad taxation happened later, but it was a no-no: capital
taxes of any sort were seen as sinful, as theft. Of course, with
George we are talking about taxes on labor and capital that are
harmful and counter-productive.
Israel was the worlds first middle class nation as a result
of the Land Law. It was probably, on a per capita basis, the most
prosperous nation on earth. Unlike other countries, the wealth was
spread out among the people. The entire people had access to this
wealth production and production was not taxed. The land was taxed.
No one had special privileges. No one had hereditary titles. God was
the king. Under the system there were very few rich people, very few
poor people. No one fell through the cracks because the Law did
anticipate the few people who otherwise would have.
This was a male centered system. Therefore, a widow could lose her
position, and this is why we hear of this thing in ancient Israel
where the brother-in-law is supposed to marry the widowed
sister-in-law. It is not just to be nice; it is not just to give her
a place to lay her head; it reconnects her and her children with the
familys inheritance. You can say the same thing about the
orphans. The uncles were supposed to adopt these orphans, not just
because they were family, but it plugged them back in -- they couldnt
get alienated that way from the source of wealth, which is land.
Did these rules really work? It is usually assumed that the Land
Law was not followed, that they wouldnt work. When I have
spoken with people at seminaries they have said: It was just a nice
idea, but these Laws werent followed. But we see certain
code words repeated time after time. Armed with this information of
how this economy worked, what code words are we looking for? "Each
man under his vine and fig tree." That means things are
working. When we see, "The people returned, each to his own
inheritance" -- that is what we are talking about.
The Land Law was working for a long, long time. The first period
in ancient Israel was called the time of the Judges. It began when
Joshua came into the Promised Land and lasted until the first kings
showed up. Toward the end of the time of the judges, we have the
story of Ruth. We know it is toward the end because Ruth was the
great grandmother of King David, Israel's second king. The story of
Ruth is strong evidence that the Land Law was being kept hundreds of
years after its institution.
Because of a famine, Naomi and her husband Elimalech leased out
their land near Bethlehem until the next Jubilee and moved with
their sons to the nearby land of Moab. There one of the sons married
Ruth, a Moabite woman. After ten years Naomis husband
Elimalech and her sons were dead. And so the three of these women
are widows. Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, but they dont
have Elimalechs land. It is leased out. She only will get it
if she lives until the next Jubilee and there is a male in the
family. Or if Ruth marries within the tribe of Judah, then her heirs
will get that land, again at the next Jubilee. If, Naomi had the
money she could buy out or redeem the lease, she has that right; but
she doesnt have any money, so that is not going to happen.
Because of their poverty, Ruth and Naomi are reduced to gleaning
wheat from the fields that the harvesters have overlooked. It is
while working the fields belonging to a man named Boaz that Ruth
meets him, and he is taken with her. He makes sure that the
harvesters leave enough so that Ruth and Naomi have sufficient. But
they still have very little and Naomi cant redeem her land
which would assure them of their security.
When she hears from Ruth how Boaz treated her, she gets excited.
This man is a close relation of ours, she says. He is one of those
who have the right of redemption over us. We know what this means;
he could buy out the lease from Naomi because he is a close relative
of Elimalech. In fact, he is second in line. A closer relative has
the right of first refusal, so to speak, over the redemption of that
land. If the other man did exercise his right, however, he would
acquire the obligation to marry Ruth, the widow. Their progeny would
be counted as Elimalechs grandchildren and would inherit his
land at the Jubilee.
So Boaz goes to the city gate and finds this man and, in front of
the elders of the town, he asks him whether he wants to exercise his
right. This man decides not to accept because then he would have to
marry Ruth who he didnt even know existed until the
conversation. He feels there might be a tricky deal going on here,
because his first born would not be his heir. So he gives his right
to Boaz who is next in line.
Boaz is happy to accept the offer. He redeems the property and
marries Ruth, and their son Obed is the father of Jesse and the
grandfather of David. And he inherited his land as the grandson of
Some of the first things that Naomis friends said to her
after Obed had been born were not congratulations nor that the boy
would be a comfort to her in her old age, but blessed be
Yahweh who has not left you today without anyone to redeem you.
