The Bible and Henry George

John Kelly

[Reprinted from 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 Sam’s 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 weren’t 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 Israel distributed.

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 God’s 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 didn’t 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 used.

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 couldn’t be alienated for very long; every fifty years at least they had it back. Leviticus contains the basic injunction which enables the rest of Israel’s 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 Land Law.

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 didn’t 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 land’s production. Since all family lands had about the same productivity, all tithes were about the same. So there didn’t need to be an elaborate assessment mechanism. The tithe was God’s 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 didn’t pay a tithe because they didn’t receive any inheritance in the land. They were to collect the tithe but they didn’t 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 didn’t pay a tithe. Numbers says they didn’t pay a tithe because they didn’t 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 God’s 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 year’s 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.

Let’s 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 world’s 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 family’s 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 couldn’t 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 wouldn’t work. When I have spoken with people at seminaries they have said: It was just a nice idea, but these Laws weren’t 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 Naomi’s husband Elimalech and her sons were dead. And so the three of these women are widows. Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, but they don’t have Elimalech’s 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 doesn’t 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 can’t 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 Elimalech’s 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 didn’t 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 Elimalech.

Some of the first things that Naomi’s 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 took place.

So right up until the time of the kings God’s 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 didn’t 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 people’s 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 Solomon’s 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 Rehoboam’s coronation. As representative of the northern tribes, Jeroboam asks the new king to reduce Solomon’s 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 Solomon’s 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 Torrey’s 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 Testament.

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 into Israel.

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 didn’t 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, Naboth’s statements were ridiculous under Baalist law. Under God’s 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 Baal’s law began its long incursion into Israel.

So the Book of Kings begins to equal idol, and especially Baal, worship with the breaking of the Land Law -- which we don’t 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 Naboth’s 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 Bible’s 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 God’s people at great risk by substituting Baal’s 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 couldn’t comply with the king’s 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 Naboth’s 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 didn’t 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 production tax.

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, “Caesar’s”. Then he gave the famous line, misinterpreted down through the ages, the excuse for all tyrants and modern followers of Baal’s 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 don’t 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. George’s 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.

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