The story of Ruth is popular in the Old Testament but it is not well
known that it is wholly premised on the legal code of Leviticus. It
was because the Land Law was being observed that the whole story
So right up until the time of the kings Gods economic Law
was being followed. Remarkably during this time there was no central
government. The Law applied but if a dispute occurred, judges, who
were just acknowledged wise men or women from the various tribes,
decided these cases and set precedents. It was a unique set-up among
advanced countries of that day.
At the end of the time of judges, Israel had existed for almost
250 years. For 250 years the Land Law had been in effect. God had
said no when the Israelites asked for a king, because kings are
lawmakers. They are above the law. The Law was already perfect.
Kings personified privilege and there was no privilege in Israel.
Kings cause a division of loyalties, etc., etc. The people didnt
care; they wanted a father figure; they wanted a personification of
the nation; they wanted somebody who they knew would take care of
them. They said everybody else has a king. How can we hold our heads
up without a great leader.
Samuel made his warnings to the people and he tied his warnings
into the Land Law. He said the king will take the best of your
fields, your vineyards, your olive groves, and give them to his
officials. He will take the best of your servants, men and women, of
your oxen, of your donkeys, and you yourself will become his slaves.
To Georgists, this makes perfect sense. Samuel suggested that if the
Land Law was broken the people would be little more than serfs, that
the people would lose their freedom, but the people persisted.
Samuel asked God, and God finally said OK. Give them what they
want. So Israel had a king, King Saul.
It is not written that Saul broke any of the Land Laws. That was
left to the third king of Israel, the famous King Solomon. He was a
great leader and expanded the land area of the kingdom
significantly. But Solomon did something else. In order to carry out
his great building projects, he exacted forced labor and extra taxes
on all the people of Israel except his own tribe of Judah. This
practice was illegal under the Law, and it exceeded the tithe which
was land rent. The peoples prosperity and freedom were being
diminished. However, the rest of the Land Law seems to have been
maintained. Sabbaths and Sabbaticals were being kept, but a
dangerous precedent had been set.
Of course, he did away with the tent and he built the temple. The
dedication of the temple was delayed eleven months just so it would
coincide with the beginning of the Jubilee year. So the Jubilee was
going to be kept as well. Solomon greatly improved the splendor of
the kingdom. He had a huge court with many courtiers and concubines.
He was certainly worthy of the title of king and the people revered
him. He also became very rich although most of these riches came
from trade and from the tribute of nearby kingdoms. But the riches
of Jerusalem probably began to interest their neighbors. Also for
the first time there were many able bodied men who did not toil for
their bread. They were part of Solomons court.
Finally Solomon died. His son Rehoboam was crowned king in 931 BC.
All the tribal leaders showed up for the coronation. Jeroboam comes
to Rehoboams coronation. As representative of the northern
tribes, Jeroboam asks the new king to reduce Solomons high
taxes. Rehoboam is insulted and doubles the tax. Jeroboam led the
northern tribes to form the new northern kingdom.
Israel had only three kings before the kingdom split in two. The
split happened because of the economic power that the king employed
over his people. He broke the law, but always for good
purposes. Nevertheless, most of the Land Law and the Jubilee
were kept in the southern kingdom of Judah, even if the tithe system
was being compromised. Fifty years after the dedication of King
Solomons temple, there was a Jubilee under King Asa. Fifty
years after that King Jehoshaphat declared a Jubilee.
The northern kingdom of Israel also kept the Jubilee fifty years
after the temple was dedicated. But right after that first Jubilee
was observed, a man named Omri seized the throne in Israel. Omri set
up an alliance with Ethbaal, the king of Phoenicia. The leading
cities of Phoenicia were Tyre and Sidon.
Phoenicia had the typical land tenure system where the king had
ultimate sovereignty over the land, and he granted pieces of land to
his friends and supporters. The average person in the kingdom was
nothing but a serf or a slave. Like other systems of that time,
their chief god blessed this entire arrangement. And in the case of
the Phoenicians, this god was Baal. Baal was, to use Archer Torreys
phrase, the landlords' god. From this point on, Baal begins to show
up quite a bit in the historical and prophetic parts of the Old
There is a central land story from the Old Testament. It is now
around sixty or seventy years after Solomon dedicated the temple.
The first Jubilee in the northern kingdom has come and gone. Omri
has seized power. He married off his son Ahab to the daughter of his
buddy, the Phoenician king Ethbaal. So the crown prince of Israel
marries a Phoenician princess named
Jezebel. Since the
Phoenicians were Baal worshippers, Baal began to make some inroads
The story proceeds in the 21st chapter of First Kings. A man named
Naboth had a very productive vineyard. The king (King Ahab now that
Omri had died) noticed it and wanted it, so he offered to purchase
it or to exchange it. Naboth told him that he could not comply; the
land was not his to sell. He pointed out to the king that under the
Law he was forbidden to alienate the heritage of his family and his
clan. He did this eye to eye with the king. That is what you can do
when you have equal rights, because they were both equal under the
Law. When Naboth told him this, the king, even though he was
somewhat corrupted already by Baalist economics, was still an
Israelite at heart. And he half believed in the Lord, so he didnt
act, and went home to Jezebel. He told her about the discussion with
Naboth. She asked Ahab, who does this guy Naboth think he is? You
are the king, you can do what you want. No vinedresser can tell the
king what to do. Never mind, I will take care of it myself. And she
did. Of course, Naboths statements were ridiculous under
Baalist law. Under Gods Law they were right on the money.
Jezebel did take care of it. She had Naboth condemned for blasphemy
against god (Baal) and against King Ahab. She had Naboth executed by
a kangaroo court, the land was taken, and now there was this new
kingly power, and Baals law began its long incursion into
So the Book of Kings begins to equal idol, and especially Baal,
worship with the breaking of the Land Law -- which we dont
hear -- but it means the same thing as we move through the Bible.
Here is what the Bible has to say finally about King Ahab: There
never was anyone like Ahab for double dealing and for doing what is
displeasing to Yahweh; urged on by Jezebel his wife, he behaved in
the most abominable way, adhering to idols, etc., etc. In the two
books of Kings and in the two books of Chronicles, the story of
Naboths vineyard stands out. Almost all the rest of the
history recounted in those book involves war and royal succession
struggles, but the authors must have seen this story as important.
In the Bibles later books, the story is referred to over and
over again. This breach of the Land Law is seen as most significant.
Now perhaps we know why; it is putting Gods people at great
risk by substituting Baals law for God's.
Understanding this story brings us to another point. Three hundred
fifty to four hundred years have now passed since the country was
founded. And the Land Law is still being kept. Naboth said he couldnt
comply with the kings request and the king understood. They
both knew and respected that Land Law. Some say the Land Law was
never enforced, but in both the story of Ruth and the story of
Naboths vineyard, we can see that the Land Law was in effect
almost four hundred years after its institution. When the Land Law
was ignored, big problems arose. When it was observed, times were
good, and the little nation was unconquerable. Finally, however, the
temptations of power were too great.
The Herods absolutely destroyed the Land Law. This was just before
Jesus time. So just before Jesus time the people have
lost their land. The Romans are in authority, order is a top
priority, taxation is very high, local kings rule with the
sponsorship of Rome, the priesthood is corrupted, the high priest is
appointed by the king, but the people know the Land Law, even though
it has been snuffed out. The famous Roman historian Josephus, who
was coincidentally a Jew, described Galilee of Jesus' time as an
astonishingly fruitful country where except for a very small
minority, the people lived in abject poverty, ground into the dust
by their king, Herod. Large landowners who disregarded the Law arose
out of the indigenous population due to their favor with the king.
Terrific tax rates were imposed on these land lords and on the
common people by Herod and his sponsors, the Romans. The poor were
forced to sell their land just to pay their taxes; the new owners
kept their lands by means of lavish bribes made to the monarch. Over
time this was not enough. Herod often had a large land owner
executed or took his property on trumped up charges and gave the
land to other friends. The Herodian dynasty began with Herod the
Great who was made king by the Romans in 40 BC. He was forced to
become Jewish in order to be king, but he actually was from a nearby
land called Ituraea. The Jews didnt trust him even though he
expanded and rebuilt the Temple. He was ruthless. He was the
infamous Herod who killed off the first born sons around Bethlehem
after he heard of the birth of a new king. He died in 4 BC. One of
his sons was Herod Antipas, who beheaded John the Baptist.
The priesthood at this time was corrupted, too. The high priest
was appointed by Herod and served at the pleasure of Herod. The
priest generally did not give up his privileges including the demand
for the tithe. But the tithe had changed. Now the tithe was a
The people had no land any more. Institutionally it had
accommodated itself into the illegal practices of the king. So at
the time of Jesus, Galilee along with Judea to the south was a very
rich and productive country inhabited by the poverty stricken Jews
who were effectively slaves to a few well placed landowners. The
Land Law was gone, but since it was so recently in effect -- and it
had only been in effect only about a hundred years before -- it had
not been forgotten. Plus, Jewish boys still went to school where
they learned the Law. Their textbook was the Bible.
Now we come to Jesus. His lineage was of the royal line of David.
His father was a carpenter, so we assume he picked up the skill as
well. He must have been a very attractive person that other people
liked to be around. He knew the Law very well. There are many
instances in the Gospel of "stump the prophet", and he was
never stumped. It is very important to remember that Jesus was a
good Jew, observant and respectful; he knew the Law and he did not
consider himself to be above the Law.
One of the many stories where Jesus speaks of and defends the Law
is the famous tribute story. First, it is important to know whether
it is lawful under the Law of Moses to pay tribute to another king
or another country. In the picture of King Jehu of Israel bowing
down to the Assyrian king in about 800 BC, he not only bowed down
but he paid tribute. Under the Law, this was not legal. God said He
and the community were to get the tithe, the land rent, and there to
be no tax or additional tithe beyond that. An outside king or prince
was not entitled to any of the tithe. So when the scribes and the
priests sent their agents to ask the question, there was some
context to deal with.
The agent came up to Jesus and asked the question: Is it
permissible for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not? The enemies
knew that the Law said that it was not permissible to pay any taxes
at all, much less to a foreigner. But to make that statement in
public would be seditious and reported to the Romans. So they had
him. But Jesus, frustrated that they were trying to trap him instead
of listening, asked to see the coin they used to pay the tax. They
showed him a denarius. He asked, Whose picture is on this
coin? They answered, Caesars. Then he gave
the famous line, misinterpreted down through the ages, the excuse
for all tyrants and modern followers of Baals system. He said,
Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
Well, what did these people have that belonged to Caesar? What
under the Law belonged to Caesar? Under the Law Caesar is owed
nothing. This is not news to these priests or these scribes. They
know the Law, too. And he says, pay to God what belongs to
God. And what is owed to God? The rent on his land, the tithe.
As George says, much less Leviticus, it provides for all community
needs. It is quite sufficient. We make the distinctions which leads
us to a view that Jesus cares about us, but that he offers nothing
economically for the poor today. Heaven is where the kingdom is, but
it will come later. I am not sure how we have managed to turn Jesus
so upside down, but I believe that this whole thing is just plain
wrong. It is not what he said. His message was that the Law is still
relevant, that it will provide for the needs of society, but we just
dont see it.
The Biblical Law of Moses was not a fluke. It was not meant just
for the ancient world of Canaan. It will still work today. The Bible
is a map. Georges ideas will work today. Progress and Poverty
is a map. They will work because they are based on the same basic
truths: no grants of privilege, equal access to the land, and
taxation of land but not of labor or capital.